Tackling the Tough Teaching Conversations When You Don’t Know What to Say

As instructors, I believe we have an obligation to acknowledge what is going on in the world and to provide an outlet for our students to talk about it. I was a student during Columbine and 9/11 and have been a professor through the Boston Marathon bombings, the too numerous mass shootings of the past few years, and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #Time’s Up. We can’t just plow ahead with course objectives, pretending that these moments of tragedy and injustice don’t exist.

As a white woman, I am not the right person to speak about the murder of George Floyd and worldwide Civil Rights protests, except to say that such injustice should never happen and I fully support the movement. I will never pretend to understand what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. In my role as an instructor, however, it is my duty to create a space for students to discuss what’s going on. So how do we lead a conversation without overstepping or feigning an insider view that we may not have?

In a face-to-face class, our conversation would have happened organically, as I could have gauged the need to talk in our initial chit-chat. It’s so much more difficult teaching remotely. Everything feels like a big deal, like a big agenda item in which I cannot pre-assess the vibe of the classroom.

I struggled with how to approach my summer class, but ultimately decided that I had to give the group the opportunity to talk. I invited students to an optional Zoom session to talk about current events. I didn’t know how many would show up or what to expect.

Only a few students chose to do the Zoom session. The small, yet diverse, group actually worked to our advantage as each person opened up. I did not lead, except to open up the discussion, ask what was on the participants’ minds, and call on people. I won’t share the details, but the conversation flowed naturally from the protests to related topics of representation.

It was honestly one of the best, most honest, reflective discussions that I’ve experienced in my teaching career. I did little to make it that way. I just set the table, sent the invitations, and welcomed the group–the extent to which I felt comfortable doing. In other words, I created the space. The students filled it.

I realize this could have gone poorly. I’m not usually a fan of unstructured class discussion, which are prone to tangents and the injection of personal agendas that may conflict with our class diversity policy. If we had started to have issues, I obviously would have stepped in. I’m glad I didn’t have to do this.

We can’t shy away from topics that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t know how to address. As educators, we can provide a safe space for students to reflect and make sense of what is currently going on, even if it’s only for a few minutes. We are not leading so much as creating the opportunity and protecting the conversation.

Our engaging class session prompted me to add more to the itinerary, beyond what was already on the agenda. In person, this would be easy. Online, everything has to be so much more scheduled. If students are looking to connect, especially in the current climate, I want to be there to support them and listen.

Creative Media Projects: Joy During the Teaching Crisis

Like other instructors, our mid-semester shift to online teaching forced me to quickly rethink assignments and assessment. For my intro course, 180 of 200 points remained of the group project. Obviously, it would have been unrealistic to expect students to work together to produce a paper and presentation, at least in the current crisis mode in a gen. ed. class. At the same time, I was reluctant to just do away with these points, shrinking the overall pool so that tests made up the majority of the grade.

My solution was to replace the majority of the group work with an individual creative project, in which students could either continue with their group’s historical topic or choose to create an original work that captured an aspect of our current situation. My only instruction was that they had to make something engaging that could be shared on D2L. Acceptable formats could include videos, songs, poems, posters, memes, and any other format approved by me. I also made the assignment a competition, allowing everyone to vote on their favorite projects.

This week, they turned in their projects. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the folder, but I was immediately blown away by their creations, in thoughtfulness, innovation, and the overall quality. Students wrote poems, stories, and letters, created photo essays, pictures, and comic art. Several students produced songs that were so well done, I asked for verification that they had actually created them, like this song by David Moore on life as an introvert (shared with permission).

A song by David Moore

The diversity in the videos was also impressive. Some were pensive reflections on the challenges of working and finishing the semester. Others were humorous: one student filmed herself attempting a skateboard trick. Another student created a ’90s sitcom intro, starring, well, only herself. Students were also thoughtful in their evaluations of each other’s projects, noting the skill and emotion put into their peers’ work or commenting on how songs and videos gave them new perspectives on how other people are experiencing life right now.

The top project was this mixed art painting by Jernicya McCrackin:

“For my Creative Media project, I wanted to do a mixed media illustration relating to how fashion covers and social media has converted wearing face mask to a fashion statement. ” by Jernicya McCrackin (shared with permission).

A project that I had thought would be a collection of hastily-created memes turned out to be so much more. While I did receive a handful of “distracted boyfriend” meme templates (lesson learned on my part), the majority of the submissions were so much better than I could have imagined. Thanks to my students, their projects became a bright spot in a difficult semester.

“My Quarantine Life Vlog in Japan” by Yurika Misuna. She was studying as an exchange student in the U.S. when the university shut down. Fortunately, she made it back to Japan.

We might get sick. Seriously. Flexible Teaching in the Pandemic

So far, our discussions on how to move online have focused on pedagogical questions and conferencing tools. I enjoyed reading one of the few essays to go against the grain–“Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.” Dr. Barrett-Fox’s reassuring narrative really gets at what most of us are feeling.

The other key point we need to center on is that many people will get sick. We are moving online because of disease. I’m not saying this to fuel the fire. It is a fact. We as faculty should prepare our courses in such a way that if (or when) we are too ill to teach, or too busy providing care, classes can still continue.

If we prep and release several weeks of material (video lectures, prepped assignments, quizzes, exams, discussion submission boxes), we also extend the same flexibility to our students, some of whom will also get sick. Even for the healthy ones, we don’t know their situations. They may not have computer access at home. Or slow internet. Or an older device that can’t download new apps.

Our students are across time zones right now and facing many unusual burdens that take away from learning. If we can create some material in advance, then we grant students the flexibility to work around their additional challenges. We can still connect by offering real-time conferencing, but only as a bonus, not for regular course delivery.

I know that many instructors are panicking about producing any materials and this task seems daunting. You will not be able to replicate your normal class or even its ideal online version. Boil down your regular lectures into short videos. Use technology that auto-grades quizzes and exams. Use the textbook’s additional resources and the free technology, provided that learning it doesn’t suck all of your time. Find Youtube videos that cover some of your course topics.

We as faculty also need to use each other as resources. If you create a video lecture with wider appeal, offer it to others. Senior faculty should reach out to junior faculty that teach the same course. Don’t let pride or fear hinder opportunities to make it through, especially as childcare options are falling through, forcing instructors and students to parent at the same time.

This is a weird time. We need to prep for the worst and hope for the best.