As a professor at a small, liberal arts college, the most important and wonderful thing about what I do is interact with undergraduate students. I have the privilege of getting to know them, talking to them in and out of class about their academic and professional futures and their current concerns, I am there to celebrate their small and big triumphs and can be there when they need someone to listen to their heartbreaks. The current situation has changed everything about the way I do my job, and the most important thing I can do is provide compassionate support and understanding to my students.
Faculty all over the country are involved in support groups and conversations about the best way to handle online learning for students who never signed up to have their classes online. Faculty also have not necessarily been trained in teaching online, so we’re having to learn techniques and adapt our expectations. We need to balance the importance of teaching the material we are trained to teach with remembering that students often have challenges we don’t know about because they are not always comfortable sharing their struggles.
While many people of my generation believe that the traditional college-age student is a digital native that should be comfortable with technology, those of us who work with them every day know that this is not necessarily the case. Many students are using platforms like Zoom for the first time, and not everyone has the same essential tools. As one colleague in another college pointed out, during this semester the privileged will have an even greater advantage over everyone else. Not all students have reliable internet connections or even a computer. Some students have gone home to abusive situations or to food insecurity. Some students are having to take care of children or older family members while keeping up with their academics. Some students are having to contribute financially, so they’ve become “essential workers,” working in various capacities in hospitals and grocery stores, knowing that these are currently dangerous places. Some international students have been stuck in the U.S. because they didn’t get home before the borders of their countries closed, so they’re living on campus while taking classes online. They’re far from their families and they can’t congregate with their friends because of social distancing rules. Other international students are in vastly different time zones and find it hard to meet, and they’re worried about the fluctuations in currency that are making a U.S. education even more expensive for some. And many students are dealing with stress and worry at a time when they no longer have their professors and campus staff to talk to.
All of these things factor into decisions such as what assignments I should give, what materials are now appropriate for classes, and what my expectations need to be. The biggest decision is whether to teach synchronous classes or not. Colleagues all over the country have struggled with this. My decision has been to teach asynchronous classes. That means that I post materials: assignments, quizzes, essays, videos, readings, discussion forums, and more, but I don’t require everyone to meet during specific class times. I have been video conferencing one on one with students on their own schedule, which to me is a better solution. This way I still check in on the students and keep them focused on their studies but I don’t expect the whole class to meet at the same time. This also gives them the freedom to confide in me if they have issues they don’t want to share with the class.
One of my students told me the other day that he misses his classmates and our class discussions. Since I teach Spanish, we always have interesting conversations in class during which we analyze cultural differences and challenge our assumptions and beliefs. Interaction with others makes the classes lively and fun for the students and for me. I’ve decided that a good way to address this is to provide some opportunities for students to interact without being required to be there. I’m planning a Netflix party for those who can and want to join, and some informal Zoom meetings so that students can chat and interact without feeling obligated to be present if they’re unable to participate.
The current situation is pushing all of us in the field of higher education to be creative and flexible. We are all dealing with things in different ways, using digital tools to teach, attend meetings, and hold office hours. We are reminded that our primary purpose is to serve students, and that we have to be kind to them, to our colleagues, and to ourselves as we navigate these new waters.
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