Composition and Contagion: I feel like I failed

Caveat: the world is on fire right now. I am not talking about expecting more from my students. I am talking about how I could have done better.

I knew how challenging it was to keep the attention of my small group of students in class. I was not prepared for how impossible it would be in the switch to remote learning. While there were a couple that reached out to me and discussed their assignments, the rest seemed to only contact me out of necessity or out of desperation on my part. I don’t blame them.

I have/had no idea what was going on their lives and I am fully aware that I was one of at least four or five faculty all vying for their attention (let alone the electronic administrative arms of housing, billing, health, etc.) but I now realize that I was never going to be able to reach them once they were gone. I failed to establish enough of a rapport during the semester that, once we weren’t mandated into the same room for a period of time, I had lost engagement.

As a student in my (hopefully) last semester of coursework, I get how hard it is to engage, how hard it is to drag yourself to the screen for something you may not feel 100% invested in at that moment. As a student I failed and, in many ways, am still failing. I am trying to fail forward though, and make some progress.

Maybe I should have reached out even more. Maybe I should have required synchronous meetings. Maybe I should have ramped up the work instead of ramping it down. Perhaps my desire to give them a break was the last nail in my coffin. Maybe that was the sign to/that my class wasn’t important. I may never know, since not one of them did the course evaluation.

Which is a shame, because right now the only lessons I can take away to help improve my teaching are the ones gleaned from the empty spaces where class discussion would have been. I didn’t challenge them enough. I didn’t demand enough from them. I didn’t spark their interest. So many things I want to work on and adjust to make sure that, in-person or remote, students value my class.

But until I can transition to prep-work, I have to finish this semester as a student and try to be engaged and get my work done. Sometimes I feel like I’m failing everywhere.

Composition and Contagion: A Working Journal

Lehigh University has decided to move the remainder of its semester online in an effort to reduce the amount of contact between faculty, staff, and students on its campus. Is it an overabundance of caution? Sure. But, I would argue that is what’s needed now. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and boy, am I worried.

But that’s not what this is about.

What this is about will be my experience rapidly transitioning to online teaching, what changes I made, and how my students reacted. I thought it would be important to keep a daily journal about this experience for any number of reasons that I’ll decide when we come out on the other side of this.

Today is the first day “back” from spring break and normally I would teach my English Comp I class at 3pm. Originally I thought about using Google Hangouts to have a real-time discussion and get a sense of how everyone was doing, but since students are probably scrambling to get their things from residences (with that deadline being today), they’ve got enough on their plate. This is an easy call for me. As an English instructor at a primarily engineering school, we understand how we sometimes fall in a student’s list of priorities.

Generally my enthusiasm and charm makes them realize my class is the most important. Ahaha.

My class is content/discussion based along side process workshops, but I was finding that my group would get a bit sidetracked in our discussions. I wanted to try creating reading guides from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas and the switch to remote learning has given me the opportunity to try this out. We’re finishing up our “Animal” unit, where we’ve been reading and talking about how we use animals to tell human stories, what we get wrong when we try to tell stories about animals, and our general relationship to the non-human animal world. They’ve already selected their paper topics for this unit, and after break we were going to talk about dinosaurs.

Who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

Rawwwwwrrrrr
My people have been much maligned!

Pairing an article about dinosaurs with and article about CRISPR editing of mosquito DNA seems like a no-brainer, but I wanted to have some guiding comments and questions for their reading as well as “Synthesis Questions” for them to answer at the end of the week. While this isn’t a perfect replacement for discussion (and I won’t be able to test how well these guides steer discussion in the classroom until the fall – hopefully) I hope they’ll provide some help in thinking about not only the content but how that content is delivered.

I also have a “Weekly Post” that is less about synthesizing content and more about hearing additional voices, or looking toward the next assignments. To make the transition to remote less stressful, I’ve made all the deadlines for weekly work due at midnight on Saturday. We normally meet on Mondays and Wednesdays, but I plan on just checking in by email Tuesday and Friday (for now). They can reach me by email or Google chat anytime and I hope they will.

As I’m still in coursework, I have a mix of remote learning experiences on the horizon, some wanting to do Zoom meetings, others allowing us to go at our own pace for the week (similar to my class). I keep thinking about the successful online classes I’ve taken and the real-time meetings have been few and far between, not because of technology, but because it isn’t always a good use of time. My suggestion, if you have to attend a online meeting, have a list of questions/items for discussion first, otherwise…

Bob? Bob? Turn off your damn ceiling fan. It’s so loud!

Good luck out there. Wash your hands. Stay the hell away from each other.