Lessons from the Pandemic Journey (Part 2)

Last week, I gave a virtual keynote at the 2021 OLC Accelerate Conference. The title of my talk was 20/21: A Pedagogical Journey. In it I reflected on the journey of higher education over the past 18 months, including the many lessons learned and some of the lessons that have gone begging. In Part 1 of this series of posts I shared two of these insights, about the critical role that Centres for Teaching & Learning played during the pandemic and how we mustn’t forget the lessons of the past 18 months as we rebuild the future of higher education. In this second post, I touch on three patterns that I observed in the early stages of the pandemic:

Parallels Experiences for Students and Faculty

I have come to identify several clear patterns over the past year and a half: One had to do with the many, many parallels between the experiences of faculty and students:

Both had to quickly master new learning technologies in order to continue teaching or learning.

Both had to find personal spaces that were amenable to this work.

Both were desperately trying to balance work and personal obligations.

Both were trying to keep safe and healthy.

Both benefited from flexibility. For example, at my institution, we quickly moved to extend the withdrawal date for courses to the very last date of the semester while simultaneously extending the grade submission deadline for faculty.

Both faculty and students experienced tremendous anxiety about how they would perform in what felt like a strange new environment that had been forced onto them.

And both had to find ways to manage those anxieties.

Anxiety Influences Pedagogical Choices

But this is where the second pattern began to emerge, as this symbiotic relationship wasn’t always mutualistic. Consider it from the perspective of a faculty member who needed to manage their own anxieties and stress levels… If someone had never used learning technologies such as the learning management system or video conferencing platforms, theirs would be a steeper learning curve. And if certain well-worn and comfortable learning activities or assessments wouldn’t translate neatly to an online environment, well then the need to redesign them (at least in part) would be another challenge and source of anxiety. As Belikov and her colleagues have written, “the shift to remote instruction necessitated a shift in pedagogy, which caused some faculty to feel negatively about their remote teaching self-efficacy.”

But it wasn’t just a sense of low self-efficacy. For as this whitepaper about disruption in and by CTLs during the pandemic observes, “The crisis led many faculty members to revert into a very deep conservatism. It was their attempt for a shred of control in a world drowning in uncertainty. Their teaching approaches presented a great degree of fidelity to face-to-face approaches and the assessments approaches they adopted were problematic. “

Considering that many faculty members sought to retain as much as possible of what was familiar, it is no surprise that synchronous delivery and high stakes online exams emerged as dominant instructional practices early in the shift to emergency remote instruction.

Some of you may have read this thoughtful blog post published in March 2020 by Rebecca Barrett-Fox imploring faculty to “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.” In this post the author shared some excellent and helpful, if blunt home truths, such as:

Your students know less about technology than you think. Many of them know less than you.

They will be accessing the internet on their phones. They have limited data. They need to reserve it for things more important than online lectures.

Some of your students will get sick. Others will be caring for people who are ill.

Students will be losing their jobs.

Do not require synchronous work. Students should not need to show up at a specific time for anything.

Don’t fuss too much about the videos. You don’t need to edit out the “umms” . . . Editing is a waste of your time right now.

Don’t do too much. Right now, your students don’t need it. They need time to do the other things they need to do.

Listen for them asking for help. They may be anxious. They may be tired.

An Embrace of Pedagogies of Care (and Neglect of Self-Care)

Of course, these last two rang very true for faculty members as well, which introduced a third dynamic, which was that the growing embrace of a pedagogy of care sometimes ignored the labour of care.

I am truly privileged to work alongside and learn from some gifted faculty members. One of these is my friend Jen Hardwick, who teaches in our English Department but who also has a 50% appointment on my Commons team as an Educational Consultant. In writing about the labour of care she reminds us that:

“Care isn’t just a sense of good will, after all; building relationships and working to mitigate systemic barriers is active, daily work. Care is sending check-in emails to students who are struggling; meticulously going through each document, Moodle setting, and image to ensure it is accessible; holding extra office hours to accommodate students who are working or who live in other time zones; or staying up late to mark assignments that had extensions and now need to be returned in a hurry so that students can keep up. It is also listening, looking for resources, problem solving, affirming, advocating, and supporting, sometimes through our own exhaustion, overwhelm, and trauma. Care . . . is vital, and within our current context, it might be our most urgent work.”

“But,” Jen goes on to write, “care work is also difficult. It is also often unrecognized, under-appreciated, and unequally distributed. We know that it disproportionately falls on women, and BIPOC faculty. It comes with no awards or prestige, no time-releases, and often no thanks. Worse yet, it is often employed as a band-aid for gaping social and institutional inequities.” 

Thankfully, many faculty were supported by academic support units in providing care (Donnelly, Miller, and Strawser, 2020). The brilliant Brenna Clarke Gray, always so generous in sharing her insights, wrote about this in April 2020:

“Educational technology is care work on a number of fronts. When I support faculty, I absorb a tremendous amount of anxiety, anguish, fear, and stress . . . I feel ill-equipped to be their first line of defence. But I do it anyway. And while I help them digitize their course content, we chat about their families and their students, how to manage their stress levels, how long this all might last.”

She goes on:

“But more importantly, I want to help faculty make teaching and learning decisions around technology that enact care for students. That has never been clearer to me than in this pandemic, where my key role has been to advocate against synchronous, timed exams; against lengthy video lectures; against requirements of synchronous participation; for asynchronous participation options; for reflective writing and other open-book assessment strategies; and for generosity and compassion in course design. I spend far more time discussing pedagogy than I do pushing the buttons, and the pedagogy I work hard to enact is one that acknowledges the once-in-a-century shitstorm we are living through and asks for compassion. It is a pedagogy rooted in an ethics of care.”

I know my team felt the same way. And admittedly it is a difficult approach to maintain, especially when you sometimes receive angry calls from a faculty member experiencing a deep state of distress. You know that the glitches in your institution’s video conferencing service are outside of your control, and that in fact the global digital infrastructure is creaking and straining as it supports a level of use it certainly wasn’t designed for. You know that the problem they are calling you about today isn’t one that warrants the level of anger you hear in their voice. But you also know that they are anxious and feeling a loss of control. So you try hard not to take it personally and to extend them some grace. And you continue to care for the faculty members as they continue to care for their students, even as that labour of care takes its toll on you both.

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