Thanks to Covid-19, I’ve been making my transition from in-person teaching — which I love — to fully online instruction — which has never held any attraction for me. Like thousands of other faculty members, I’m trying to make the best of it, or at least avoid making a complete mess of it.
Unlike some campuses, my institution has (thankfully) recognized the enormity of this virtual undertaking and provided its faculty with both breathing room and resources. The week of March 16 was our spring break, and the administration simply closed the university the following week. We were told to treat it like a weather event. That gave instructors some much-needed time to get things — to get something — up and running by March 30.
In terms of resources, my university has provided video tutorials, webinars, how-to guides, and 24/7 support for our online shift. (Well, I don’t actually know about 24/7, not having emailed our teaching center at 3 a.m., but I suspect some anxious colleagues did and probably got a fairly quick response.)
I wasn’t completely unprepared. In recent years, I’ve been migrating more and more of my teaching materials online, which meant not only that students already had internet access to course materials but also that I had some familiarity and fluency with the university’s learning-management system. This transition has been much tougher on faculty members who, until March, resisted their campus LMS. Five years ago, that might have been me.
Being familiar with the system has made some aspects of this transition so much easier. But still not easy.
Like many (most?) faculty members, I am both daunted by the task and saddened that it has come to this. It feels like the passing of a way of life — my way of life. And even though I understand that that needn’t necessarily be true, I can’t help but fear that it might be true, at least to some extent. After this, I strongly suspect, nothing on college campuses will ever be exactly the same. My work and life will never go back to "normal."
At least I’ve had a little time to process things — essentially, to navigate through the stages of grief. I am now more or less at acceptance — no, wait, depression. No, acceptance. Maybe depression. OK, if I’m not quite to acceptance yet, I will be by the time you read this. I hope.
Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to suck it up and teach remotely. In that endeavor, I intend to be guided by two main principles.
Principle No. 1: Students must be held harmless. On Thursday, March 12, I stood in front of my classes for what would turn out to be the last time this semester, although none of us knew it yet. We suspected it, though, given the way events were trending.
I explained that I, and all of their other professors, were already making plans to continue teaching our courses remotely in the very likely event the university system closed its physical campuses. As I looked around the room, I saw eyes filled with fear and uncertainty — no doubt mirroring my own emotions.
"I can promise you this," I said. "I will do everything in my power to make sure you are not harmed by this transition, in any way. That you have a worthwhile learning experience in a way that is as accessible and unintimidating as possible, and that your grades don’t suffer. That is my commitment to you."
After all, this situation is not their fault. Nor is it my fault. Nor the university’s fault. Whoever is to blame, it’s not our students. So why should they be disproportionately affected?
Moreover, not only am I not an online teacher, but most of my students are not online students. Many of them have no more interest in taking virtual classes than I have in teaching them. They were understandably apprehensive about being thrust into an unfamiliar classroom environment.
Except they have a lot more at stake than I do. If my online "experiment" goes badly, well, that probably won’t affect me very much, professionally, in the long run. I’ve been teaching for decades, and, eventually, I’ll go back to teaching face-to-face, not much the worse for wear.
But if this involuntary venture into the virtual goes badly for my students, the consequences could be severe: They could fail the course, drop out, not graduate, and, ultimately, not reach their personal and professional goals. I don’t want to be responsible for that — nor would I be able to live with myself if I didn’t do what I could, realistically, to prevent it.
What that means in practice: I’ve been designing all my online activities with the students foremost in mind. What are the most important things they need to know? The most vital skills they need to take away? What can they handle? How much can they handle at a time? How can I provide constant reassurance along with learning opportunities? Can I revise my expectations, if not exactly lower my standards?
I’m not a warm and fuzzy instructor. I’ve never been one for hand-holding. But if there ever was a time to hold students’ hands, this is it.
Principle No. 2: I will not allow perfect to be the enemy of good. In fact, in most cases, I’m resolved not to let good become the enemy of good enough.
Like most academics, I have been an overachiever and perfectionist all my life. That’s what we do, isn’t it?
I have come to the realization, however, as I work on my online course "modules" — probably too grand a name for what I’m actually doing — that they aren’t ever going to be perfect, no matter what I do. Not in the time I have. Not given the fact that I have virtually no training in online teaching. And what training I have been able to pick up in a few weeks’ time has not made me an expert. Not even close. And I’m used to being an expert.
But I’m going to have to be satisfied with something less, for the next few weeks or months. Oh, I’ll get better at it, as we all will. We’re smart, self-motivated people who take pride in our work. Six months from now, if this situation goes on that long, we still might not be experts at teaching online, but we’ll be pretty good at it. Who knows? We might even come to like it. We might go on to become experts, eventually.
For now, though, let’s just be good enough. Good enough that our students stick around and come away having learned the main things they needed to learn. Good enough that our institutions remain viable places where students want to study. Good enough that the taxpayers who pay our salaries are getting their money’s worth.
Most of all, good enough that when we look back on this crisis three months or six months or a year from now, we’ll be able to say that we did the best we could for our students, under the circumstances. I don’t think they expect any more from us than that, and I don’t think we should expect any more from ourselves.
Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College. He writes for The Chronicle’s column on community colleges, The Two-Year Track. The views expressed here are his own.
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