Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

What I Learned in the Pandemic

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Adversity can force us out of our comfort zones and lead to unexpected, if painful, growth. A publisher’s rejection prompts us to refine a manuscript. Relationship stress triggers self-examination. Covid-19 has brought faculty members some of the greatest adversity most of us have ever faced in our professional lives (and maybe our personal lives, too). But will it change how we work, for the better?

For the great majority of faculty members, I dare say, the pandemic has been an overwhelmingly negative experience — one we would not choose to live through again. And yet, for me at least and I hope for other faculty members, it hasn’t been all bad. Over the past 11 months, in fact, I have learned a great deal about myself, about my students, and about this profession to which I have devoted my life. High on the list:

Online teaching has its advantages. Count me among those hoary, old baby-boomer professors who not only had never taught online but who never had any interest in doing so — and was fairly vocal about that. I always assumed that teaching online would be boring and tedious, incorporating all the worst elements of teaching (grading, paperwork, administrative tasks) without any of the fun stuff, like interacting directly with students. For me, teaching has always been a form of performance art. How, I wondered, can one perform without an audience?

My fears have been realized, to some extent — but not nearly to the extent I imagined. I was pleasantly surprised, after making the sudden pivot to a virtual classroom last spring, to find that teaching online is a lot more like “actual teaching” than I had anticipated. I also found that the grunt work, with an online class, is no gruntier than it is with the in-person version.

In addition, I discovered that teaching online, especially asynchronously (as we were advised to do by our campus teaching center), offers definite advantages. I certainly enjoyed being able to work from home and spend more time with family (although I confess to becoming a bit cabin feverish by late April), and I was even able to do some traveling over the summer while still faithfully executing my teaching duties.

Even though we’ve now gone back to holding classes on the campus — albeit in a highly modified format — I continue to teach some of my course load online. I still slightly prefer the old way — in a physical classroom full of students — but I can certainly see myself teaching more classes online in the future and perhaps moving fully online at some point.

An old dog learns new tricks. In my teaching, the list of things I have done pretty much the same way for 20 or more years is alarmingly long. In some cases, that’s because they work well and I see no reason to fix something that isn’t broken — or so I tell myself, at least. But in other cases, I must confess that I’ve been a little lazy. Or maybe just busy with more important things. Either way, if some reading assignment, activity, or approach has worked well enough for years — even if I wished it worked a little better — I’ve been inclined to stay with it. (Sounds a little like academe in general, doesn’t it?)

Last spring’s sudden lockdowns, along with our eventual reopening under very different protocols, has changed all that. Like everyone else, I was forced not only to learn entirely new skills — like how to teach online — but also to figure out new ways of doing the things I’ve always done. Some of those new things — like virtual office hours — I plan to jettison at the first opportunity, but others I will keep and use probably for the rest of my career.

For instance, I have always required my students to submit their essays on paper so I could grade them by hand. On more than one occasion, when students grumbled about that, I’ve even said, “I know your other professors let you submit your papers online, but I don’t. And I don’t ever plan to.”

Famous last words. Now my students submit all of their papers online, and I grade them online. And guess what? It’s better. Once I got the hang of it, grading online has proved to be faster, easier, and more thorough, and students get their essays back quicker. Now I plan to always do it this way.

Another example: When we went back “on campus” in the fall, I was allowed to meet with only a quarter of each class at a time, in order to leave plenty of space in the classroom for social distancing. That meant I met with each group of about six students once every two weeks. Wondering how to make the most of those precious, infrequent, in-person meetings, I decided in my writing classes to divide the period up into six time slots and invite students to come for one-on-one conferences — sitting six feet away from me, of course — to go over their papers and anything else they wanted to talk about.

That strategy has proved a rousing success, popular with students and helpful to me in myriad ways. (For one thing, it’s much easier to grade a student’s essay since I’m already familiar with it from our in-person meetings.) I’ve used writing conferences in the past, but never in such a sustained way throughout an entire semester. I plan to keep using these writing conferences in much the same way while structuring everything else in the course around them.

Post-pandemic, I probably will end up holding some office hours virtually. But not all of them. We boomers have to draw the line somewhere.

Students are more resilient (and braver) than we think. Through all of this, what has buoyed me the most are my students. Like most people my age, I often worry about the younger generation, given the world our students will have to navigate. Will they have the necessary skills? More important, will they possess the requisite grit and determination?

The answer, it turns out, is an emphatic “Yes!” In fact, I have learned a great deal from my students about courage and positivity amid trying circumstances — about making the best of a bad situation. Whenever I start to feel a little sorry for myself, because I can’t do certain things right now that I enjoy doing or have always done, I think about my first-year students whose senior year of high school was basically ruined and whose “going off to college” experience was so vastly different from my own, more than 40 years ago, or even from my children’s more recently.

Yes, certain aspects of my life have been placed on hold, for now, but theirs have been unalterably affected in ways I can barely comprehend. They will never get to have a senior prom or enjoy all the fun of Welcome Week upon their arrival on campus.

And yet they remain, almost without exception, cheerful and determined — happy to be on campus for any length of time (rather than holed up in their rooms 24/7) and intent on not allowing the pandemic to derail their plans or interfere with their goals. And you know what? If they can do that, so can I.

Faculty and staff members are, too. Something else that has amazed me over the past 11 months is the “can do” spirit I have seen among my colleagues — on my campus and on others around the country.

I know faculty and staff members are stressed and overworked and, in many cases, afraid about what’s coming next for their institutions. Understandably so. But practically everyone I talk to — in person or via Zoom or Webex — seems upbeat and positive. They don’t publicly complain or bemoan their situation. Mostly, what they talk about is how, given the circumstances, they can best help their students, even if that means moving way beyond their comfort zone — and it usually does. I find that heartening and inspiring.

I’ve observed this sense of camaraderie — this we’re-all-in-it-together attitude — in other crises. I saw it in 2008 after the Great Recession led to deep budget cuts and layoffs at my college. But I’ve never noticed it to this extent, perhaps because none of those situations were as severe as this one.

Odd as it may sound, this pandemic has given me increased admiration for my colleagues and renewed faith in the academic enterprise. If we can weather this storm, we can survive just about anything fate throws at us. And we are certainly going to need that strength and resilience in the months and years ahead.

So many things I thought were important really aren’t. Which brings me to my final observation, which is perhaps more personal than professional, although in this case the two seem to overlap.

During this time of fear and turmoil, I have learned that family and friends are of prime importance in life. Whatever is next on the list comes in a distant third. Likewise, professionally, most of the things I valued so much a year ago — my career, my professional accomplishments, my reputation — have taken a back seat to something far more important: students, their well-being, and what they learn in my classes.

Let me give you a concrete example. In my literature survey courses, I have long had a reputation for giving tough tests: 20 short-answer questions in a 75-minute period, no notes or books allowed. I expected students to commit the relevant material to memory and demonstrate that they’d learned it on the test. My best students usually performed pretty well on the test. Most, however, only did OK, and a few actually failed. I thought the test results — a classic bell curve — made me a good teacher. Looking back, I’m not sure how much even the A students actually learned.

When we threw everything online suddenly last spring, I had to figure out how to handle the last unit test of the semester. Partly due to concerns about cheating, and partly in sympathy for students whose lives had been turned upside down, I decided to tweak the questions a bit so they required a bit more analysis — as opposed to rote memorization — and allow students to use any materials they wanted: the textbook, their notes, even my recorded lectures. I also gave them several days to complete the test.

The entirely predictable result: Far more students did very well on the test than usual.

More important, though, the quality of their answers was vastly improved. I can’t help but conclude that they came away from that test — and from all the literature tests I’ve given in the same way since — having internalized far more of the material than when they were cramming for a high-pressure, in-class exam.

In short, they learned more. That was supposedly the goal to begin with — helping my students learn, not burnishing my street cred as a “hard-ass” professor. I plan to administer all my tests this way from now on. It’s fine with me if everyone gets an A, as long as they learn something in the process. Certain academics will decide that shift means I am “lowering standards,” but if so, I simply don’t care anymore. And for that, I have the pandemic to thank.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College who writes regularly for The Chronicle’s Advice pages. He is a senior fellow at the Academy for Academic Leadership, a health and higher-education consulting firm, and a leadership coach.

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