Our Slimmed-Down Pandemic Pedagogy

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By David Gooblar

Earlier this year, Tressie McMillan Cottom — an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, a MacArthur “genius” award winner, and, by all accounts, an amazing teacher — let it be known on Twitter that she had had enough:

Here’s the thing. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to reverse engineer an abbreviated, accelerated, online class for exhausted students. I don’t want to beta test online modules. I don’t want to do any of it.

It’s safe to say that a sense of weariness has permeated the spring semester for faculty members across the country. We want our classrooms, our campuses, and our old teaching lives back, and we know our students do, too.

If there’s one thing I learned from online teaching in the fall, it’s that we need to lower our expectations for what we can achieve in unprecedented times. I know I’m not alone in discovering that teaching online — during a pandemic, amid national political turmoil, with children underfoot facing their own online learning challenges — is significantly more taxing than teaching in a “normal” semester.

And of course we know that if we’re more exhausted, our students must be, too. At my large public research university, a significant portion of my students are taking 18 credits — the maximum allowed — while also working 20 to 30 hours a week. Some take care of siblings or parents. Some are struggling with housing or food insecurity. Even the most comfortable of my students are tired. They’re socially isolated, anxious and depressed, often grieving (for a loved one or for their old life), and unable to focus for as long as they used to. Just like us.

Out of this combination of necessity (I am at my limit) and understanding (so are my students), I’ve shifted my approach to my courses significantly. Mostly I’ve changed my assumptions about the amount of time and energy all of us are able to muster. I assign less reading. I’m more flexible with how, and when, students do their work. And I’m devoting even more time in class to letting students share what they’re going through, with me and with their peers.

All of which means my courses this academic year are covering a lot less material than they normally would. I bet yours are, too. Given these less-than-ideal circumstances, you may be worried about shortchanging your students.

However, this shift in our teaching — if approached in the right way — won’t negatively affect students too much. What makes a great course is not the amount of material that we are able to pour into students’ heads. By far, the most efficient way to cover the most material is to lecture. But efficiency is not the goal. And just because we cover the material does not mean students understand it. Indeed, copious research tells us that courses that rely on active-learning strategies benefit students much more than lecture-heavy classes.

No, what our students need — all of the time really but especially during a pandemic — is quality, not quantity.

I would much rather my students read one chapter closely, so that they’re able to understand its central concepts and discuss them in class, than skim three chapters and barely remember what they read. I’d rather they put their energies into completing a two-page assignment that engages their abilities in a manageable amount of time than struggle to finish a 10-page paper that brings them more anxiety than knowledge. I’d rather grade those short assignments, too.

I’ve also become convinced, in our Zoom era, that using class time to cultivate a supportive environment is more important than ever. Students, just like us, are craving social interaction and human contact, both which are necessary for mental and physical health. They miss chatting with friends and acquaintances before and after class. (Did you ever think you’d miss small talk in the hallway with your colleagues?) So I leave more time in class for conversation and community-building activities — even if that means we have less time for content.

One way I’ve found helpful to conceptualize this new, slimmed-down teaching approach is to think of what we’re doing in the classroom as aiming to develop values or virtues. In the recently published collection Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), John Warner has an essay on his efforts to move away from traditional grading in his writing courses. His early attempts replaced traditional grading with a “proficiency scale,” he writes. But eventually he realized that he didn’t want to aim for proficiency at all.

Warner makes a distinction in his writing courses between values and skills. “In writing I value attitudes like curiosity, thoroughness, and fairness, none of which directly deal with skills associated with proficiency,” he argues. ‘Yet if those values are attended to ..., my belief is those skills will develop far beyond what is possible when aiming for mere proficiency, or its close cousin, competency.” In short, teaching those attitudes and values to students will make them better writers than if the focus was purely on skills.

This approach seems particularly attractive in a semester in which we won’t get to as much material as we would like. Warner’s argument isn’t so far off from Jason Baehr’s concept of “intellectual virtues,” an idea I wrote about in a 2017 essay for The Chronicle, Yes, We Should Teach Character.” Intellectual virtues — which Baehr defines as “the deep personal qualities or character traits of a good thinker or learner” — can be a new way to think of our courses, instead of just as a set amount of content or a collection of skills. To teach intellectual virtues is to teach habits of mind or ways of being that go beyond the precise material you get to during the semester.

This semester, I’ve been focused on promoting the intellectual curiosity that will lead my students to seek out valuable additional reading later in life, after I’m no longer assigning them homework. By carefully paring down the amount of material we read and discuss in class, it’s my hope that the content we do cover will be covered more deeply and will be more likely to leave a lasting impact. Part of teaching students the value of intellectual curiosity is showing them that careful attention to a single article, say, can yield outsized intellectual rewards.

As students and faculty members alike muster up the strength to get through the rest of this long academic year, it’s important to acknowledge how exhausted we all are. I’m weary, and I know you are, too. I’m not at my best, not by a long shot. But I’m still committed to helping my students learn and develop, and I think I can, even within such straitened circumstances.

My short-term goal for this semester is to survive this semester. There will come a day when this pandemic is behind us, when some semblance of normalcy will return, when we’ll be able to be the teachers and the students we want to be. My larger goal now is to help my students be in a position to hit the ground running when that day comes.

David Gooblar is an assistant professor of English and of gender, women’s, and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa. He was previously associate director of Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching. His most recent book, The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching, was published by Harvard University Press in 2019. To find more advice on teaching, browse his previous columns here.

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