What even is teaching

Can we Talk about Teaching without Talking?

A month or so ago, when we were still laughing nervously about plexiglass barriers, I started writing a post here where I imagined myself going step by step teaching in a room on my campus this Fall.

I’m teaching a class on a subject that I know well and have taught quite a bit in various courses, though the specific Fall 2020 course is new. These factors mean I am intellectually equipped and organizationally flexible; I’m planning it from the ground up, so there is no “adapting” or retrofitting it. Unlike faculty who are changing in-person courses to online courses, I’m not figuring out how to transform it into something different from what it used to be; I’m forming it anew. I can build it with the specific conditions of the Fall in mind.

You might think that this scenario would be a pretty good one, pedagogically speaking. Somebody at my university does, because, even though I indicated my preference for teaching it exclusively online, they have decided my class can be taught in a room. Since I don’t have any condition my HR would deem exceptional, my choice is to teach in person or take an unpaid leave.

For a while, I thought maybe the governor would just end the charade. For a while, I thought my school might be merely holding out the carrot of having classes face to face with the assumption that the governor would end the charade. For a while, I thought that some faculty whose courses needed equipment and labs were agreeing to have their classes face-to-face with the promise that the rest of us would be teaching only online, so that the density of people on campus during class meeting times would be low enough to make those in-person courses safer. For a while, I thought that those of us who preferred online were going to quietly be granted our preference. For a while I thought I was probably teaching online and that my course just hadn’t been updated with the appropriate information.

For a while, I had trouble sleeping sometimes because I feared I was wrong to think all these things.

I was wrong to think all these things.

My class is scheduled to take place in a room on campus. With this recognition, I’ve returned to the idea I started with for a post on what it would be like to teach in a room on campus.

I’ve read enough about how Covid-19 spreads to have a few basic things in mind that will be important for preparing my class. I have a lot to say about each of these, but for now, I’ll be as brief as I can be.

General Class Policies. We have been urged to have compassion with respect for our students in every aspect of our teaching. This will mean an attendance policy that is both flexible and practical. It will also mean having alternately strict and lax protocols for the following scenarios: entering and exiting the classroom space; wearing masks; eating and drinking in class (no longer acceptable because they’d require removing masks); what to do when students miss class; what to do when I miss class; what to do if students can’t meet a deadline for any reason.

Assignments. As implied above, my assignments and sense of how the work is paced/spaced will have to account for the possibilities of sparse attendance. Perhaps I can have “guidelines” instead of “deadlines” and do scaffolded but also portfolio-style grading for everything I want them to do to be submitted at the end of the term. No biggie overall, though I had initially thought I’d do a group or in-pairs project with class time allotted to groups in breakout-rooms and now I’m rethinking the group project, maybe scrapping it entirely. If I can’t give them time to collaborate in class, it means they have to find (if not also a place) time to meet together outside of class along with any reading or other activities I assign; I’d prefer they spend the time out of class doing things they don’t need to schedule with somebody else’s schedule in mind. This is a loss, frankly, because they can often cover a lot more ground working together than they can on their own, especially as their different skills and interests can be complementary. I also have to scrap an assignment with the Special Collections library. I don’t think the reading room is big enough for even the staff to be there at the same time; it’s also probably not going to be open.

Getting to Class. Assuming I can figure the stuff above out well enough, my next challenge is actually making it to campus. I take public transport and commuter rail to work. The evidence on the risk level of this is hard to parse. In May, a study quoted in USA Today insisted that “mass transit kills.”

But, the news was mixed on this topic, and it’s hard to know if the original wisdom prevails. The same story also criticizes the MTA for not changing how it cleans the cars soon enough, and more recently, such measures have been described as “hygiene theater” and “a waste of time.

An article in Scientific American headlined “Little Evidence that Mass Transit Poses a Risk of Coronavirus Outbreaks” tries to make its point by citing evidence from transit systems in Paris and Japan, while also admitting that “The evidence is less robust in the United States, which lags other developed countries in contact tracing and coronavirus testing.” So much for the American part of Scientific American.

The same article that assures us public transit is low risk for outbreaks also says this: “Contact tracing involves determining an infected person’s “close contacts,” which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as “any individual within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.” I don’t consider people on the subway “close contacts” by any other definition, but this one? Well, that’s literally what commuting on the train involves, though I couldn’t tell you the identity of any of the hundreds of people I am close to on trains.

My commute in one direction involves at least one hour and twenty minutes in vehicles that people from all over the city and a couple other states are also taking at the same time. I will be spending at least 3 hours commuting and moving between 3 trains and 1 bus every time I have class, a total of at least 6 per week, for a total of 162 hours.

The one thing I know from commuting for 14 years this way is that people have no regard for personal space in these stations because they are in hurry and there are a lot of people there at once. The escalators in two distinct parts of one of my stations are single-person width, and people don’t even allow a foot in between each other when getting on and off.

The stairs I can take, alternatively, will add another 10–15 minutes or so if I imagine distancing and moving up them slowly.

One of the parts of the journey has some incredibly steep stairs that I don’t even know if I can climb right now. I had knee surgery in October and when we had switched to remote work in March, I had not yet returned to taking these.

But I also found the elevators untenable — and I had one pretty harrowing trip in one on March 9th with a woman who, bundled up to the gills, told me she had been riding it up and down rather than getting off because she was freezing. It was nearly 50 degrees that morning, so I’m pretty sure she had a fever. But you know, if she did have COVID and had to contact trace, she wouldn’t have mentioned being near me in a way that would be at all useful to anybody.

So. My options at this point seem to be these: I can either rent a car for 4 months at roughly $6K or get over any fear I might have of my preferred method for commuting. Hmm. I have to stop thinking about this part for a while.

Actual Pedagogy. The most important part of teaching besides the content of my class will be the actual meetings. Notice how much mental space the other stuff has already occupied….

I mentioned above that I’d have to have protocols in place for entering our room and exiting it, something I hadn’t really thought about until I read about somebody else’s experiences and how quickly we’ll all realize that students will be forgivably bad about staying 6 feet apart. With their classes in different formats and the need to use the restroom, get a drink, or adjust their mask and wash their hands, everything will take longer. I think I will need to expect that at least 5 minutes will be lost to entrances and exits alone. 5 minutes isn’t going to be enough if we’re all going to be tasked with cleaning up our workspaces with chemicals upon sitting down to start and preparing for our departure.

Teaching online certainly forces us to think about what pedagogy is before we can even think about what good pedagogy is. In the Spring semester’s shift to remote learning, my main task was figuring how to do the same things I did in person with the tools we had available on Zoom, our LMS, and the Google Suite. It wasn’t easy or ideal sometimes, but I felt like it was relatively simple logistically and we all were invested in making it work. We all had decent wi-fi for the most part, and the class was always recorded to the Zoom cloud with a transcript, so as long as I remembered to hit the record button, I didn’t worry about how to ensure students who weren’t attending synchronously could access the experience or material.

But teaching in a classroom with masks and social distancing forces us to think about the extra time we will need to build into our out-of-classroom schedule to help the ones who miss class to catch up. It forces us to not distribute or collect hard copies of assignments, but showing an assignment prompt projected on a screen for all to read might be pretty awful. I’d stopped collecting hard copies of major papers years ago, but I love a handout and often had homework worksheets for students to complete so that their thinking about their reading was not only guided by me but also had a tactile component. So all of this will need to be material they can access with laptops or tablets in class. Will they have those? I assume they will, so that’s probably fine.

Teaching in a classroom also forces me to recognize how much my conceptions of pedagogy hinge on my ability to speak, be heard, and listen to others speaking. I don’t mean to be ablest and suggest that people can’t communicate at all without voices — of course they can. And, though we’re not a group that universally knows ASL, we’re going to have to do a lot of work in my classroom without talking out loud much at all.

The most recent guidelines on COVID Transmission make clear that speaking in close contact is one of the most risky behaviors. We will be masked and in most cases 6 feet apart, two things that have been cited by our leaders when they are asked whether our classrooms are safe. (Nobody has addressed the possibility that air-conditioning could be an issue, but not even scientists have been able to answer this question fully.)

According to the guidelines published by the CDC, “the more closely a person interacts with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.” My class is 75 minutes long.

Even if speaking weren’t a high-risk behavior, the masks would muffle our voices. Speaking loudly and regularly could lead to more droplets, more face-touching and adjusting, and more, rather than less, contact with our mouths and noses. I’ve noticed when I have my mask on, I grow tired of speaking somewhat quickly, and my nose either runs or gets stuffy or both. My guess is that students and I might be excited to talk aloud with one another at the beginning of class, but we may be grateful to not have to talk after a while.

My class is called “a seminar” in the catalog, but it will have to involve less spontaneous discussion than I originally had in mind. The conversations that we’ll have will need to happen via electronic means. I imagine we’ll start the business of the class by opening our machines to specific discussion boards, chat windows, or a google doc; safety and the need for basic clarity, in my view, will mean communicating pretty exclusively through electronic means.

What does it mean to be in a room where we’re all using our computers, looking at screens instead of each other?

I’m not a snob about electronic communication. I basically live tweet half the things I watch on TV. I’ve attended several group-chat movie showings this summer and enjoyed being able to try to beat my friends typing the joke I know we’re all going to make. I’ve been to many online academic events at this point and found nearly all of them to be instructive and wonderfully communal experiences. When we’re not in a pandemic, I like being around these folks. But in a pandemic, it’s really not the worst thing to have most of your social interactions happen on a screen.

In fact, the screen will be important for the class for things other than discussion, because a lot of the work we’ll do will requiring using the library’s databases and other digitized collections online. Again they’ll need to have laptops or tablets of their own now that they can’t cluster around another student’s machine in groups. But if we’re looking at things online and having a lot of our conversations and interactions electronically, what is the purpose of being in a room together?

What even is pedagogy?

Is this pedagogy?

When I commute with hundreds of other people who may not be following my university’s rules;

when my students go home to families who may not be following their university’s rules;

when they return to dorms, where they do what college students do, and occasionally, without malice, break their university’s rules;

when I can’t make decisions or have choices honored that I know will be best for my course

…is this pedagogy?

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.

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