This week:

  • I describe one professor’s thoughts on trying to recreate a small liberal-arts seminar with remote instruction.
  • I share one program’s strategy for ensuring courses have a backup plan in case instructors are unable to keep teaching.
  • I pass along one professor’s story of teaching creatively during the pandemic.

**We know things are in flux on many campuses. It’s a stressful time, and we will continue to follow the coronavirus story closely. Please let us know what you think we should be covering along the way. And if you’d like to join our Facebook group for further conversation with people at other colleges, and with Chronicle staff members, you can find it atHigher ed and the coronavirus.**

The Liberal-Arts Experience

Lesley Wheeler teaches the kind of intimate seminars where a dozen undergraduates sit around a table and talk and form a community; the kind where she becomes familiar with how each student writes and thinks. This is the education her students signed up for: Washington and Lee University, where Wheeler is a professor of English, boasts an 8-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. That suggests a kind of high-touch, personal relationship that’s awfully hard for anyone to achieve in emergency online instruction.

So when she learned that she would be teaching the rest of the term remotely, Wheeler’s first thought was to try to approximate that experience online as well as she could, using something like Zoom, the videoconferencing tool. After doing some research and hearing from experts on her campus, however, Wheeler was persuaded that an asynchronous model would be more effective and inclusive.

So Wheeler settled on holding the occasional class meeting on Zoom, but relying mostly on having students submit their writing, respond to one another’s work, and meet in small groups asynchronously. She also has individual conferences with her students.

But she didn’t feel good about it. “I was so sad,” she said, “because I love discussion-based teaching so much. And then I was anxious because I didn’t know how well I’d be able to manage the technology and whether I would be able to do a good job in a totally different medium.”

Now that she’s past the initial transition, Wheeler is feeling better. She’s found ways to connect with students from afar, which helps. Still, none of it is normal.

Going online wasn’t the only change, either. Washington and Lee, like a number of other colleges, has given students the ability to take this semester’s courses pass or fail. That decision, Wheeler said, made her realize that, more than ever, “I really had to justify every assignment” to demonstrate to students that their coursework is intrinsically valuable and can be personally meaningful. It’s something she kept front and center as she reworked her courses.

One of Wheeler’s courses, “Documentary Poetics,” includes readings tied to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and she’s discussed with students what it means to bear witness to a crisis. Another course, for first-year students, includes a werewolf novel that Wheeler said will now provide a chance for the class to think about the meaning of viruses and isolation.

Making such connections, Wheeler hopes, will allow students to begin to process the crisis they’re living through. Even though some are really struggling with life circumstances, Wheeler has been impressed with the quality of her students’ work.

For her own part, Wheeler worries about the financial toll the pandemic will take on liberal-arts colleges like hers and the future of that model of education. The prospect of having to do more with less due to budget cuts is demoralizing for faculty members, Wheeler said.

Then there’s the big question: “If this goes on,” Wheeler said, “will students continue to sign up for small colleges?”

No one knows the answer yet. But it’s something Wheeler has in mind as she calls students for individual conferences, emphasizes flexibility, and looks for ways to help students keep learning and growing — without burdening them.

“One of the things that I’m very conscious of as I teach,” Wheeler said, “is I still have to adhere to that personalized model as much as possible, because it’s a retention and recruitment issue.”

The Buddy System

Last week I interviewed an instructor whose tweets about her response to a student with Covid-19 symptoms had racked up tens of thousands of likes. I had been wondering what professors would do when their students got sick.

I’ve also wondered what contingencies colleges and departments make for professors who require extended time off due to health problems or caregiving responsibilities related to Covid-19.

I recently learned of one approach from Kevin A. Gee, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Davis. Gee co-directs a doctoral program in education leadership that has a small and close-knit instructional team. The program created a buddy system, he said, that involved a simple spreadsheet listing each course and asked faculty members to volunteer to be a backup, or a backup to the backup, should the original instructor be unable to teach.

That kind of approach, Gee added, might not work in every field or department, especially ones with highly specialized professors. Still, he said, it’s a way colleagues can express support for one another, and reduce feelings of isolation.

Does your college or department have a plan in case professors need to take an extended absence this semester? Have you created one on your own for your courses? Tell me about it, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and your example may be included in a future newsletter.

Inequalities, Revealed

The pandemic has exposed existing inequalities, including those between different types of students and different categories of campus employees. Hear how professors can respond on Friday at the next Chronicle faculty forum, featuring Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University, Anthony A. Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Bryan Alexander, a higher-ed thinker and futurist.

A ‘Bright Spot’

We recentlyasked to hear from readers who have, in the midst of this upheaval, found a creative way to teach the remainder of their course remotely. That might mean coming up with new strategies to engage students, or adjusting course content to include the pandemic. We’ve gotten lots of great responses — thanks to everyone who’s shared. If you haven’t had a chance to fill us in on your teaching this spring, it’s not too late: Tell us here.

This contribution comes from Devon Fulford, a writing instructor at Colorado State University at Fort Collins who has found a fun way to lean into one of her students’ preferred modes of online communication:

Recently, I created an assignment where students construct memes based on course concepts, and it has been one of the best assignments EVER. My students know me well enough that they have been poking (gentle) fun at my methods and quirks, and the way our classes were conducted prior to the campus shutdown. Since today’s students communicate so well through the use of memes and GIFS, I found this has been a perfect way to combine their interests with course-concept knowledge in a singular manner.

I’m sharing this because instructors in any discipline could employ a similar assignment based on the pedagogic parameters for their own courses. For me, it has been a bright spot in a very peculiar and troubling time.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us: dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.