You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.

This week:

  • I share stories from readers about how they’ve adapted their teaching to Covid-19.
  • I ask how prepared you feel for a possible fall online.
  • I point you to some articles on teaching that you may have missed.

**We know things are in flux on many campuses. It’s a stressful time, and we will be following 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 the Chronicle staff, you can find it at Higher Ed and the Coronavirus.**

Teaching Creatively

In the weeks since colleges moved to remote instruction, professors have struggled with two basic teaching challenges: How to modify their course content when assignments become impossible to do from home, and how keep their students engaged at a time when everyone is operating under a lot of stress.

We know that many of you have found creative ways to revamp your curricula and connect with students. A few weeks ago we asked you to tell us your stories, and have been sharing them weekly. Today I wanted to highlight several particularly clever efforts.

Let’s start with Dan Russell, a teaching professor at Pennsylvania State University. It takes a confident man to dress as Princess Leia in front of his students. For Russell, it’s all in a day’s work. He teaches acoustics to graduate students in the College of Engineering, a hybrid course that relies on a complex mix of audio and video production to connect with students in person and remotely.

Once the entire class moved to remote instruction, Russell says that to reduce stress levels — both his own and his students’ — he wrote a frank discussion post about his fears and concerns for the health and safety of his family during lockdown. And he encouraged students to write about what they were going through as well. That, he says, helped create a sense of camaraderie.

Russell then decided to lighten the mood in class by using Zoom’s virtual-background feature. “I ordered a large green screen from Amazon, and started looking for ideas for costumes and background combinations. My two children are now both in college, but in our basement family room we still had a cabinet of dress clothes and old Halloween costumes, which I raided for wigs, hats, and costume ideas,” he wrote. “I came up with a different background/costume for each of the remaining lectures for the rest of the semester.”

One day he showed up as Wayne from Wayne’s World. Another time he appeared as Freddie Mercury on the iconic album cover for Queen II. Then there was Princess Leia, complete with hair buns.

“This might seem silly, but it gave me something fun to look forward to every couple of days, as I came up with an idea and then hunted for the background and the right wig/hat/clothes to match,” he continued. “Sometimes, I even began a lecture with a cold open showing a video clip from the movie or TV show that inspired the background/costume for that day. My students seemed to really enjoy it — several telling me (both during lectures and through comments/likes on my Facebook page when I posted the costume for the day) that it was something they looked forward to for every class lecture, and that it greatly helped make the online experience much more enjoyable.”

***

Another clever improvisation came from Sharon Ross, an associate professor of media studies at Columbia College Chicago, who decided that she needed to revamp a key assignment.

Rose teaches a class called “Netflix Culture” for students who plan to work as creative-content producers. Their final project was supposed to be a team-based competition to design a plan for Netflix to remain viable through 2030. After the pandemic sent everyone home, she told students that, instead, they would create a plan for Netflix to deal with Covid-19.

Their ideas, she wrote, should “speak to subscribers, office employees, and artists working on shows. The strategies can range from paid leave to social engagement to PSA campaigns to — well, whatever the students can creatively come up with. They can turn in videos, keynotes, scripted talking points. They also have to create a job description for themselves at Netflix and a résumé that shows how they got from their major to a job at Netflix, either domestically or globally. It’s hitting the marks of what the class goals are, allowing them to think ‘current’ with minimum ‘Covid-focused-content stress,’ and still connect with at least a handful of classmates on a regular basis.”

Ross notes that students in the department have been hit especially hard since most were gearing up to make films, TV shows, art installations, dance, or theater performances for their final projects. So everyone has tried to help them create what they can with limited resources.

A professor who teaches an introductory course on urban agriculture at New York University came up with an innovative way for students to transition formerly on-site coursework to home.

“Normally, the course would take place at the NYU Urban Farm Lab — an outdoor community farm, classroom, and research lab,” wrote Jordan Bennett, a public affairs officer in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. “Since students are no longer able to harvest crops together in person, the faculty member, Melissa Metrick, has reworked the course so that students can farm at home. Students are exploring how to propagate plants from vegetables or vegetable scraps they already have in their kitchens, and how to pickle and can vegetables at home for preservation. For the students’ final projects, they will design a self-sustaining garden at their homes. This can be done in their backyards, on a terrace, roof, or an indoor hydroponics setup if they don’t have an outdoor space. Melissa is making the most of this situation and sees it as an opportunity to help create the next generation of homesteaders.”

***

Another faculty member wrote about how she keeps the energy up in her remote classes.

Sheila M. Wilkinson, an instructor of design at Loyola University New Orleans, begins every Zoom class with a quick check-in to ask students how they’re feeling, reviews prior class work, then takes a break. She continues that cycle several times through each class: check-in, content, break.

“We’ve meditated together, done breathing exercises together, done jumping jacks together ... but the most fun of all? The actual breaks! You might ask how a break could NOT be fun, but I do mine just a little differently. Instead of saying, ‘come back in five,’ it’s, ‘come back when the music is over.

“Each week, I curate the music based on our topic (songs are from the Global Top 50). So, it’s not just any break. It’s a time to relax the brain and dance a little. When the song is over, we are all back and ready to go ... we talk about how the song applies to what we’re doing and then, re-energized, we get back to it.”

Some professors, as we’ve seen, adapt their coursework to focus on the impact of Covid-19. Others modify lesson plans to give students a respite.

***

Amy Wlodarski, an associate professor of music at Dickinson College, wrote about how she pivoted her class away from a topic that she felt would be inappropriate during a pandemic.

Her music-history survey course was about to begin a unit on trauma, music, and the 20th century when the coronavirus hit. Because it would have focused on topics like war and genocide, she wrote, “I couldn’t envision asking my students, who were already feeling disconnected and anxious, to engage with that material without stress. It felt unethical.”

Instead, she began teaching them about ecomusicology, which explores the relationship between sound and the lived or natural environment. She asked her students, mostly nonmajors, to read about composers like John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, John Luther Adams, and other avant-garde musicians.

Once they had to listen to their environment for 15 minutes “and describe it with attention to the sonic details,” she wrote. They also had to perform Cage’s 4’33”(curious readers can see a performance here), and analyze works like Adams’s “Become Ocean” and Oliveros’s “Bye Bye Butterfly.”

“Their responses and reflections were so moving and meditative. More than one commented that it was contributing positively to their ability to cope and embrace their new surroundings. It also helped me, as a professor, to ‘hear’ some of the challenges they were facing in their new home environments as they described their new sound worlds (some of which were anything but conducive to an ideal learning environment). But, most of all, I was grateful for the window into their inner lives (via their inner ears!) and a chance to connect as a human being with them on an individual basis.”

If you’d like to share your spring semester story, you can do so here.

Fall Online?

My latest article explores how ready — or not — colleges are for a fall semester online. As you probably know, most campuses have limited capacity to train professors to design and teach fully online courses, as opposed to the quick-and-dirty training they did this spring. But many places are trying to ramp up shorter versions of their training programs in course design and effective online-teaching practices, to prepare professors to continue teaching online next semester, if needed.

We know there’s more to say about what teaching might look like this fall, and want to hear from you. Are you planning for the possibility that you may have to teach online again this fall? If so, how? Are you on a committee at your college looking at different possibilities, from in-person classes, with social-distancing, to fully online, or something in between? If so, drop me a line at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com. I’d like to hear your story.

ICYMI

  • Three teaching experts describe five myths about the pivot to remote teaching, in this Chronicle essay.
  • Beckie talks to professors about how they’ve changed their approach to final exams during the pandemic, in this Chronicle story.
  • Jessamyn Neuhaus, a professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, writes about why remote teaching is particularly challenging for introverts, in this Chronicle advice essay.