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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

January 14, 2021

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Teaching: Making Sense of Pandemic Teaching

This week:

  • I share an exercise designed to help professors reflect on pandemic teaching and start thinking about how this time will shape their classroom approach in the future.
  • I pass along a resource one expert recommends for guiding difficult classroom conversations.
  • I point you toward Beth’s latest story, which wrestles with a problem that’s probably top of mind: How colleges should address disinformation.

Pandemic Teaching Stories

Professors need a chance to process and reflect on their experience teaching during the Covid-19 era. And some, at least, are ready to start imagining how this time might affect their teaching in the post-pandemic future.

Martha Fay Burtis, a learning developer and the associate director of the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative (CoLab) at Plymouth State University, has developed an exercise to guide instructors in this reflection. It was loosely modeled, Burtis says, on how some therapists use storytelling to help trauma patients. Burtis is not an expert in the technique, she says. But it spoke to her because faculty development these days is “less about instructional design,” she says, “and more about emotional support.”

Burtis offered the exercise to instructors at Plymouth State, in New Hampshire, during a faculty-development workshop this past fall. It was important, she says, to give instructors alternatives — some attendees needed to talk about what was happening to them in real time, and were not ready to think about what came next.

The exercise prompts professors to write about their teaching and their students, then their experiences and feelings. Next, they discuss their answers in small groups — Plymouth State assigned attendees to Zoom breakout rooms — and report highlights back to the full group. (A professor could work through the exercise independently by skipping this portion.) Finally, instructors put it all together by creating a written or visual teaching narrative. Burtis had workshop attendees complete that part later, on their own.

For Kayla Gaudette, director of operations for the university’s health and human-performance department, the idea of crafting a teaching narrative was new. But Gaudette, who’s also a teaching lecturer in interdisciplinary studies, was eager to try it out, in part because she trusts Burtis and the faculty-learning community she’s part of.

During the workshop, instructors in Gaudette’s small group in a Zoom breakout room typed out their own answers into a shared table before discussing them with one another.

Talking about pandemic teaching — and especially what happened in the spring of 2020 — requires instructors to delve more into their personal lives than they normally would in discussing their teaching with colleagues, Gaudette says. Not only was the shift online stressful, but professors navigated it alongside different forms of caregiving responsibilities.

“It was this super-vulnerable space of: How honest do I get?” Gaudette says. “It almost felt like once one person put in how they really felt, then you could see the honest responses start to fill out.” Attendees, she says, described feeling stressed, disconnected, and scared.

Sharing those experiences with colleagues — in this case, tenured and tenure-track faculty members as well as lecturers — depends on trust, Gaudette says. That requires good facilitation, she says, and it can help if attendees already know one another.

Discussing common challenges was useful, Gaudette says. So was realizing she had valuable insights to share from her experience teaching in a hybrid format.

Gaudette can see how some of the changes she’s made in her own teaching — such as making her course accessible via a mobile-friendly course website and giving students more choices — are ones she’ll want to continue after the pandemic. And while she hasn’t had time to write out her full teaching narrative yet, she says, she appreciated the chance to reflect on her experiences from a bit of a remove.

Have you been part of an effort to help instructors make sense of their pandemic teaching experiences? If so, I’d love to hear what you did and how it went. Drop me a line, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

Help With Hard Conversations

Last week a right-wing mob incited by President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress was meeting to certify the Electoral College results, wreaking havoc and leaving five people dead. Many saw the events as fully in keeping with the rhetoric and actions of Trump’s supporters, even as some of his backers promoted conspiracy theories that the attackers were members of Antifa in disguise, despite the fact that they went to the Capitol at his direction.

Given all of that, how might instructors approach the attack in the classroom? Josh Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, shared on Twitter a resource he recommends for such difficult discussions: "From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces." You can read it here.

About Those Conspiracy Theories

The spread of disinformation is a complex and high-stakes problem. Efforts to help students evaluate online information frequently fall flat. Even when they work, some experts argue, they are hardly sufficient in a world where bad actors spread propaganda and some people believe it for reasons that have to do with ideology, not evidence. So what should faculty members do? Beth talked to experts who teach about propaganda, communication, and information literacy for her latest article, which you can read here.

Do you cover disinformation in your courses? What seems to resonate most with students, and what’s the hardest part of teaching this material? How do you know if it’s working? Send Beth a note, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and she may connect with you in her continuing reporting on this topic.

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

—Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.