This week:

  • I talk to a teaching expert about the value of collective mourning over the pandemic.
  • I ask what your experiences have been with cameras and Zoom classes.
  • I point you to studies and resources about teaching you may have missed.

The Importance of Grieving

In the rush to return to normal this fall — to the extent that Covid-19 vaccines allow — it may be tempting to forget what we have all been through. After all, who wants to reminisce over the loneliness of working from home, the awkwardness of teaching to a screen of black squares, or the frustration of daily technological glitches?

As appealing as it may be to push those memories to the back of your mind, Josh Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, has a word of advice: Don’t. It’s critical, he says, for college communities to mourn what was lost, talk about what was learned, and map out a future that may be different, but still hopeful.

“I can see universities are sending out the message: We’re headed back to normal,” says Eyler, who has written about the role that social interaction and emotion play in learning. “I understand that, from a logical point of view, that’s the message you want to send students. But I don’t actually think that message is helpful as a community.”

Pushing aside those painful feelings, or pretending that this last year never happened, he warns, can have serious repercussions. “It feels to the people who worked through it that it’s not acknowledging their significant experiences. It feels like what they did didn’t matter,” he says. “You’ve been moving 100 miles an hour, doing something you’ve never done before, then you’re told: ‘OK, pretend that never happened, and go back to the way things used to be.’ It’s just a really hard transition to make.”

He compares it to the experience of burnout: “If you ask a community to move on without processing, you can see the same effects. Not being committed to the work. Not wanting to do it anymore. Just hitting the wall.”

Eyler thought a lot about those challenges as he helped steer his campus through the pandemic’s choppy waters. In April he’ll be giving a keynote presentation, “On Grief and Loss: Building a Post-Pandemic Future for Higher Education Without Losing Sight of Our Students and Ourselves,” at the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University. (His speech is open to the public.)

He began thinking about grief last summer, when he heard professors say, again and again: But I used to teach this way, and now I’m expected to do what exactly? Under that confusion he sensed shock, fear, and even anger.

What professors love to do — teach in person, in a classroom, on a college campus — was being ripped away from them. The spontaneous debates in a lively senior seminar. The warm chats after class with eager new students. The serendipitous hallway conversations with colleagues. All gone, replaced by videoconferencing and discussion boards.

“That loss is still beneath the surface,” he says. Some deal with it by putting their heads down and plowing through, treating this academic year as an endurance contest. Others find themselves caught up in waves of frustration or anxiety.

Eyler believes that the heated debates around such issues as requiring students to turn on their cameras, and whether surveillance tools are needed to tamp down on rampant cheating, are manifestations of that same sense of loss. In an uncontrollable situation, people often think, What can I control? “I think it blew way out of proportion because of what’s under the surface of all this,” he says.

He advises campus leaders, including the people who run teaching and learning centers, to set aside time to allow faculty and staff members to talk about this past year. On his own campus, counselors and others have led discussions on topics such as faculty and staff burnout and student mental health.

It’s also important to acknowledge what has changed, maybe permanently, and sometimes for the better, Eyler says. That helps people think about what they can learn from this experience and apply to their work in the future.

Professors discovered, for example, new online tools that can help students learn. They’re also more keenly aware of their students “as human beings who deserve our compassion and empathy,” Eyler says. “So many of our conversations were around flexibility of deadlines, low-stakes assignments to manage the cognitive load. They finally got center stage.”

Ideally, that empathy will remain once everyone is back on campus. He hopes the same holds true for flexible work policies, as administrators are more aware that employees need support to juggle work, child care, and other personal responsibilities.

Has your campus begun preparing for post-pandemic teaching? If so, have you held group discussions about what was lost and what was learned that may shape teaching and learning now? What do you think colleges should do to help people process this past year? Drop me a line, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

Turning Cameras Back On

C. Thi Nguyen, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, sparked a compelling conversation with a recent Twitter thread about why and how he encouraged students to turn on their cameras in Zoom classes.

“I totally get the worries about student privacy and invasiveness,” he wrote. “But I also know that my teaching gets radically worse when I’m facing mostly all black squares. So this time, I tried complete honesty.”

In short, he explained to his students how he relies on reading their faces so he can tell what is and isn’t being understood. He told them that if fewer than one-third had their cameras off, it didn’t harm his teaching. If half turned cameras off, his teaching got significantly worse. And if the percentage rose above two-thirds, he felt totally cut off. The result: Most days, about two-thirds of his students keep their cameras on, in what he described as a “self-regulating” environment.

“A bunch of students said that they had ‘never even thought’ about what it felt like from the teacher’s POV, to teach to a bunch of no-camera squares,” he wrote. “My hope is that what’s going on is: students who have a strong reason to have cameras off, have them off. But that many people have only a mild preference for having their cameras off, which is now being outweighed by some sense of a communal good, which I made salient.”

Have you leveled with your students about how their behavior affects your teaching, whether it’s about cameras being off or something else? If so, what happened? Drop me a line, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and I may share your approach in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • A new study found that students who take notes by hand do not perform better on quizzes than do those who take notes on a computer, adding a new wrinkle to the continuing debate about which method leads to better understanding and retention.
  • In a recent Chronicle webinar, teaching experts discussed the challenges of hands-on learning in a remote environment. You can watch it on demand.

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.

—Beth

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