This week:

  • I describe the teaching debrief one department ran when its normal ways of discussing teaching were ruled out by the pandemic.
  • I surface a story from a few years back on the movement to see students as people first.
  • I share some recent articles about teaching you may have missed.

Departments Matter

In a typical year, DePaul University’s political-science department has a built-in way to attend to teaching: Professors observe one another in the classroom as part of a review process they all go through at least every other year. But given the complexity of conducting observations via Zoom and the strain professors were already under, the department skipped those observations this past year. Instead, it held a teaching debrief after the fall quarter.

Molly W. Andolina, an associate professor in the department, emailed me to describe the debrief this spring after reading Flower Darby’s suggestion, in an issue of this newsletter, that departments put teaching on their meeting agendas. Andolina agrees that departments are a smart place to situate conversations about teaching.

The political-science department is collegial, Andolina told me in an interview. “We like each other,” she said. “After a department meeting, we will go out and have a drink.”

This past year, of course, was different. Professors were isolated and dealing with the various challenges of the pandemic. Their city was implicated in calls for racial justice. Their discipline was called upon to shed light on a presidential election whose results were delayed, then disputed by the losing party. On top of everything else, the department lost a member to cancer.

Against that backdrop, Andolina said, the teaching debrief was a chance to find a sense of community. To facilitate it, Andolina, who normally schedules the teaching observations, collected some data. The department surveyed students on how remote instruction served them, in the spring of 2020 and again last fall.

Andolina also gathered feedback from faculty members ahead of the meeting. That set-up, she thinks, enabled everyone to get some things off of their chests ahead of the meeting, and use the time together to talk about solutions instead of just problems. Many of the professors, for instance, had struggled to facilitate good asynchronous discussions online.

One colleague shared the idea of limiting the number of threads students could start: After a certain number had been created, students can only respond to existing threads. Andolina adopted that approach herself the next quarter, and found a big improvement in the quality of her students’ discussions.

After the meeting, Andolina sent her colleagues a summary of the discussion, as well as some further resources. It highlighted some points of consensus, like the need to provide students with consistency and transparency, and offered practical tips department members have shared for teaching online.

It’s possible, Andolina said, that the department might now try to hold some kind of annual conversation about teaching. If nothing else, she wrote, the debrief offered a ray of hope in a difficult time. “Seeing the time, energy, and focus that my departmental colleagues had dedicated to teaching filled me with gratitude for my teaching community,” she said, “at a time when I was having trouble finding anything to be grateful for.”

Have you found new ways to connect with colleagues about teaching because of the pandemic? Do you plan to carry them forward? Share your experience and plans with me, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and they may be included in a future newsletter.

Care and Concern

A year or more of peering into students’ personal lives by Zoom has deepened many instructors’ commitment to relating to them on a human level. But the idea of treating students as people first was gaining ground even before the pandemic hit. A few years ago, I wrote about the broader shift through the lens of one instructor’s heartfelt message to her students.

ICYMI

  • Just how much has pandemic learning set students back? Our colleague Katherine Mangan takes a look at the early evidence here.
  • Ken Bain and Marsha Marshall Bain argue that this is the moment for “super courses” that grapple with big questions, in this advice piece excerpted from Beth’s and my latest report.
  • Are laptop bans coming back after remote instruction ends? Jenae Cohn, director of academic technology at California State University at Sacramento, shares some perspective in a Twitter thread.

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

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