This week:

  • I talk to a professor about her university’s pandemic-teaching initiative.
  • I ask you to describe your experiences of teaching with Covid.
  • I point you to articles and Twitter threads about teaching this semester.
  • I tell you about a coming webinar on student engagement and lessons learned during the pandemic.

Teaching About the Pandemic

Over the past year and a half, many faculty members have adjusted their coursework to help students make sense of the world by looking at the Covid-19 crisis through a particular lens. History professors dove into past pandemics to help understand how this one might unfold. Scientists and public-policy experts worked with students to analyze public-health data and government responses. Sometimes their lessons spanned a class or two. Other times they created entirely new courses in a matter of weeks.

Now that the pandemic has entered another academic year, that work is expanding on many campuses in new and different ways. One innovative project came across my desk the other week: the Pandemic Teaching Initiative at Northeastern University, in Massachusetts.

A couple of things stuck out to me in looking at what faculty members there have put together. First, it’s publicly available: Academics on other campuses are welcome to use the modules, which include lectures, readings, and assignments. Each is specifically designed to provide a week’s worth of material that can be incorporated into existing courses.

Second, the topics span a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from statistics to philosophy. “The Stories We Tell About Epidemics and Why They Matter,” for example, examines how movies, novels, and other media shape how we think about epidemics. “Why Markets Fail: The Economics of Covid-19” uses key economic concepts to analyze economic policy around the pandemic. “Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Closed Borders: How the Covid-19 Pandemic Is Impacting Displaced People” covers how the public-health crisis has affected some of the most vulnerable groups of people around the globe.

I spoke to Lori Lefkovitz, an English professor and director of the university’s Humanities Center, to find out how the project came about. Lefkovitz said the idea originated in a conversation she had with Ronald Sandler, a philosophy professor and director of the Ethics Institute at Northeastern, shortly after the pandemic hit. She had proposed that they do something about medical ethics at a time when hospitals were triaging patients due to overwhelming caseloads. Sandler instead noted that several of his faculty members were creating lessons around the pandemic, and suggested that they find out whether there was similar activity throughout the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

The two garnered support for the idea from various corners of the campus, and issued a call for proposals in May 2020. Would faculty members be interested in creating pandemic-related lessons? Lefkovitz credited administrators for their willingness to offer financial and other support. Faculty members whose proposals were accepted received $1,500 per module or $2,000 for a group project.

By the start of this academic year, Northeastern had added more than 20 modules to the new library, involving every department in the college, said Lefkovitz, who sounded a bit amazed at how well it all came together. “The spirit of collaboration and cooperation was born partly out of desperation,” she said. A range of faculty members participated, too, from endowed chairs to teaching professors. “I think it was therapeutic in some ways for our faculty,” Lefkovitz said, to be able to address the crisis in a tangible way.

She hopes faculty members on other campuses — as well as high schools and adult-education programs — will use Northeastern’s material, which was designed for both consistency and accessibility. All are available on Northeastern’s website, and each includes an introduction to the discipline along with several lessons. “This is maximally flexible,” she said. “People could plug them into existing courses, or they could create a course on the pandemic and use all of them.”

In addition to getting the word out, Lefkovitz is interested in seeing how Northeastern faculty members could team up with colleagues at other colleges and universities.

Has your department, college, or campus organized a similar pandemic-teaching initiative? If so, please write to me, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

How Do You Teach With Covid?

Among the many challenges professors face this fall is the possibility that they or a family member will contract Covid. Fortunately for Jennifer Sims, she had planned ahead.

“My university had requested that we make all of our in-person class materials available online for when students needed to be absent due to Covid,” wrote Sims, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. “So I set that up at the beginning of the semester.” The day before her school-age daughter came down with Covid, she had already planned to pivot her three courses to asynchronous delivery if she needed to be absent. Then Sims herself caught Covid and was glad she had a contingency plan.

So far, she noted, it has worked well. Her students have been supportive, and her colleagues are helping by answering students’ questions for her about, for example, coming assignments. Meanwhile, her daughter is feeling better, and Sims said she’s past the worst of it.

But her situation got Sims (and us) wondering: How are others handling this problem? Some professors, she noted, have gotten so sick in past semesters they have had to request a teaching release. Even if the situation isn’t that dire, restrictive sick policies, limited technology options, and the discomfort or difficulty in finding colleagues to cover your classes can hamstring people. And what about discussion-based seminars or active-learning classrooms? Is it possible to teach those asynchronously, remotely, or through another faculty member?

If you’re willing to share your story, we would like to hear it. You can either write to me, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or fill out this Google form. Please let us know how you’re coping, and we’ll report back on what we’re hearing.

ICYMI

  • Faculty members in Georgia are entering classrooms and labs in a state system with no mask or vaccine mandates. Read Emma Pettit’s story on how some are pushing back.
  • In this Twitter thread, Carl T. Bergstrom describes how he has modified his course, which is normally heavy on active, in-person learning, so as not to penalize students who need or prefer to attend online.
  • In this Twitter thread, Travis Chi Wing Lau describes why he made the difficult decision to move his in-person classes online, due to mounting Covid cases and the related stress among students.
  • In this Chronicle advice piece, Jane S. Halonen and Dana S. Dunn discuss how to bridge the generation gap to help today’s students learn most effectively from faculty feedback on their work.

A New Virtual Event

After more than a year spent largely in virtual classrooms, students crave campus life and the rich academic experience that goes with it. What does that look like now? And what lessons have colleges learned about creating an effective learning experience in such an uncertain environment, including hybrid and virtual classrooms? Join me on September 21 as I moderate a virtual forum with four experts: Jenae Cohn, Flower Darby, Josh Eyler, and Mike Truong. If you can’t make it, you can still register and watch it later on demand. See you there!

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

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