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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Let’s Give a Kiss Goodbye to These 10 Pandemic-Endangered Practices

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Bye-bye to these 10 practices already endangered by the pandemic.

Goodbye to traditional class lectures, in-person faculty office hours, and the college visit. Likewise, how about a fond farewell to inflexible academic calendars, the face-to-face faculty meetings filled with pontification, and the place-based conferences — with all their exclusionary trappings.

Dozens of you responded to my question over the past two weeks about what higher-ed practices paused by the pandemic should never come back. Thank you! The suggestions I cited above, along with four others, are the ones that stood out to me because they point to a more efficient or engaging way to operate. Also, in many cases, the replacements and adjustments reflect a more equitable approach. Hmm. Did we really need a pandemic to see that?

Several of these 10 ideas relate directly or indirectly to teaching. 

It’s premature, of course, to declare that the pandemic has put an end to the class lecture as a teaching form, but I’ve seen lots of evidence that confirms an assertion I heard from Heather Tinsley that the pandemic has prompted many faculty members to think more holistically about their approach to instruction and change up their approaches. That movement predates Covid-19, but as Tinsley, an associate professor of biology at the University of Montevallo, wrote, current circumstances make it even more necessary. “Teaching mask to mask in a socially distant classroom, or online,” she said, is “definitely not compatible with hour-plus orations.”

The shift away from faculty “office hours” held only in professors’ offices offers some positives as well. “Faculty do not really grasp how intimidated undergraduates, particularly first-years, are by the act of coming to physical office hours and how much time investment they require,” said Michael Furman, an assistant teaching professor at Florida State University. “This is not equitable for students who face transportation issues, tight schedules due to child-care responsibilities, or disabilities which affect their mobility.”

The pandemic has also broken some professors’ habits of “sitting in our offices,” and Seth Matthew Fishman, assistant dean for curriculum and assessment at Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences said that’s all for the better. “Now I see more faculty and staff taking campus walks, teaching outdoors, and engaging with the campus physical environment,” he wrote. Fishman said the “socially distanced strolls” he takes with students and colleagues are a lot more enjoyable than a meeting in his office. “More birds and breezes,” he noted. (I gotta admit, as a work-from-homer lacking a campus where I could safely mix with my colleagues, just reading that made me a little jealous.) Villanova has also issued students folding chairs that they can carry around for classes, club meetings, and, as he said, “just hanging out.” Clever. (The chairs have even become the inspiration for an unofficial Instagram account called "portablechairsofvillanova.")

The pandemic has altered how colleges recruit potential students and welcome the ones that have enrolled. 

Many of the in-person orientation programs shifted to virtual formats this year, and that allowed a lot of colleges to keep them focused on the factors that matter most: community building and advising. Typically, such events are jam-packed with back-to-back events with overwhelming content and stimuli, as I heard from Lindsay Monihen, director of student advising and support services at Shawnee State University’s College of Professional Studies. In their place, this summer Monihen hosted more than 30 virtual small-group sessions with new students and faculty members, with structured time to ask questions, learn about the majors, and hear tips from current students — things that “we never accomplished in previous face-to-face formats,” she said. University of Northern Iowa also put its orientation online this year, and one academic adviser there, Jenny Connolly, said she suspects that this approach made it more accessible to lower-income students and their families than usual two-day program, which required families to pay for an overnight stay. She suggested that colleges that tried different approaches study whether the shorter programs work as well — or better — at cutting down on “summer melt” or eventually improving retention. That’s a good idea.

In the same vein, the pandemic has severely limited the rite of the college visit and campus tour, and Thom Chesney, president of Clarke University, in Iowa, is among those more than happy to see it go. He likes the virtual alternatives. “Seeing our admissions counselors, athletic coaches, and faculty providing FaceTime and Microsoft Teams tours for prospective students since March has been encouraging and sometimes awe-inspiring,” he wrote to me. “Students who might never be able to afford or otherwise make the trip to out-of-the-way Dubuque are seeing classrooms, labs, dining halls, residences, practice fields, and the like firsthand and for as little or as long as they like.”

Covid-19 has prompted academic and higher-ed professionals to find new ways to connect.  

Since March, most place-based conferences have been canceled. Personally, I hate being grounded here in D.C., and I miss seeing so many of you at these events around the country. But as Hofstra University’s Rebecca Natow rightly noted, such events exclude people — among them those with disabilities, care-taking responsibilities, and limited resources. “Often, the people who are unable to travel regularly to out-of-town conferences are graduate students, contingent faculty, immigrants, junior scholars, and others who would benefit a great deal from the networking, professional development, and exposure that conference attendance provides,” she wrote. That’s all true. Natow, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy, didn’t argue for the end of in-person conferences, But as she noted, many organizations have since created virtual alternatives to those physical events, and she hopes organizations continue some version of those, even after face-to-face conferences eventually resume.

Dissertation defenses have also looked a little different these past few months. While the Ph.D. exam before a committee of scholars hasn’t gone away, often the viva voce piece of that ritual has gone online. That’s allowed universities “to recruit the best qualified external examiners from anywhere in the world,” as noted by Nigel Healey, associate vice president for global engagement at the University of Limerick, in Ireland. He recently participated in one such virtual defense, a commitment he was happy to do online but would have been unlikely to undertake if it meant having to fly halfway around the world as an examiner once did for him.

And just maybe some of these elements of campus culture are gone for good too?  

Yes, overly long meetings are the scourge of every workplace, and I suspect Zoom fatigue is helping curb them in many other sectors, too. Still, after hearing from several of you about how you’ve now been experiencing shorter meetings, it does seem that maybe there’s less tolerance for that in the pandemic era. I got a nice chuckle from the theory proffered by Andy Driska, an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at Michigan State University. “On Zoom,” he wrote, “I don’t think pontificating has the same appeal (for some, at least), which cuts meeting times by 20 percent (estimate).”

In the pandemic era, the grip of an academic calendar defined by semesters or trimesters is loosening. That’s welcome news to folks like Brad Wheeler, who just returned to the Indiana University's business-school faculty after years as vice president for information technology and vice president for communications and marketing. “It enables faculty to choose shorter and longer periods for courses and blended modalities within what had been our fall and even through the New Year holidays,” he wrote.

Frankly, I expected to hear something about both of those. But I was surprised — pleasantly — by another suggestion, from Naomi Yavneh-Klos, a professor of languages and cultures at Loyola University New Orleans, who wrote: “Good riddance to the ‘they're just lazy’ trope!”

Yavneh-Klos said she’s been excited that some of her “more ‘rigorous’ colleagues” are giving up on punitive attendance policies, with vocal encouragement from college administration. I’ve heard this sentiment from other professors too, although it’s hard to know how widely these practices are spreading. But Yavneh-Klos, at least, reports some welcome progress. “I see a greater awareness that students are facing many challenges (mental-health issues, needing to work, literal and figurative bandwidth issues),” she wrote. And, more to the point, she added, she’s also seeing from colleagues “a willingness to respond with kindness and support.”

Please join me next week for a virtual event on “The New Shape of Learning.”

What will the post-pandemic world look like for teaching and learning? What trends spurred by Covid-19 will last and which will fade away? Those are just a few of the questions our speakers and panelists will tackle during this special virtual forum beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, September 23.

We’ll kick it off with a presentation from Bryan Alexander, and follow up with a lineup that includes La Jerne Cornish and Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, provosts of Ithaca College and California State University at Fresno, respectively. Later, with Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education at Duke University, and MJ Bishop, director of the University System of Maryland's Center for Academic Innovation, we’ll explore how the new environment could change campus roles for educators outside of the classroom. Register here to watch it live or later on demand.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.