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Digital Humanities Life Pedagogy

It’s Going OK

Over the past few days, I’ve been wrestling with a bizarre type of guilt: guilt that things are working. Like everyone, I moved my classes online after spring break at George Mason University. I teach two classes in the history department, one a 46-person class called “The Digital Past,” and one a 13-person topics in digital history course, where we’re learning about podcasting for history. I’m going to focus on the good in this post: “The Digital Past,” otherwise known as HIST390. I may write about the extreme challenges of the other class at a later time—it hasn’t ALL been working.

[I’m deliberately leaving out all discussions of how the rest of my life has changed because of this, though perhaps that’s not fair. It’s not like I can compartmentalize the different parts; they all bleed together. And I haven’t been dealing with any family members being sick or being homeless, or any other points of anxiety that have been overwhelming many of my students. I am immensely privileged in a lot of ways, and I acknowledge that.]

I don’t want to minimize the amount of disruption this move has caused. In the first frantic days, I couldn’t sleep at night for worrying about how I was going to make it all work. How was I going to teach a class about technology when my students had inconsistent access to technology? How was I going to do workshops about writing and editing with my podcasters when I couldn’t see them? How was I going to do activities with primary sources (particularly in a class where most students have little experience with reading historical documents and need a lot of prompting)?

After those first few days, things have settled into something of a rhythm. I wouldn’t say the transition has been “easy,” exactly (or inexactly). But there are parts of the new system that I’ve really liked. I want to highlight those.

Return to the essentials

The first time I taught HIST390, I tried to do WAY TOO MUCH. The second time I taught HIST390, I tried to do Way Too Much. This time, I tried to do way too much. Moving online has prompted me to reorient my entire course with an emphasis on the essentials. I’ve posted before about learning outcomes and how they guide my course preparation. However, that guidance doesn’t preclude my trying to do too much, as my course evaluations from my first go at a graduate class last semester made painfully clear. The kind of stripping down I had to do to make HIST390 work feels kind of like that exercise: write what you want in a page. Then write it in a paragraph. Then write it in a sentence. Then write it in a phrase. I started out three semesters ago teaching this class in a page. This semester, I started out with a sentence and I’m ending with a phrase.

In my reframing of the course, I have had to sharpen my focus on what I think really matters. What can I adjust or remove and still meet the learning goals? Much of my “assessment” work has gotten the axe. No more reading blog posts; actually, no more readings. Asking students to demonstrate minimal understanding of a digital tool instead of using its more advanced features. Changing two weeks on databases into one week on audio.

Instead of “assessment,” I’m focusing on understanding, giving them more time to work on projects with more support. I’ve tried to reframe the projects not as checking up on skills, but as an opportunity for creativity and showing off knowledge. I gave them more options for which projects they have to do, since if they struggle with them they don’t have easy access to face-to-face help from me. And it’s going fine. Students are still learning. In fact, the projects are going better than any other semester because I’ve relaxed my time expectations.

To be honest, I don’t miss most of the things I’ve removed. Sure, there are a few things that I’m sad we can’t do, and when I next teach this class face-to-face, I’ll add them back in. But I’ve realized that I’ve always been too aggressive in my course plan. So when we go back to face-to-face, this focus on the essentials is going to make a difference in how I teach this class.

Increased class participation

This one was a huge surprise to me. One of the things I read about asynchronous teaching (which is how I’m doing it) is that it exposes the learning process in a way that synchronous teaching doesn’t. That has certainly held true for me. At the beginning of the semester, I had set up a Slack group for my class. I do require them to join the group, but in the Before Time it mostly got used for tech support. In the After Time, I have used it for class discussion. And it has been GREAT.

In the Before Time, I often broke my students into groups for group discussion. But really hearing the discussions of 46 students, or giving each student a chance to contribute in those discussions, felt pretty impossible. The setup of our classroom was not well-suited to discussion, and it always felt hackneyed.

In the After Time, I broke up my class into groups of 3 or 4. I gave them each their own Slack channel. Now for every class period, they listen to me talk on a podcast episode, or listen to or watch something else. Then they answer discussion questions or do other activities within their Slack group channel. Sometimes I link to a primary source and have them discuss it. Sometimes I have them reflect on how the course materials fit into their lives. I’ve had them make things and photograph them and post to their channel.

I like this way so much better than the in-person discussions. I can “hear” all the discussions; the groups are small enough and asynchronous enough that everyone can have their say. I get to see them thinking through some of the questions in a way that I’d never get in a face-to-face discussion. I always despaired of good discussions in my classroom; I feel like this is finally fulfilling my hopes.

Not every person participates, of course. It would be irrational to expect that. But I’d say I know more about more students’ individual circumstances and personalities now than I did before the break. They’re not particularly shy about their lives, and I really like getting to see the course material come alive as they make connections to themselves. I’m already thinking about how I can use these tools to facilitate asynchronous discussion even when we go back to face-to-face.

Experimentation with form

One of the unexpected benefits of this move to online has been the chance to experiment with new and different ways of presenting materials. I’ve always been a huge proponent of using a wide variety of methods and techniques to communicate history–from one perspective, that’s the whole point of this class. But I’ve rarely had the opportunity to practice what I preach and innovate in my delivery of material.

But now innovation is upon us, whether we wish it or not. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to do synchronous class meetings; they make me extremely anxious, and I don’t find them a good teaching or learning environment (no shade on those who are doing synchronous; it’s just not for me). So that meant I got to get creative with content delivery. I’ve chosen to work mostly in audio—no surprise to those of you who know me; I’ve recently become rather enamored of audio.

I started out with just voice recordings. Over time I’ve developed my “lectures” into real podcast-sounding deliveries, with theme music, an intro, a conclusion, and other things that help good audio stand out. I’m not arguing that I’m making something good, necessarily, only that I’m concertedly trying to do so.

It’s hard to communicate with just audio when you’re used to being able to use gestures, facial expressions, and other visual cues to get your point across. I do miss being able to scribble on a white board. But I’ve found the challenge of experimenting with audio immensely rewarding. I’ve taught myself a lot about the form and the mechanics, and my students seem to appreciate the work I put in.

It is a LOT of work. I spend several hours on each 20-minute episode, editing it, selecting and placing the music, re-recording when needed. But there are a lot of moments when I find the work therapeutic: it feels good to make something every week that I’m proud of. My students have also found it therapeutic to make things, it seems. Every time I’ve asked them to do something hands-on, like draw a map of their house, they’ve thrown themselves into it with a right good will.

There’s a pretty decent chance I’ll never use these podcast episodes again. But having to write a script, edit it for clarity, and then listen to myself talk it out has been valuable to me—once again, I’m back to the essentials. What do I need to include in order to get across the point I really care about? Condensing the speaking part of my class from 50-60 minutes into 20 has made me really consider what I care about.

Am I a Jerk for Liking My Class Right Now?

Sometimes I feel like a jerk for liking my class right now. I’ve heard from many colleagues about how they’re struggling to adjust to this new reality. The rest of the semester is just about survival for them, and they believe that the students are getting an inferior product now. And maybe that’s true. And I’m sympathetic—in my other class, I feel like we’re hanging on by a thread and a giant ogre is standing over us with a huge pair of scissors.

I am likewise fully aware that my students are not feeling good about their lives right now. Many of my students are in extremely difficult situations, where classwork is the least of their concerns (rightly). All of them are living in the perpetual fog of covid-19, and I’m there too. Life is not comfortable for any of them, and it’s downright bad for some.

I also know that if we stay online for the fall, much of the work I’ve done for this online class will need to be re-done; it’s very specific to this semester’s students and work. (Plus there’s the whole first half of the class which hasn’t been online-ized.) I’m not saying that this class is better online, either, or that the university should dispense with face-to-face classes forever. Teaching online from the outset, with students whom I don’t know and can’t tailor instruction to out of the gate, is a whole different beast from this switch midstream. To be honest, that kind of online teaching scares the snot out of me. This ain’t that.

So when I say that this class is working for me, it kind of feels like I’m betraying my colleagues and my students who are just barely making it.

And yet it wouldn’t be fair to say that these last 6 weeks have been universally horrible. My students are responding really well to these new ways of teaching and learning. They’ve told me (and I think they’re being honest) that they’re enjoying the new forms, and they’re finding our Slack discussions useful. Not everything has worked, but a lot of stuff has worked. Students are making historical connections to their own lives. They’re learning in real time about how to understand the digital environment where they live and are now even more immersed in.

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned new skills, new ways of showing empathy, new ways of communicating, new ways of managing my own and my students’ expectations. And most important, what I’ve learned this semester is going to make future semesters better, online or face-to-face. I think it’s a mistake to miss the good in the midst of the bad. We all need a few successes to hang our hats on right now. This class, for the moment, is where I’m going to hang my hat.