Saturday, May 16, 2020
May 16-17, 2020: Spring 2020 Reflections
[This would be the last week of classes, if the Spring 2020 semester had gone as scheduled. To say that it didn’t is just to scratch the surface of this chaotic, crazy, challenging spring, though. So for my usual semester recaps, this time I’ve focused on brief tributes to those folks who helped us make it through this incredibly tough time, leading up to this special weekend post of my own reflections on teaching in this new world.]
On three takeaways of mine from the most unprecedented teaching experience of my life.
1) Un-Grading: The first decision I made as I began to shift my classes (and, more exactly, my thinking) to this emergency distance instruction model (a phrase I greatly prefer to “online teaching,” which I have done many times and this most definitely was not) was that I would not be grading any of the remaining work. That is, if the students turned in said work, they would get full credit for it; I would still send extensive feedback, but not attached to (and thus not needing to justify) grades. Eventually FSU, like many institutions, offered that option (known as Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory here) for most students and classes, but I think it mattered a lot, to me as well as to the students, that I had made this emphasis clear and central from my first communications as we shifted gears. I get the concerns about an absence of grades, both immediate (students might not focus on the work) and long-term (what this will mean for GPAs, transcripts, future applications, etc.). But to be honest I believe those issues would have been in play for this semester no matter what, and that my decision to do away with grades greatly amplified my ability to focus entirely on items 2 and 3 in this post.
2) What Matters Most: The second decision I made, and one that I’ve likewise seen echoed by many voices (including those in the resources from my colleague Kisha Tracy that I highlighted earlier this week), was to make many aspects of my classes optional, including some of those that are most central to my regular pedagogy (like the weekly email responses that are an integral element of just about every class I teach). This was a significantly tougher call, as it meant for example that we would have far less in-depth conversations about most of our readings (as did my concurrent decision to make our weekly Zoom check-ins much more about questions, concerns, and community than about focusing on any particular course content). But I would argue that this was the ultimate test of what I’ve always called my student-centered pedagogy: that if my fundamental emphasis is on helping students develop their voices and perspectives and ideas, rather than on any particular readings or content, I had to reflect that emphasis through my choices in a setting where we quite simply could not do all of the things my face-to-face classes seek to do.
3) Make It Personal: One of the main such things I did still want to do was have the students complete versions of their remaining individual work: a multi-textual seminar paper in my Intro to Sci Fi/Fantasy class, their senior portfolios in English Studies Capstone, and two papers in First-Year Writing II (a comparison between two multimedia texts and a research paper). Again, these assignments wouldn’t be graded, but I wanted students to complete them, and I especially wanted them to feel meaningful rather than busy work or hoops to jump through. All of those assignments were already pretty individualized (ie, students could choose their own texts and topics), but what I tried to stress for them as clearly as I could was that they should make their work as personal as possible: connect it to ideas and issues and conversations and genres that have been and/or are significant in their own lives and identities. To put it bluntly, my most important collective academic goal for this semester—which was somewhere outside the top 10 most important goals overall—was that we all came away from it remembering the reasons why we’re in college, the value and meaning of the work we do in spaces like this. I hope in these ways that my classes offered that chance for my students, as I know it did for me.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Reflections or tributes of your own on Spring 2020?