Going Big, Online (Pt 1 of series)

Large college classroom, full of studentsSo you taught a large face-to-face class (150+ students) and you now find yourself having to redesign it for an online environment, perhaps permanently. First—I can empathize with you. While I never went completely online with my classes of 275+ (what my institution called a “supersection”), all but the class meetings and some office hours were in an online environment. And I prepared most of my class meetings for online delivery just in case it was every needed.

I taught these supersections of Introduction to Sociology every semester for a decade. I’ve probably made every mistake—interactional, technological, about classroom management—that someone could make. I’ll share some of them in the next few weeks and also some of the techniques that worked well for me and for others I know who have taught large sections online.

Zoom screen with 25 people participatingSo in a series of posts, I will offer some suggestions if you didn’t make the transition during the spring but now find yourself faced with a fall large class. Let’s start the series with some questions:

-How familiar are you with the course management system offered by your institution? Can you get more training now—preferably before the course begins, if you don’t feel very comfortable with it?

-What other software can you use for your course, which is supported by your institution’s IT staff? (You really don’t want to be using software not supported during this kind of transition, with several hundred students, trust me on this. Been there, done it, lots of tears!)

-How familiar are your intended students with the course management system? Other software you want to use? Or are your students likely to be new to all or some of them? I usually taught first-year students, so they were new to our course management system and many had not used anything similar in high school. Some had a steep learning curve.

-Will you have any pedagogical help? A graduate student assistant? An embedded undergraduate peer tutor? Academic coaches? Beg and plead for all the assistance you can.

-Does your institution have an Academic Support Center? An Instructional Technology Support Center? Online Library staff? What hours will they be open during the term you are teaching? How can you and your students interact with these crucial staff members?

-Do you have required pedagogical experiences such as laboratories, service-learning, or observations in the face-to-face class? Will you transition all of those experiences in some way to the online experience?

-To the best that you can know it now, what is your institution’s plan for reopening? Are there policies being created about, for example, you being able to meet with small groups from class, in an open area, or could you reserve a smaller classroom? Will you be allowed to have in-person office hours as well as online office hours, if you wished to do so?

-Is there a chance that you could be told to deliver face-to-face AND online content for the same large section, with students choosing which content delivery they want to have on any given day, based on their health status and other choices?

-What is your institution’s plan if you get sick (and not necessarily just from Covid-19!) and are teaching online (especially important if you have no assistance)?

-What instructional materials will you use?

-Open educational resources? If so, have you read through them all? Do you have the ability to add notes/make changes to any which might conflict with how you teach the material? [I have found that students struggle mightily when what I am sharing is contradicted or even slightly different than what the text says. The last online text I used allowed me to line through any text I didn’t want them to read and insert a “text bubble” with what I wanted instead. It really helped!]

-What online resources do you have available? Does the text have online exercises or applications or visuals which you can assign? Again, have you looked at them all/watched the ones you are likely to assign?

-Are all the visual materials chosen accessible? (This will be the topic of a post in this series, so if you are not sure – I’ll help.)

-Have you looked at your selected resources on screens/monitors of several sizes? Think from a large, gaming monitor, to a standard monitor, to a phone—students should comfortably be able to access your educational materials using any of these technologies.

-How likely is it that most of your students will be enrolled in online-only courses? There can be an increasing amount of “screen fatigue” with more classes taught that way (it can happen to you, too!). Think about that as you contemplate the amount of work you are assigning.

Text says: "Make the plan, execute the plan, expect the plant to go off the rails, throw away the plan"And of course, other than knowing what CV-19 is going to do in your area, the biggest set of questions is: What is your institution’s plan for the fall? When will it be decided? And how flexible is it/will it have to be?

Here’s how I see the series unfolding, but if people suggest other topics, it could change. Some of these might be longer than usual, but to make the series useful, making it be over too many weeks won’t help much. If people would like me to do the series at a faster rate, just let me know in the comments, I can do that too!:

Week 1:  Some questions to think about

Week 2:  Designing for and with accessibility

Week 3:  Backwards designing your class, for its content and the changed circumstances of Fall 2020

Week 4:  Assessments that engage them (and you!)

Week 5:  Communication: tone, honesty, and humor

Week 6:  What classes might look like come fall and building student engagement for different options

Week 7:  I can’t believe I did that–but I did–please learn from my failures  (I might choose to weave these through each post, again, in an effort to share my pedagogical tips out quickly.)

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Now, it’s your turn

Closeup of typewriter, with the words "The end"You made it. You pivoted to teaching, learning, advising, counseling, teaching labs, and even physical education, online, with little or no time to breathe. You had to do it—and you did. Many of you did it while also becoming teacher to your own little ones, who were home with you.

Pink flower, gently opening; above it, says "It's time to take care of yourself"But as the academic term winds down, I worry about each of you. How will you decompress? What do you need to decompress? How will you heal your body and soul from the stresses of the last two months? All while knowing that the next few months might not be necessarily that different. Staring into a future that is so uncertain brings its own stresses. So before you focus on the future (summer and fall academic terms): Stop. Breathe. Take care of yourself. Take care of your loved ones. Do nothing for a while. Turn off the notifications on your phone(s).

Just be.

Saying Goodbye

Sand and wave approaching; in the sand, someone has written "Goodbye"The academic term-to-end-all-academic terms will soon be finished. It included a pandemic, a nation-wide economic crisis which touched nearly all of us, and changed how most of us in higher education, worked. Other than that – it was business as usual, right?

Classes—be they extended due to weeks for transitioning to online delivery or not—are about to be completed. First off—congratulate yourself. You did it—the ways that faculty and staff have pulled together in this extraordinary time have been inspiring to witness. Congratulate your students as well; many of them stayed with classes because classes provided one of the few stable patterns in their chaotic new “present.” But that inspiration and perspiration have also created exhaustion, incredible stress, and a myriad of emotions, for everyone.

So let’s talk about one of those emotions: saying goodbye to your students this term. I confess; I never felt that I did the “last day” very well. After going over grades, I tried to sum up key concepts and engage with students about how they could use those concepts in their professional and personal lives. But often, it was clear that students just wanted to be “done” and were very happy when I dismissed the class for the last time (save for the final exam, to be taken only by some of the students).

Quote: We don't live through live only by our own experiences, we live through life with other people's experiences as a reference too. -- Nike ThaddeusHow you end an academic term where, for many, more life experiences have been shared than ever before? This term, those “final moments” might be even more interactionally difficult: they perhaps will be on software like Zoom, where many are on at a time and so the moment has to be public in a way that a face-to-face interaction might not be. Or they might be embedded in an asynchronous posting which not all students might even read.

It might be more difficult this term because their grades might not reflect what all has happened to them, to you, to the class, and to our world. It could feel awkward awarding the grade a student earned, given all that you might have learned about her or his current situation. Prioritize kindness and humanity right now, whenever you can. So what to do in your last time with your class?

Be honest—something I hope you have been doing throughout this pandemic’s new pedagogy. Tell them if it is difficult to acknowledge that in a few days or weeks, you won’t see them regularly and will worry about them, their health, economic security, and that of their families too. Acknowledge their worries about you and yours as well.

Do you have to say “goodbye” though? I ask because you might want to understand fully the limits of the software you have been using. Will the Zoom “room” allow a student to continue to log in and talk with you after the semester is over? Can you prevent that from happening, if you want to/need to? Or if you are using your institution’s learning management system, do you understand how long the class page will stay active? If you are like me, I would “hide” my past classes and only keep current class pages visible, but that means it would be more difficult for you to notice if this term’s students checked in with you via the learning management system. They may need that ability to reach out to you and hiding the class will complicate communication. Will you encourage students to contact you via your school email? Again—some of this just involves understanding thoroughly the tools you have been using. And sharing that knowledge with students, so that they know how to stay in touch if they wish to do so (and you concur).

What about advisees? Especially those who are about to graduate? With most public moments to celebrate canceled, there will be fewer opportunities to congratulate them, wish them well, and celebrate their successes. Can your department or program host a virtual party and invite them to attend? Or can you do a smaller one for your advisees? Could you start an official Facebook (or perhaps Instagram) account which would allow them to choose to follow you? There you could post job announcements, link to articles about job hunting (in general or in the post-pandemic job market), and would allow you to encourage and support them in the days and weeks ahead. It could also create a social network for them to connect with each other as they spread out across the country.

back of beige envelope; it is closed and sealed with red waxOne of the things I did the moment it became clear that our country (or most of it) was headed for shelter-in-place guidelines was to buy a large number of blank cards. For the price of a stamp (which helps out the US Postal Service—an organization that desperately needs our support), I can stay in touch with former students and graduates who I know are on the job market. I’ve offered to review/edit resumes and be a reference. Most importantly, I’ve offered to just listen as they game out their job search.

It won’t be easy, no matter how you and your students say goodbye. Give yourself time to process your feelings, time to decompress from what has happened, time to just breathe. Celebrate their successes, and yours. Next week will come and it might mean time to begin to prepare for summer or fall classes.

But Spring 2020 will be one for the history books. You made it. They made it. You all persevered. Give yourself permission to have mixed emotions as it ends. Have them, feel them, reach out, and share them. Know your students will not soon forget you, how you pivoted to face the pandemic and how you taught them—and not just the academic content. You taught them and learned from them what being human is all about—the good, the confusing, the anxiousness, the fear, and the ability to focus, even if it was for just a few minutes at a time.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.






COVID-19, Transitioning to Online Learning, and Emotions: Yours and Your Students’

I had planned on this week’s post being about how a leader can help build a community of teaching practice. But current events have made me rethink that topic and I’ll shift it to a future post. Sorry for the length – I hope these thoughts can help.

Image of COVID-19 virus; image from CDCThe coronavirus is shaping—at least for the near future—higher education. Many schools are canceling face-to-face classes and shifting them online. For those faculty who have taught online before, this can be stressful, but for those who never have, it must be unnerving, frightening, and overwhelming. There are lots of resources if you are in that situation (I’ll put some of them at the end of this post) but what I want to talk about is the emotions of shifting classes online—for you, the faculty member, and for your students.

Your Own Emotional Work

Text: Be scared and do it anywayIt is okay to feel overwhelmed with teaching online. It can feel that way when one chooses to shift to online classes; being forced to might only amplify the emotion. This suddenness only complicates the situation. Recognize that you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. I also understand that at this moment, knowing others are feeling the same way doesn’t help all that much, necessarily. What you likely feel you need right now is a technological elf who will come and set up your classes, not just solidarity with others who are feeling stressed! So know yourself—what do you need to minimize feeling overwhelmed and begin to shift to making forward progress on the transition? Within reason, give yourself what you need to begin to work through this.

If you are wondering if your students’ learning experience will be different now, the answer is “yes.” But different does not necessarily mean “worse.” You might end up liking the fact that students will have to do more “conversing” in online discussion groups than they would have done in class (where conversations are often dominated by a few individuals). So don’t deny your concerns but also don’t let them get in the way of brainstorming creative ways to finish the academic term.

LMS imageIf you have not taught online before nor played around in your institution’s learning management system (LMS), it’s time to start. If you need to create an account, do so immediately. Most schools are ramping up IT support, so call if you need help. Remember, you will not be the only person asking for help and it’s okay to seek out experts. Your goal is to get online quickly and “correctly” (i.e., in ways that students who have used the LMS before will be expecting), so don’t be worried about bothering them. And by the way—write down your institution’s IT numbers and your LMS’ help hotline numbers, so that you have them handy.

For me, feeling comfortable would entail making several “to do” lists (one for each class and a master list). While not everyone feels the same way, I feel less overwhelmed when I write down tasks that need to be done. What might be on the master list? All tasks that I will need to double-check for every class (e.g., did I create dates for the beginning and ending of all assessments?; did I post the revised syllabus in several places online for each class?, did I post a notice about how grading might change due to the coronavirus, etc.).

Everyone will be different—are you someone who would like to do the same task for every class before you move on to the next task? Or do you want to finish one class before moving on to the next one you have to get online? You might have to redefine what “finish” means, however, depending on your particular institution’s timeline for shifting to online classes. “Finish” might mean setting short-term goals (e.g., have content for the next two weeks of classes for all classes posted) versus working on one class’ content, when that class may extend for six or eight more weeks.

Everyone will be stressed—your students, university staff tasked with helping make these transitions to online teaching and learning, university administration, and you. So be kind. Rethink the pedagogical necessity of every assignment. Give yourself permission to eliminate some, given how the virus has changed the social context of learning.


Communication Anxieties

Three thought bubbles with words, "Frequently Asked Questions"Consider writing your class a letter and “pin” it to the opening of your class. The tone of the letter should be “we’re in this and we’ll get through it, together.” Let them know you understand that many are worried about their own families, their economic status, their health and that of their loved ones, and how this shift to online learning will impact their grades. Let them know that you’ll be around more—answering questions, reading discussion threads, and so on. If you want to create a “Frequently Asked Questions” discussion board (something I would encourage you to do now and which I did in every hybrid classes I taught), link directly to it in your letter. Tell the class that you will try to log into that FAQ at least twice a day and you’ll respond to questions and clarify any misinformation which might have been posted. Let students ask anything they want and let other students respond—but once a day, post your answers/clarifications. That way you don’t have to respond to each student’s posting. But I would encourage you to reply directly to any post which does have incorrect information, either about institutional responses to the coronavirus or to your specific class. Be gentle as you correct information, don’t be overly aggressive with the student.

Many students might worry about how to communicate with you privately. While it will be easier on you if you ask them to contact you only within the learning management system (LMS), recognize that many will not, either because they forgot or that they may not know how to send an email within the LMS. So check your campus email frequently as well as the email within the LMS. Be gentle in your replies to those using your campus email—don’t snap at them (even if you might feel it every now and then). You might consider adding an email signature that explains how to write an email in the LMS or add an attached slide showing how to do it.

Chalkboard-like image that says, "Announcements"Some students will want to know everything about the changes to the course—right now, if not yesterday. And while you might share their concerns, you might well not have all the answers. I suggest you be transparent—share what you know officially as soon as you know it. That might mean that you use the “Announcement” tool which most LMSs have as your mechanism to share “official updates.” If it is easier, just copy and paste all news that is meant to be shared with students right there. The tool will send it out to all students or will show it when the students next log on to the LMS. Be sure to include the date and maybe even the time when you posted the content—things are moving fast in terms of the virus and how institutions are coping with it, so it will help to identify when the information was posted.

Recognize that some students will struggle with your answering their questions with “I don’t know that yet either.” They might feel the need to have firm answers to their process questions in order to be able to settle in, concentrate, and learn. So expect a few students to keep reaching out to you. Again, be kind with your replies—they are trying to cope in ways that make sense to them about an event where there are so many unknowns.

Stay in touch with students, more than you might otherwise. Let them know that you are “out there” and are wanting to know how they are feeling and how things are going. Open that communicative “door” often. Those who reach back are many of those who need you the most, at that moment. Be there for them.

Desk with computer and phone on it; text says "Online office hours"Consider having more online office hours than you might have had in-person ones, not fewer ones. I used my LMS’ Chat tool for a ‘live” experience or tell students you will be in an “online office hour discussion board” during the following hours. Tell them any question is okay—that you’ll answer what you can and crowdsource some tech questions which you might not know how to answer. Then send those questions to your IT staff for answers! Know that you might sometimes be alone, but having the hours will mean a lot to students, even if they don’t use them.

Technology Anxieties

Expect that students—especially those who have not enrolled in hybrid or online classes before—might struggle with understanding the in’s and out’s of your institution’s LMS. Hopefully your institution will offer a “quick introduction” for these students. But have the URL ready to send to any student who might need it. You might even consider adding it as a part of your email signature. Or consider creating a few “pertinent links” which you include at the start of every communication you have with students. That way students can easily find what they need to locate, thanks to you.

Be generous with your deadlines and your procedures for students turning in assessments. Yes, students should upload a written document via the Assessment tool, but many might not understand how to do that. Please, this is not a time to believe all the hype that this generation is hyper-connected and therefore should know everything about technology. Take the time to explain each step (PowerPoint or other presentation slides can be a lifesaver for this kind of knowledge-sharing). But in case someone doesn’t do it correctly, give students an “out.” Perhaps tell them that you require them to upload assessments via the assessment tool but you will also allow for a grace period (determine how long you want it to be and put it in the directions of the assessment) where a student could send the assessment to you via LMS email. Yes, it will likely mean that some students send it to you twice, but if it calms their anxiety, it will be worth it.

Consider what content you decide to “open” to students and when. Students new to the software may not think to look for due dates, so consider guiding them by only opening the content which is only needed during the first week of online teaching and learning. As students get more comfortable with the software, you could always open more content for those who might want to work ahead.

Consider a “technology bonus.” What do I mean? Think about giving all students in the class bonus points (maybe even a substantial one) for coping with new technological ways of having to learn. Yes, this could be an artificial ‘bump’ in grades, but so what? These are unusual times and offering this makes you seem humane and understanding of their concerns.

A few additional technological pieces of advice: 1) Think in small bites of information. What might have worked for your 75 minute in-class slide presentation/talk will need to be posted in sections, once you start adding in audio and text. Best practices say to think in 5-15 minute sections, with 10 minutes being ideal; 2) Caption everything. It’s the law. But especially if you are having to create content at home, with a less-than-stellar microphone, you will want to caption the content in case the audio is not that great. And realize that students who might be stuck in dorms or their homes might have to listen to your content when others are around, so they might need the volume to be lower than they’d like. Having content captioned will help everyone to master the content you want them to learn. Be sure you explain to students or show them how to turn on the captioning though – different technologies do it differently.

Learning Anxieties

Stressed studentMany students will be worried about how their learning (and your teaching) will be impacted by the shift to online teaching. Talk with them about this in your letter to them and your posts. Some students who are very verbal in class might be worried that they are not strong writers and therefore might do less well on discussion board assessments which you might be creating. One way to minimize their worries is to post a few examples of strong, good, and weak discussion posts written by you, so that all students can see exactly what level of detail, engagement with texts, and length of response will earn what kind of grade. Be encouraging with all students, especially on the first discussion assessment you create. Gently guide but let them know you are proud that they made the transition and are trying to show their learning in this (potentially) new way.

Conversely, other students might be excited to be able to write their thoughts versus having to talk in class. So expect that some students will blossom in online discussions. One tip: don’t say to such a student, “Why didn’t you share these kinds of insights in class?” You’ll be exhausted during this transition and these kinds of comments may come to you—so set your internal filter a bit higher, so that you don’t post them. Don’t beat yourself up for having such thoughts, if you do, but please police your public comments to students.

Beware of the Emotional Rollercoaster:  The Invisibles, the Not There So Much Students, and Other Worries

One of the worries shared by every faculty member who teaches online is that some students just never log on or others start well but then over time their engagement falls off precipitously. When you also see that same student in a face-to-face class, it’s easy to pull him or her aside and say “Hey, what’s happening?” But that’s nearly impossible online, for one specific reason—no matter how many check-up messages you send the student, if the student isn’t logging on, then the disconnect will continue. Here’s where you might want to ask your institution a strategic question about pedagogy: Will they have anyone (working remotely) whose job will be to contact students in other ways (likely via phone or text messaging) to assess what is happening with the student and perhaps coach the student through whatever technological or personal blocks might be happening to keep the student from doing better in the course? And if your institution does have this as part of its plan, how should you as a faculty member share information about a student who is concerning you?

Don’t assume these students “don’t care” about your class. That is usually not even true in a normal academic term, but this is far from a normal term. A student might have deliberately chosen face-to-face classes because of limited internet access, only to now have every class moved online. There might be economic or health or family pressures (or some combination) that have overwhelmed the student. Remember, some work-study students or those with campus jobs might now be scrambling to find work, while campuses are closed. They may not be able to prioritize online learning right now.

Female student, sitting on bed, looking morose, surrounded by books, notebooks, and phoneFor other students, the loneliness of having no social interaction with peers might engulf them and they might not have coping skills to manage the transition to online courses in addition to everything else going on in their lives. [An aside: you might want to find out if your institution will be offering online counseling services during the campus shutdown. If it is, always include the information on how to access that in all communication with your students.] If or when (hopefully, it is when!) a student returns to your online environment, again, be gentle and see if there are ways to adjust the schedule to help the student to succeed in learning your course content. Normally I am pretty firm about deadlines, but these are not normal times and kindness needs to outweigh steadfastness to norms.

If you can, check-in with seniors who are about to graduate whom you know, whether they are in your classes or not. They most of all might be on edge—worried about if the term might be canceled and they won’t be graduating, and/or worried about the worsening economy as the virus not only decimates people’s lives but our economy as well. Take the minute or two to write an e-mail, if you can—they will appreciate it. If you have advisees, try a mass e-mail to all and more detailed emails to those who have particular curricular issues that may be impacted by this health/educational situation. Let them know that you are thinking about them and that you will be ready to help once the coronavirus situation has been resolved.

Text: Be kind to others, be kind to yourselfMy overall guidance—be kind, be gentle…to yourself, to your students, to teaching and learning staff and instructional technology staff, and to your support system. While in one way you are figuring all this out for your classes, there are thousands of faculty just like you, making the same decisions, dealing with the same “What now?” feelings. Reach out–help is close by. Don’t go it alone. I am happy to help anyone, either sharing what I know or helping to connect you to others who know more than I do. Just reach out in the comments. Good luck.

Here are some resources which might help you. Thanks to all the scholars who are sharing, not hoarding, information.

Google Document put together by Teaching and Learning Centers across the country. Links can be accessed for help.

Google Document on Teaching in the context of COVID-19 (lots of useful links)

Google Document: Resources for Online Meetings, Classes, and Events by Facilitators for Pandemic Response Group and other collaborators

Barbara Smith’s Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/nanaslugdiva/status/1236005712020426752

Mapping Access’ Accessible Teaching in the Time of Covid-19 by Aimi Hamraie

Online Learning’s article by Saltz and Heckman on “Using Structured Pair Activities in a Distributed Online Breakout Room”

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start” by Michelle D. Miller

Dr. Paige Harden’s Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/kph3k/status/1237383704311476224

The Teaching Professor article by Molly Barnet and Linda A, PhD on YouTube and Creating Videos

Katie Linder’s free online community, “Keep Teaching: Resources for Higher Ed” to share knowledge about academic continuity (will require registration)

Online Teaching with the Most Basic of Tools—Email” – post on the Explorations in The Ed Tech World blog by Dr. Tannis Morgan

Sean Michael Morris’ Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/slamteacher/status/1236036921488367616

Some Resources for Online Teaching from the Wabash Center Resource Collection

InsideHigherEd article: So You Want to Temporarily Teach Online by Stephanie Moore and Charles B. Hodges

Some video captioning links:

University of Washington accessibility tips on captioning

Social Media Examiner blog

Google on how to caption YouTube videos

TechSmith blog on how to caption

How To Find Teaching Colleagues

So, you are still struggling to find a community of teaching practice. Now what? In this post I’ll offer some ideas about what to do and in next week’s post I’ll suggest what departmental leaders—chairs or heads—might do to create such a community.

If you followed my advice from last week, you might have found a few individuals who seem to care about pedagogy and using the scholarship of teaching and learning in their classes. First, a few suggestions about how not to communicate with these colleagues:

Text says "Snobs" with the red circle over it which symbolizes "No"-Don’t say “No one seems interested in pedagogy and teaching on this campus, except me. But I’m hoping I could persuade you to start caring about your teaching. Want to get together?” I don’t think most of us would say that, but I have seen someone come pretty close to it once. What you don’t want to seem is elitist or a better teacher just wanting to show up everyone else.

Two Caucasian females, whispering-Don’t badmouth your institution. What do I mean? Don’t start off your email with: “I can’t believe this place doesn’t have a Teaching and Learning Center—what is wrong with it?” Your goal is to find faculty who care about teaching. Those faculty may or may not agree with administrative funding decisions. Focus on what you want—finding people who want to talk about teaching—and only that.

-Don’t assume that they don’t care about their students. I think it’s better to assume that every faculty member does care about the success of their students. But people could well be overwhelmed with their teaching load, their advising load, work/life balance, health issues, family life, life on the road as an adjunct, their research, politics in the US right now, sleep deprivation, and so on. Also remember you are likely unaware of most of the ways they are helping students (because few of us know about how we help students because we don’t share our ideas), and you don’t want to alienate an ally. So be kind when you craft your message to colleagues.

If so, it’s time to see if you can pull them together. I’d suggest sending a group email (with addresses public) like this:

Black and white image of outline of human body; text says "Let me introduce myself"“[Sentence or two to introduce yourself.] Want to get together to share ideas about teaching? Let’s find a time when many of us can get together at (insert name of a good  place for relaxing conversations on or near campus). I know we’re all busy, but I hope that you can join us for exchanging ideas about teaching. I look forward to seeing you.”

Screen capture of a meeting polling software, which shows 4 individuals and what time they can and cannot make meetingIf your school’s email system allows you to add a poll about meeting dates (either via a 3rd party software like Doodle or an internal option), then I suggest you try that. Nothing can annoy individuals more than a protracted email back and forth between several people who are trying to find an acceptable time to meet. One more suggestion: be sure that the times which you suggest parallel your institution’s class schedule. You’ll likely get fewer people to come if your meet-up if it crosses two different class periods. I’d recommend sending one additional email invitation and then a reminder email only to those who said they are coming.

Another idea to consider is to see if your institution has a listserv for faculty and staff where you might post a similar message. These are usually moderated, so expect that it might take up to 24 hours to get posted and build that time into your dissemination schedule. Don’t forget that many staff teach/adjunct for their own institution and care about student success.

You might want to invite all individuals in your department/academic unit. Since they are your “closest neighbors” by inviting all of them, it will be less likely to be perceived as you “picked” only some colleagues and not others. A flyer or a more personalized version of the email would be fine to put in their campus mailbox.

Green couch. Text says "Small groups, because life is better when you're doing it together"Don’t worry if there are only a few individuals who come to your first meet up. Small isn’t bad—just don’t assume that others who couldn’t make it don’t care about teaching. There’s research, service commitments (committee meetings, etc.), and so many other reasons why a faculty member might not be able to make one specific date.

Keep trying…and remember, as I said last week, there are also online colleagues who would welcome conversations about pedagogy. Write to me—I’d love to start a conversation!

Next week I’ll offer some advice for department heads/chairs about how they can build a community of teaching practice in their academic unit. Till then, add a comment about how you have reached out to your institutional colleagues to start teaching conversations.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.


Building a Community of Teaching Practice

White male, alone in room, sitting on chair. His head braced on arms, elbows on knees. Dejected lookingIs this you? You are in an academic unit where conversations about pedagogy happen infrequently, if ever. You long to grab a cup of coffee or tea and sit and talk about teaching with colleagues. You feel alone and isolated and worry your lack of pedagogical conversations might be limiting your students’ success.

Red background, white font that says "Find your people"It sounds like you’ll have to find your “teaching people” then. So how to start? Let’s get the obvious out of the way first—is there a teaching and learning center on campus? The staffs of such centers are there because they believe in sharing the practice of teaching and want to partner with more faculty to examine teaching scientifically and to use the scholarship of teaching and learning in the classroom. Put differently, they are committed to evidence-based analysis of teaching and learning and then using data to implement changes in pedagogy.

Wordle about teaching and learning centers and key tasks they do for and with faculty and students-If your campus has such a center, go…now. You’ll find people who love to think and talk about teaching as well as lots of resources to help you. Unfortunately though, on some campuses, such centers are perceived to be for those who “don’t teach well.” Don’t let that false assumption stop you. Teaching and learning centers are for those faculty and staff who are dedicated to creating student learning and student success. That means they are committed to testing pedagogical ideas—and helping faculty to pick themselves up if they fail, only to try again. They will listen to your ideas, ask a lot of questions, and encourage you to try new pedagogical strategies when—and only when—they make pedagogical sense in the context of your courses.

But if your institution doesn’t have a teaching and learning center, the journey to create a community of teaching practice will be harder. What to do? Here are some suggestions:

Picture of ear and hand around it, in a "listening" position-Listen to students, before and after your class. Whose classes do they say challenge them? Excite them? Interest them? And whose do they say are boring or “the easy A?” Remember the names of the faculty who challenge and excite your students.

Busy hallway outside of classroom; full of people-If you can, walk around the hallways, listening as others teach. Do you hear individuals who—irrespective of disciplinary content—teach in ways you’d like to consider teaching? Maybe it’s that they utilize active learning or group activities in ways that you are not yet doing? Don’t be afraid to lurk, and not just in the building you normally teach in. Go to where faculty from other disciplines teach too.

-Does your institution give a teaching award? If so, locate the last few awardees and ask if you could sit in on a class or two. Then see if you can talk with them about what you observed. Ask them about other faculty who are innovative teachers.

Adams University Instructional Technology Center-Contact your Instructional Technology department (it might be called by another name). Ask for some faculty contacts who are using technology in what they perceive to be innovative ways. Feel free to explain why you are asking. If you are teaching hybrid or online courses, this might be your best, first option.

-If there are other institutions nearby, look up similar academic units on their campus. I think it would be a rare teaching and learning center which would turn down helping a faculty member at a nearly educational site. Admittedly, the center might be less able to share resources with you, but time talking should be fine.

Near bottom of slide are about thirty figures of people, all in black shadow. Above them are the icons for many online communities, such as Facebook, etc.-Look for online groups. Sociology, for example, has several Facebook groups devoted to pedagogical interests (see the end of this post for links to some of them). Usually, there are some screening questions before one can join, but the process is fairly painless. Often there are several posts a day. They might be from people asking for pedagogical ideas to teach a specific concept; others might be asking for classroom management tips, or the poster might be sharing how a pedagogical strategy “went” in class. Such groups typically have a search function, so that you can find past comments about a teaching strategy you are interested in trying in class.

Academic Twitter -- the blue bird that is Twitter's icon wearing a black mortarboard-Academic Twitter also is a great place to look for pedagogical conversations (in byte-size pieces, admittedly!). Look for some discipline-specific twitter accounts but here are some exceptional higher education accounts to follow:

@AcademicChatter – connect with grad students, ECRs, and senior academics

@BarbiHoneycutt – her account; lots of techniques on breaking up lectures, etc.

@CathyNDavidson – her account

@cirtlnetwork – Advancing the teaching of STEM disciplines

@deandad – Matt Reed’s account (formerly “Dean Dad” columnist at IHE, now uses own name)

@dgooblar – David Gooblar’s account (columnist at The Chronicle)

@Katie_Linder – her account

@KenBain1 – his account

@NEH_ODH – NEH Digital Humanities account

@PSUOpenCoLab – praxis-oriented lab focused on innovative, student-centered pedagogy

@saragoldrickrab – Sara Goldrick-Rab’s account

@teachingcollege – encourages engagement with scholarship on teaching

@ThomasJTobin – his account; going alt-ac; accessibility and universal design

@tressiemcphd – Tressie McMillan Cottom’s account

So readers, what are your favorite online sources to get pedagogical support or inspiration? Share in the comments. And next week, we’ll discuss how to start your own teaching circle/teaching support group.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Resources To Get You Started

Agile Learning – blog by Derek Bruff

Chronicle of Higher Education (some articles behind paywall)

Inside Higher Ed

SOTL by Design

The Teaching Professor

Facebook Groups – Sociology

https://www.facebook.com/groups/teachingsoc — Teaching with a Sociological Lens

https://www.facebook.com/groups/371311144336/ — Shared Teaching Resources for Sociology

https://www.facebook.com/Sociology-23816907516/ — Sociology

https://www.facebook.com/socimages/ — Sociological Images

https://www.facebook.com/sociologyatwork/ — Sociology at Work

Facebook Groups – Pedagogy

https://www.facebook.com/groups/lecturebreakers/ — Lecture Breakers

https://www.facebook.com/groups/48984828263/ – Curriculum & Pedagogy

Facebook Groups – Higher Ed






Department Politics: Getting Help

In the past three weeks I have talked about how to be a good senior colleague, a good junior colleague, and an effective leader. So it’s time to talk about what to do if there’s ongoing tension in your department or academic unit.

Photo of person, head on desk. Says, "If drama follows you wherever you go, maybe you are the drama.First off, this has to be said. Are you sure that it’s not about you, at least partially? Take a week or so and really examine your behaviors and attitudes. Are you contributing to an escalation in tension? To its maintenance? Be honest here—it’s often hard to see how we might be supplying some of the oxygen for the departmental drama. You might want to ask your mentors for their opinions and really listen to what they say. Talk with your departmental leader (unless he or she is part of the tension) and ask the same question.

Black t-shirt which says, "Be the adult in the room"Are you acting like the adult in the room? Are you being kind to others involved in the tension (especially in front of students), no matter what their behavior might be toward you? Have you tried at least twice to have private conversations about the tension, as a way to cool things down?

Have you analyzed what seems to be the issue? Is a generational change in power happening? Is there an ideological divide at the core of the tension? Is the power in the department shifting between various academic disciplines? Does it seem to be a personality clash? Where did the tension first start? Was it at work or after-hours socializing? If it was the latter, was a substance like alcohol involved? If it was, might it have distorted behavior at the time and memories after the fact?

But regardless of the “why”—the tension exists and often interferes with how we go about our job. When arriving on campus causes you anxiety, fear, tears, or nausea—things are bad, regardless of the cause. So what can one do?

-Keep doing your job to the best that you can. Try not to give anyone a reason to think less of you. Be on time to classes and meetings; hold office hours; meet with students; treat students and colleagues well; do all administrative paperwork on time. Be a good colleague in every way you can, despite the stress.

Anxious African American female, looking at computer, holding up sign that says "help"-Identify campus resources that could be helpful which are outside of your department. These could include Human Resources, the campus mediation team, the Social Equity office, or the counseling center. Do your homework about these, however. Many persons outside of academe say that the mission of corporate Human Resources is to take care of the organization and its “brand” more than to help solve interpersonal issues. So talk with your mentors and other faculty, without sharing the actual issues, about the reputation and interventional strategies used by HR, Social Equity, and the mediation team. You want to gain a sense of how these organizations work and to whom they report as you consider which one(s) might be most helpful to you in trying to solve the departmental tension.

Two females, having coffee. Text says "You don't have to do it alone"-Many times, campus resources allow the faculty member to bring in an advocate who can be there with you. So do your homework and read about these academic units’ policies. If an advocate is allowed, I suggest bringing the person of your choice to every meeting you have, including the first one. If you don’t have someone in mind, consider looking at the teaching and learning staff, the staff at centers focused on race, gender, sexualities, religious studies, and international studies for possible allies—they are more likely to have training in assessing power dynamics.

Spiral notebook open to blank page; fountain pen on it, waiting to be used-Write everything down. I suggest you keep a notebook and divide it into two sections. The first should be—to the best you can—a blow by blow account of events causing tension. Don’t edit anything out but also don’t embellish. Think of this section as “just the facts” (as you perceive them). The second section should be how the events made you feel. But be careful not to blend the two sections, to the extent that you can. Keep the notebook off campus (i.e., in your car, etc.), even if that means you have to write ‘in the moment’ notes during the day and recopy them to the notebook at night.

Man holding up phone, text says "Dangers of oversharing"-This might be controversial, but I strongly suggest that you keep details of the tension to yourself, your advocate, and the chain of command only. Have friendly colleagues who will support you without you having to share all the details with them. If you need to vent, choose people who don’t work at your institution. I realize others will disagree and will suggest sharing details with many others at your institution so that what is happening becomes well known. Think through your decision; either one will have consequences.

Small silver trinket, says "celebrate the little victories"-Remember, partial victories can be better than total defeats. It can be a good thing to be perceived as someone who is willing to compromise strategically. Of course, what constitutes a partial victory, matters. Giving in to systems of oppression because they have worn you down is no victory at all. Compromising in ways that change systems of oppression, even somewhat, is a win. Take it. Celebrate it.

So ultimately the best advice I have is to take care of yourself. The stress of being caught up in departmental tension can be horrific. So pay attention to your body. Rest if you need to and be proactive about staying physically and emotionally healthy. Don’t go overboard, be it with food, alcohol or other substances, or even exercise. It can be tempting to do so because they at least are in your control and can (seem to) give comfort, whereas the tension is not under your control. Next week’s blog will have more self-care ideas.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.