Orienting Students in Disorienting Times and Teaching Through Traumatic Global Disruption

by John Tiedemann, Teaching Associate Professor, Writing Program

It’s tempting, given the complex and dauntingly immediate technological and logistical challenges involved in getting all our classes online all at once and immediately, to think of the transition to the spring quarter this year as a largely technical matter. However, I think it’s important, for our students’ sake, not to treat the challenges as only or even primarily technical, nor even pedagogical — at least not insofar as we think of pedagogy as the delivery of “content.” If the first week of spring is to be a “reorientation week,” then we need to think of that week as reorienting the whole student. As Jeremy recently reminded us in his talk on the “4D student,” our students are not only fledgling scholars: they’re also citizens; they’re also individuals with career paths and social lives; they’re also persons with bodies and psyches that need to be healthy and well. To put our best forward during that first week (and the weeks to come), we’ll need to think creatively about how to adapt not only the scholarly dimension of the learning experience to an online environment, but how to adapt these other social, inter- and intra-personal dimensions, too.

What’s more, we’ll need to do so in the midst of an ongoing, deeply unsettling, even traumatic global disruption. I won’t belabor the point here, but I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that all institutions of higher education, DU included, are now akin to NYU after September 11 or Tulane after Katrina. The main difference is that we are not yet in any sense “after” the coronavirus. We’re in the midst of it. A program for reorienting students to campus, then, not only cannot ignore this central fact but must address it as central. Students will be processing, in real time, an unprecedented traumatic event, while at the same time trying to figure out how to reinvent their support systems at a (so to speak) “social distance.” The spring orientation process (and the spring quarter overall) should explicitly aim to support them in this.

I am certain that my friends in Student Engagement; Health and Counseling, Housing, Academic Resources, Culture, Access, and Transitions, and elsewhere on campus are already thinking about and working on these very kinds of issues as they, too, seek to adjust to the new reality. I hope that these bodies and upper administration will look to the faculty as full partners: i.e., not only as the folks responsible for delivering the curriculum, narrowly construed, but as collaborators concerned for the development of our students in all their dimensions: as citizens, as social beings, and as individuals. This will mean creating spaces in the orientation process (and no doubt after that) where students and faculty can interact beyond our (now virtual) classrooms, for the contributions of natural and social scientists, historians and philosophers, artists and humanists, will surely be indispensable to the larger project we all face now, both globally and locally, of rebuilding our community. 

As daunting as such a project may be, it is, I believe, wholly consistent with our broader mission: to be a great private university dedicated to the public good. By moving online, the University is trying to rebuild some small part of that public; we’ll continue to need to rebuild, no doubt, even after the most immediate manifestations of the Covid-19 crisis have passed, for the consequences of  this crisis promise to be long-lasting and wide-ranging. As a member of the DU faculty and its Senate, I know that I’m not alone in my strong desire to collaborate with all the members of the broader DU community — faculty, staff, administrators, and, especially, students — as together we rebuild.