Using What We’ve Learned to Navigate Our New-But-Not-Yet-Normal

Using What We’ve Learned to Navigate Our New-But-Not-Yet-Normal

Written by Dr. Virginia Pitts, Director of University Teaching

On August 19-20, faculty members from across DU gathered in the Anderson Academic Commons for an institute titled “Don’t Lose It, Use It: Bringing What You Created for Your Online Teaching Into Your Face-to-Face Fall”. As the facilitator of this event, it was my privilege to reflect along with these amazing faculty members on all we had learned over the previous academic year, during which everyone had worked so hard to “make it work” with online and hyflex and hybrid teaching in the middle of a pandemic.

Now that we are well into the Fall quarter, the truth of the matter is that we are still working hard to make it work. One of my favorite parts about the return to our face-to-face fall has been running into dear friends and colleagues as I walk across campus, and as we check in with each other I’m finding it tricky to answer the question “how are you doing?” – on the one hand, it is so good to be back in so many ways, but at the same time I am feeling rather disoriented and overwhelmed. I recently read a blog by Luchen Li that talked about how students, with the return to a more fully face-to-face fall, might experience something akin to “reverse culture shock”, that is, “the unsettled feeling many people experience when they return to their home culture after time spent in another”, and that resonated with me. Perhaps that is what many of us are experiencing as we return to a space that was once so familiar when we ourselves have changed. And of course, in many ways, the space has changed as well (which is why the title of blog I wrote last fall on “What to Do When It All Seems New” still feels so relevant!).

And yet, one of my big takeaways from the Don’t Lose It institute was that so much of what we learned over this previous year – not only about teaching, but about our students and ourselves – can still be so valuable and so relevant as we continue to move forward into this new and ever-evolving normal. To illustrate that, here are just a few of the highlights from participants’ reflections on what we learned over the last year that we hope to carry forward:

  • We learned how important it is to foster connections with our students (and how much they value it!) … and found many new ways to do this.

It’s not that the notion of connection being important is entirely new to any of us – it’s just that last year, when we were physically distant from each other so much of the time (and when so many were experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and heartache and even trauma – which is still the case in many instances), the need for connection was particularly salient. Many of us found ourselves showing up more fully as humans and inviting students to show up as their “full selves” too.

Faculty members in the institute talked about how they communicated care for – and established connections with – their students through regularly checking-in via individual emails, or conducting wellness surveys at multiple points throughout the quarter (as discussed in this blog by Scott Leutenegger), or replacing a class period or two with individual one-on-one meetings with students, or having informal check-ins with small groups of students over virtual lunch or coffee, and hoped to continue versions of these practices moving forward.

(For more, you might check out this podcast in which Laura Sponsler and her students talk about creating community and connection in an online classroom, as so much of what they discuss applies to our current context as well!)  

  • We learned the value of being more flexible … but realize we must now intentionally choose to do this in a way that is manageable/sustainable.

This last year, we became more flexible when it came to deadlines for assignments, allowing spaciousness to accommodate the fact that so many of our students were dealing with the direct and indirect impacts of the multiple pandemics. We provided more options for assessments, often providing a variety of ways in which students could represent what they had learned beyond our more traditional assessments … and while in many cases this arose from necessity (when we were not able to give in-person exams), it allowed us to discover ways of assessing that were both more meaningful and accessible. We invited students to choose among different possible modalities for participating (where students often had the option to participate in synchronous or asynchronous activities, virtual or in-person activities), and offered different means of connecting with us (email, Zoom, online office hours, chat, etc.) … and having these options allowed us to discover the affordances of these different modalities/ways of connecting when it comes to engaging students.

The challenge now, of course, is that continuing to offer this level of flexibility can be so exhausting as to not be sustainable, and some of these are options we are no longer able to offer in many cases (such as the option for students to participate in class either in person or virtually). Also challenging is the fact that many of our students have become accustomed to – and are proactively asking for – such flexibility (when the option is not always there to provide it!). While we did not come up with all of the answers to addressing these challenges in the institute, we did talk about the value of prioritizing – that is, rather than feeling like one has to continue “doing it all”, choosing one or two or three ways in which you might carry forward with what you learned/did last quarter that potentially have the greatest impact in service of what you care about most, and communicating to students why you chose those things, which leads to another main learning ….

  • We got clarity around what we cared about most when it comes to student learning, and we got better at “keeping the most important thing the most important thing”.

Last year, many faculty members found it was impossible to cover/do everything in their courses they had originally hoped to cover/do. In many cases, this forced clarity around what our most important learning goals were for students (we talk about this as our “north star” in the Course Design Institute I lead), and required letting go of those things that didn’t serve those goals (you might check out this blog on “Deciding What Do You Teach When You Can’t Teach It All” for more on this topic). And in an effort to ensure that what they were spending time teaching (and what students were spending time learning) was as meaningful and relevant as possible – again, given that it was impossible to “do it all” – many faculty members also decided to amplify the connection between their courses and all that is happening in our world at this point in time, engaging in their students in collective sense-making and conversation about how to navigate our current context.

Many faculty members in the institute talked about their hope of hanging onto this focus on “keeping the most important thing the most important thing” moving forward.  At the very least, this focus on one’s “north star” can help make decisions about how to adapt as necessary to our evolving context … and, as we let go of those things that don’t serve our essential purpose, it may just make it possible to create more space for those other things that are so important/valuable, such as creating a sense of connection I talked about above or providing – and supporting students in – making choices in how to engage.   

Overall, my observation is that, in this last year, we learned a lot about how to learn together. We became more willing to talk about our challenges and doubts and struggles (which requires a level of risk-taking and vulnerability that is not always common in the academic context!), more willing to extend grace to each other and ourselves, and more willing to invite others (including our students) into the conversation and engage them in figuring out how to move forward. My hope is that that is something we can hang onto … and my belief is that it is this practice of learning from and with each other that can act as our true north star as we move forward.