Teaching through the pandemic – A Brit’s view from the US.
Written by: Stephan Caspar, Assistant Teaching Professor in Media Creation and Multicultural Studies, Director – Askwith Kenner Global Languages and Cultures Room, Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences | Carnegie Mellon University
It feels like a lifetime ago that news surfaced of a rapidly growing global pandemic and as we hurriedly prepared for the approaching storm, it seemed the virus was already spreading among us, so schools closed, and we stayed home. In the weeks and months after, our health services, government, work and education have been tested and strained, fractures and divisions have appeared, but in others it has reasserted values of unity and thoughtfulness, community and solidarity.
At this point in my life, I find myself in Pittsburgh, in the US, a teaching professor in a large private university, here with my family, a long way from home. It has been a strange time for all of us, and like other people, we have struggled through the uncertainty, anxiously watching the news and listening to advice. We have our routines, our shopping schedule, we are cautious of meeting others, we have adapted our way of working. We have played games, dressed up for Sunday lunch, read books, painted pictures, learned new skills, watched a lot of television and just possibly come together more as a family.
I have carried on teaching, moving my class to a remote setting, taught online with weekly video lessons in Zoom. Now into the summer, I’ve taken two groups through to completion, with adapted outcomes and revised syllabus. My experience in technology for learning, and producing online courses equipped me for some elements of the move, but this felt in many ways like I was being introduced to something new. My assumptions were checked by a few articles, reminding me of the great inequality between students, those with access to computers and those without, those in safe and stable homes, those coping with difficult households, in conditions that challenged the notion that everyone at home would be able to engage, participate and learn. I could see it in my students’ faces, as differing levels of stress and anxiety took over, amid disrupted sleep, loss of independence and relentless number of online calls.
We quickly moved to a model of asynchronous learning to be completed when possible and synchronous meetings where we could at least come together once a week to share our experiences and talk through learning. I revised my lessons, threw myself into writing, talked to colleagues to see how to try to support these learners. There were some creative suggestions, we had fun with dressing up and making challenges, moustaches, pass the banana (from screen to screen). There were empty weeks too where it was clear that minds were on other things, a few blank screens or no shows, with hurried emails to make sure everything was okay; and then there were moments where children, pets and family joined in unexpectedly (always the highlight of a session) and we shared the absurdity of the situation. We welcomed brilliant guest speakers, generously giving their time, we used what we had to hand, and we tried to minimize talking and concentrate on doing.
During this time, I referred more students to support than ever before, lent an ear to worries, listened and helped a best I could. A toll has been taken, each week with rising concerns of wellbeing and the mental health of my students. Some struggled badly, we ran food packages to one or two staying in student accommodation, some literally afraid to venture out of their rooms. I also knew students where family members were showing symptoms, were self-isolating or heading to hospital for tests and treatment.
As I checked in with each of my students, a picture was forming of the massive amount of screen time, the lack of consistency in the teaching they were receiving and the support they were afforded by each teacher or faculty. Some colleagues double-down, shaming students for not showing up or turning webcams on, others insisting on high stakes exams, afraid that their online teaching would dilute the learning that seminars and lectures provided, so increasing the workload, adding new assignments, hoping to keep students busy and on task. This lack of consistency could be seen in the technology too, thinking that zoom could be a surrogate for classroom delivery, that readings and text could be posted to google docs or canvas in great swathes, to make up for a perceived loss of time and engagement.
I also saw good things, as colleagues reached out for me, some overwhelmed, some new to the technology, others instinctively looking for a way to better support students, ease workloads, move from high stakes to low stakes, better understand the conditions and concerns of their students. These instructors were thanked, for their flexibility, their kindness and the empathy they showed. These are the heroes of last semester.
During this time, at home too I saw people embrace learning in a way that has surprised me, with social media filled with art tutorials, guitar lessons, design and craft, homemade science experiments, bread-making, bird spotting, plant-caring and dog training. Broadcasters supported this learning through their scheduling, and libraries, museums, galleries, theatres and cinemas opening their archives, offering free content and re-engaging with their audiences. I’ve seen activity packs taped to shop windows, shared google docs of activities, events and all manner of useful info. Musicians have played gigs from home and shared their influences through listening parties and DJ sets. Lately this activity has waned, and the hope is only that there’s a pause for the summer, to encourage us to step away from our screens.
Learning has been a privilege though, for many it has not been possible and as we coped well and even thrived, others have struggled with poverty and inequality, loss of work and money, sickness and death. We have never been so defined, the haves and have-nots, those inside and those outside, working in hospitals, caring for others, delivering parcels, working in shops or helping in some way. Those exposed and at risk, without the choice to be otherwise.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests and campaign against police brutality and systemic racism has changed our lives for the second time. In the weeks and months since, the reaction has brought huge numbers to the street, moved institutions, companies and white people to recalibrate, it is not enough to be not racist, but one must be actively anti-racist. In Higher Education, despite the initial emptiness of official reactions, a deeper swell of allyship and desire for change is taking place. Conversations long overdue, courses revisited and content measured, we no longer teach against a backdrop of civil rights, inequality and racism, but we must teach interculturally, listen and take action to dismantle systemic racism that has caused so much hurt to our Black students, colleagues, community of Color working and learning in academia. Reading through testimonies, on the twitter hashtag .#Ivoryinthetower its clear that there is so much work to be done, in the recollections from Black students and Professors, harrowing examples of asked if they belong in places, checked for ID and followed by security; or silenced, ignored, undermined and overlooked for promotion and tenure; stories of attacks, of verbal and physical abuse. The perniciousness of racism given a hall pass by us white academics, students, staff and leaders.
Changes will come, through the reading and listening, there is action on campus, petitions and letters, there is a groundswell, it will be seen if action can match the call. My courses in the Fall semester will be online, but we face a new threat of international students being deported by ICE if they only learn online. We are forced to adopt a hybrid model and I try to envision myself in PPE standing at the front talking to students one to each desk separated in this socially distanced classroom. Nobody has come up with a good answer as to why the learning can’t be better achieved remotely, and how the anxiety and strangeness of the situation will affect everyone.
Students themselves are more eager to return and reclaim their independence, but at what cost? Burdened by the pressure of exorbitant fees, eye-watering in comparison to UK students, both students and their institutions must face uncertainty and further disruption in a fight for their futures. Almost all institutions are unwilling to lower their costs, some facing class-action lawsuits, others deciding to teach remotely, cancel study abroad programs, close campuses for the next academic year.
We will see what the future of learning will be, whether the arrangements being put in place will be in vain, as covid-19 numbers continue to rise, whether we’ll move from a lockdown and release cycle that could last months and years, whether online learning will be the only way to learn safely. We’re not sure what we’ll do to be honest, these past months have put paid to our plans, we’re a long way from home, from family and close friends. We’ll see, we have no choice. Keep teaching and learning, a way of life that moves us forward, growing and being.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you can hear more from Stephan in the episodes below;