Centre College, Current Events, Pedagogy

Learning and Community

We are now two weeks into emergency online teaching and I’m writing this from my closet if that tells you anything about my experience so far. I’ve had to accept that I look ridiculous when I record myself teaching, I can’t possibly grade things meaningfully while my children are in the same room as me and that my students don’t think me singing the Brady Bunch theme song when we start zoom meetings is very funny.

There have been many hot takes on what this emergency online teaching will mean for higher education and especially for liberal arts colleges.  Now that all teaching is remote, I’ve seen it argued that no one would see a value in an “expensive”* liberal arts degree. I’ve been thinking about that as I try to teach my students from afar and I think a small liberal arts college has a lot of advantages in this time of emergency, uncertainty, and fear.  I’m no online educator but I think my students and I are still learning and growing in part because of the list below. I’m not claiming that all of these are liberal arts specific but I think they are important reflections on schools like Centre.

  1. When we have our zoom meetings, I can read my students’ body language. Zoom meetings are so awkward because you have to wait and see if anyone responds.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised though that I can tell when someone wants to talk.  They use the same faces and fidgets they did in the classroom.  And I know those fidgets because my classes are small and my course load is manageable.  This also means I can see the stress in their faces and the fatigue in their eyes.  I know my students and that matters.
  2. My students know me. And they know that they can ask for what they need right now.  Between email, zoom meetings, and text, I’m communicating with between 10 and 30 students a day and most of what we are talking about isn’t necessarily class related.  I think that is a good thing.  18-22 year olds should have a range of adults they can turn to for comfort, advice, and conversation.  I’ve built relationships with these students and I’m glad to be part of their network.
  3. I can still help students do all the networking I was always helping them with. Of course I can still write letters of recommendation but professors as small schools do so much more than that.  I share a community with the students and can remind them of that student they took a class with when they were first-years who is now in the field they want to be in.  I can send emails connecting students with similar plans or goals.  I can reach out to former students in the location an advisee of mine wants to be in.  I can suggest regional companies that I know have hired students like them.  Centre alumni call it the “Centre mafia” for good reason.
  4. Our community will be there when students come back to campus. On the weekends I walk to my office to record youtube videos for the next week.  It is loud and distracting in my house and my office is also my walk in closet so my office is the best place to record.  It is so bizarrely quiet there right now. It occurred to me on the lonely walk that our community will return—our sophomores, juniors, and rising seniors will feel the comfort of the place being the same and they will still see the same staff and professors they are accustomed to.  Their community will be ready to embrace them again and I know that that reality has steadied many students’ nerves. Students might have missed out on some short-term experiences but their education will still be cohesive and meaningful.
  5. We are already examining, understanding, and building a new world from this experience. My students read a piece about the sensory experience of the Civil War (think about what all those dead bodies smelled like. And how that smell shaped people’s ideas and beliefs.) I asked them to think about their current situation and the way this pandemic was changing their sensory experience.  And they blew me away.  Though the online forum and office hour was a poor substitute for the conversations I’m looking forward to having in the fall, what we discussed was meaningful but also incredibly useful.  My students learned from the past about the way their interactions can shape the world in the present. They also did a stellar job of reading critically.   And I think they felt less alone in this suddenly strange and lonely world knowing that people in the past have experienced this jarring loss of normalcy many times.

I’m certain these won’t be my only reflections on teaching in a pandemic.  But, this is where I start.  I have a lovely bunch of students who give me a lot of hope when I see their smiling faces on my computer screen.  I know some of them feel like quitting right now—they keep telling me they are struggling to see a reason to do the work.  But they just can’t help themselves.  Their responses to my questions, both academic and personal, reflect a curiosity about the world and a love of learning.  They are Centre students after all.

*What does it mean to be expensive? It is a question for another day but the cost of college simply isn’t reflected in a sticker price.  And I’m not waxing poetic about a quality education being priceless.

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