Postmortem: The Other Godawful Semester (not too bad actually)

Fall semester was a personal horror show of overwork and cascading minor disasters. It left me exhausted, shaken, and hesitant to volunteer around the department, not so much because I felt taken advantage of (I was confident my colleagues would have done all the same things for me), but because I just needed a break. And I marched boldly into this semester with a Plan, full of resolve to Make It Better.

This semester, spring semester, then, was a public, national, global horror show of overwork and cascading major disasters. I don’t really need to say that, do I?

And yet—and yet! It turned out Not So Bad, and I’m not 100% sure why.

What do I mean by Not So Bad? I mean that in general, fewer students than normal failed my courses. I mean that the ones who passed almost all received As or high Bs. I did not expect this, but I hadn’t changed the grading rubric or syllabus requirements at all in the shift to online learning (although I did shift my expectations in applying those rubrics), so something worked, and it worked well. I actually had a number of students send me notes thanking me in detail for how I conducted the transition.

I’m pretty sure I’m not somehow magically good at managing a class in a pandemic, even though I tried to exude expertise as a leadership strategy by assuring my students that I’d led classes through natural disasters before (technically true), and that I’d taught the very same course online before (also true). But neither of those facts truly arms us for a freakin’ pandemic, ya know?

But I guess, now that the grades are in and the papers are graded and the forms are filed as needed, I can do a postmortem on the class, if you’ll excuse the term.

What Didn’t Work

First, what didn’t work? Well, I learned that I really did need the staggered due dates. Once that little to-do number in the Canvas mobile app ticked to 99+, all ability to focus disappeared. Any time I managed to get it under 99+, I magically could focus and be productive. I don’t get the magic, but I honor it. I was doing fine pre-online, because the staggered due dates had kept that number real and manageable, but post-online, things started stacking up as I prioritized getting materials online and keeping ahead of the class, and as my students submitted late work en masse.

The result was a very unfortunate and somewhat detrimental loss in timely feedback. I found that things that I normally might have corrected and headed off early in student work got perpetuated, because for many students, they turned in the next assignment before I’d finished with the last one. That’s exactly what I’d hoped to avoid this semester.

Another result was that students pushing back deadlines meant that they didn’t have as many revision opportunities, which didn’t significantly affect their grades, but I’m more concerned that it may have significant impact on their actual learning about writing and research.

Finally, without library support, I found that I had to abandon some aspects of the course, since the course is entirely about research practices and research in writing. For some students, the lack of library space is a major handicap. (I will never take the library for granted again!)

What Did Work

So, what worked? Honestly, I’m not sure what the magical special sauce was this semester, but I have a few hypotheses.

The first accommodation I made for the online shift was to completely erase the late policy and make all deadlines super flexible. Sure, Canvas still displayed due dates, but in every message I sent my students, I assured them that the due dates were suggestions to help them stay on track. Most students stayed within a few days of those due dates. But for the first affected assignment, due the week we went online, I had almost no assignments submitted on time; that was fine. I did, as many teachers might fear, have a small handful of students who turned everything in finals week; that was also fine. Their work showed they still learned from it, and because all the projects were deeply connected, it actually made sense for them to do them all together. Some students even used the online shift to do the projects out of order, and it turned out all right!

The second accommodation I made for the shift was to strip the class of any activity that did not directly connect to the course description. That is, I wanted to boil the course down to its skeleton. The course description specifies the assignments that remained: the annotated bibliography, the formal research paper, and the multimodal presentation of research. So those stayed. The course catalog listed the textbooks (although those are not completely standardized for the course, so the scheduled readings remained, along with their super-low-stakes quizzes, and became substitutes for any lecturing I might have done. I made discussion boards, tutorial videos, student examples, video lectures from previous iterations of the course, etc available to my students, but none of these were required.

The combined result of these two accommodations, from what I can tell, was actually a highly customizable course. Students who worked independently well thrived with the provided “as needed” materials. Students who thrived on feedback and direct instruction, however, requested extra assistance from me, which was done either over private messages or scheduled video appointments with them. These were generally students I’d normally see in my office hours or after class before the switch, and it worked out pretty well for them.

I suspect, actually, the result was “just in time” instruction, to borrow the phrase from Gee’s learning principles. That is, students accessed the instruction when they needed it, and not before or after. I actually saw very little dip in quality of work; in fact, things like formatting were significantly improved over what I normally see with classroom instruction. The video tutorials I provided to them are basically what I would have normally done in class: pop up a former student’s paper with all formatting stripped and walk through formatting it in both Word and Google Docs. But because students could access the material and pause it or rewatch it, or they had the option to open up the documents in the videos themselves and tinker, I suspect that the “just in time” nature of the instruction online resulted in better quality learning and more attention to detail. I say this in part because I had several students specifically mention tutorial videos in emails that they sent thanking me for how I handled the transition, so something must have gone right there. However, as I only have a total of 50 views on those videos (and some of them are mine) when I had 90+ students, that can’t be the only thing going on.

On top of these two accommodations, from the students’ perspective, there was one more change in the course structure: Each week I wrote them a detailed message that included three sections:

  • What you have done. This section detailed what, if they were staying on the deadlines listed on Canvas, they had done that week toward course goals. It often included a note about how the research literacy skills in that unit might be applied to the current events or more broadly.
  • What you will do. This section described the goals of the next weekly unit and how to extend the skills from the previous unit into future work.
  • Other notes. I used this section to link to useful resources, keep students up to date on university announcements and how they might affect them particularly, notes about rhetoric or research they might see in the news, updates on safety guidelines, etc. This was a place for a little more humanity and compassion as well as strictly pragmatic material.

From the students’ side, that’s what seemed to help in the transition.

Of course, there was also a third, less obvious and less immediate, accommodation, which was a shift in my own mindset. I had lower expectations as I graded. My question was no longer “Is this excellent?” but “Is it done?”. I found myself reading less for product and more for “What can I see that they learned here?” and I feel a little guilty admitting that this was a shift. It shouldn’t have been a shift; I’ve been told all my life by my mother (who is an excellent art teacher) to assess students on improvement and demonstrated learning than on product, but there was definitely a lot more joy in my grading at the end of the semester as I thought not “Why didn’t they learn this?” but rather “Look at how much they DID learn!”

Indeed, the final projects were a pure joy. I was handing out As like Halloween candy and loving it. Not because I had predetermined to do so (I had, though; I’d adjusted the last rubric to make it easier to get an A to account for the lack of hands-on instruction), but because they genuinely earned it. Lacking the advantages of library computers loaded with expensive software, lacking the advantages of being able to use the space at the Digital Writing Studio, lacking in-person office hours where they could plop their laptop in front of me and ask “how do I do this?”, still they produced infographics, videos, and podcasts that looked and sounded great. How could I not cry out and exclaim for joy?

I honestly don’t know what I did right, if anything, this semester. But I can list a whole lot of things my students did right this semester, and I am so very proud of them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have sewing to do, because I’ve been waiting for this summer all year. I’ve earned this.

2 thoughts on “Postmortem: The Other Godawful Semester (not too bad actually)

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