New Semester’s Resolutions: Fall 2020

I’ve written before about how I like to make resolutions at the new semester, rather than the new year. So let’s do this!

I admit this semester I haven’t given that much thought to what I want to do better. Like most of us, I’ve been in crisis mode over the summer, waiting to see what kind of pandemic plan my university makes and trying to hedge my bets on how much curriculum to develop before it gets scuttled by the next development. I had just finished writing up a detailed mask/social distancing policy when I was informed that my request to teach online was approved. That sort of one step forward, one step back paralysis.

But I do have a few themes for this semester based on what worked really well during the pivot in the spring. What worked well was flexibility, respect, and curricular austerity.

Am I being lazy and reusing images a lot? You bet.

Flexibility

Last semester, I wrote about how I was looking into more flexible ways to do deadlines; deadlines that gave students agency over their own schedules, treating them like the professionals they should be. I had students signing up for deadlines, until the Great Pivot made me abandon any sense of hard deadlines entirely.

This semester I’m trying a slightly different approach to student agency in deadlines: I’m making all deadlines (except the end of the semester, for administrative reasons) soft deadlines. My late policy currently reads as follows:

Deadline are only suggestions! What does this mean, “deadlines are only suggestions”? It means that if you adhere to the deadlines, your work will be fairly evenly spread out over the semester. However, if you miss a deadline, there is no late penalty. Just get it in as soon as you can to get back on track so you don’t get overwhelmed with the work over time. But it really is ok if something doesn’t get done on time. Sometimes life happens, or a project takes a bit more time than you expected. Pace yourself and do what you can. And of course you can always work ahead!

Won’t this result in students just putting it all off until the end? Some might! That’s ok. But experience from the Great Pivot, where this was basically my policy, tells me that undergraduate students see a deadline and take it seriously, even if it has no teeth, and I took a strange pleasure in writing all the “It’s ok to turn it in late! Take the time you need!” emails: I much prefer being the granter of grace over being the enforcer of rigor.

The more likely result, which I will report on later, is that there will be a bell curve centering around the suggested deadline. Most students will turn it in right before or right after the deadline, with a trailing off number of students on either side. This will help stagger grading a bit, which was the goal with the due week concept in the first place, but it also gives students agency over their schedules and the ability to respond to crises that may occur over the semester, which is extra likely during a poorly managed pandemic, but would be useful in so-called normal times as well.

You’ve probably seen this one before too.

Respect

I’m approaching writing my syllabus as a Q&A rather than as a set of formal policies. This is in part to make a more invitational tone in my course, and also to make them easier to access (I’m using a hyperlinked index so students can access things as needed quickly). The goal here is to treat my students first and foremost as adults with a life outside my class.

Too often, especially in first-year-level undergraduate classes, we talk about our students as children, as subjects, as them. I’m trying to push against that this semester; I’m supporting them in the pursuit of their goals, not the other way around.

This shows up in my policies in a couple of ways. The first I’ve already discussed, which is the flexibility. Another way it shows up is in avoiding punitive language. Even in discussing plagiarism (after all, we’re required to have statements addressing academic integrity), notice the way I’m explaining, not threatening:

Academic integrity is very important; much of research and rhetoric relies on trust between author and audience, and underpinning that trust is the assumption that you are representing your work honestly and fairly. Plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty are a violation of that trust by representing someone else’s words, ideas, or work as your own. We will discuss what academic honesty means in the course materials in detail. If you ever have a question if an action is ethical, you should ask the instructor before you act…

Respect also shows up in letting them choose their own topics (I think I’m going to take my procedural rhetoric approach again this year, in which students carefully examine policies in communities that they participate in).

But, perhaps most important when most of us have at least some major online components of our courses, respect manifests in my no-pants policy. I’ve seen too many policies being shared by teachers, parents, and students alike as schools start that assume mistrust of students and compensate by enforcing dress codes and camera and microphone use for surveillance.

My resolution for this semester is that I will never require students to turn a mic or a camera on themselves without their consent. It’s always a choice; I will always offer an alternative. I’ve been emphasizing that even in Zoom, you can use a text chat if you don’t want to use a video or voice option. I’m comfortable in all three environments (I’ve been using video chat as a primary means to connect with my family for a decade or more, and I’ve been using text chat for about two decades) so it’s nothing to me to give the students a choice. But it may be very important to a student, who may be caring for a minor whose image online they may want to protect, may be in the middle of a move and be embarrassed by the mess, may be working out of their car in a parking lot so they have wifi, or any other circumstances that might dictate what kind of interaction is best or safest for them.

The corollary of this is that I have no need for dress codes. Why should students have to wear professional clothing (which itself is a problematic concept) if they don’t have to show their bodies on screen at any point? The result of that corollary is that students have the right to represent themselves how they choose in my class, and that means that they have autonomy. It also means that I have to accept them as they represent themselves, which is a basic way of expressing respect.

I don’t think I used this one last Thursday, did I?

Curricular Austerity

I didn’t really know what to call this. Most of the time I call it “Stripping the curriculum down to the basics.” If it’s not in the course description or strictly necessary to meet the stated goals as written in the course catalog, get rid of it. Yes, I know you love that ice-breaker that you’ve figured out a clever way to do online; get rid of it.

This requires radical thinking in the most literal sense: going to the roots and at every turn asking yourself “Why this?”

For my part, I originally drafted my class with a couple reading quizzes, two small in-class style writing assignments (a reflective journal and an application exercise), and a piece of a major writing assignment every week. But when I stepped back, I saw that this was simply too much. My class isn’t my students’ only class, and they have other things to do (see respect above). So I’m combining the journal and the exercise into one weekly journal that can alternate between the two, giving them at least one of each per unit. That should be sufficient; they need to reflect on their work, yes, but not all the time. They need to find and apply concepts to material outside class, yes, but not all the time.

There’s really two goals in this curricular austerity: to make it manageable for yourself and to make it manageable for your students.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed with emails, with tiny tasks? Of course you do. So why make more for yourself?

And then remember that your students do, too. Why make more for them?

Pretty sure I’ve overused this one.

Takeaway

I don’t have very clear New Semester’s Resolutions this semester. Honestly, like most of us, I’m just trying to keep my head above water. So really that’s what I’m working toward: how do I make sure my students float with me?

One thought on “New Semester’s Resolutions: Fall 2020

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