A Year of Pandemic Teaching: The Good List (Part 1)


March 11, 2021

As my anniversary of absence from the physical classroom has arrived, and as chatter about returning to that space in fall 2021 increases, it’s a perfect moment to reflect on what I have learned, and even treasured, about this year. Like many others I had never taught remotely despite a three-decade-long teaching career in higher education. So the transition was abrupt, terrifying, and transformative. As someone who had spent a lot of time thinking about pedagogy even before this moment, and having already transformed my own classroom structures from conventional teacher-centered-learning to student-centered, I may have been in a somewhat better position than many others to confront the new situation. 

This also coincides with the publication of my edited book, Ungrading, which led to my giving a set of talks and interactions and podcasts and workshops on this subject.

In this moment I am assembling a quick off-the-top-of-my-head list of positive things about this year. Most of this year I’ve opted for “microblogging” on Twitter instead of writing blog posts, but I think this requires a little bit longer post. I am mostly writing about higher education, but much of this also applies to K-12 schooling.

  1. Everyone is paying attention to pedagogy. School became one of the key things that it turns out everyone wants, more or less. And those of us who are “in the trenches” have to figure out how to do it.

  2. People have recognized the uneven circumstances in which students live. Some of this surfaced early in the pandemic, when everyone went to remote emergency teaching, and we found that the so-called digital divide really separated students with high speed Internet connections, privacy, and time, from students with no laptop, no Wi-Fi at home, no privacy. Such disparate conditions have always existed, obviously, though they have been often glossed over, as faculty may recognize economic diversity in principle but leave the details to student affairs experts. After all, the students show up in our classrooms, one beside the other. But these differences were relevant during these circumstances, because we had to grapple with how to foster equity when we know we can’t require the same thing with every person.

  3. Issues of attendance, participation, and self-disclosure became part of the conversation. As anti-racist conversations also coincided with this. Debating “cameras-on” requirements raised questions about variation in ways of engaging.

  4. Most faculty had fewer in-person interactions, and took to social media to think through a lot of what was concerning them. For me the Twitter community of pedagogues was a lifeline. Generous experts would respond within hours, and sometimes minutes, to request for help with technological problems, or conceptual problems.

  5. Many thoughtful educators offered free webinars, podcasts, and workshops, with very useful and concrete discussions of pedagogical methods and conceptual considerations. One that stands in particular is the useful set of resources posted free on OneHE, overseen by Maha Bali.

  6. We were forced to find new ways of accomplishing enduring goals of interaction. For me this meant experimenting with a whole range of tech tools, some of which I have really grown to love. Some of these include the following:
    1. JamBoard

    2. FlipGrid

    3. Google slides

    4. Google Docs

    5. Slack

    6. Hypothes.is

    7. Kahoot

    8. PollEverywhere

    9. Wordcloud

    10. Google Forms

    11. The Zoom chat

    12. Zoom as a whole (mixed feelings)

    13. Sharing your screen

    14. Recording interactions, with immediate hilarious transcripts

    15. Breakout rooms

  7. We stopped having those ludicrous conversations about technology in the classroom, banning laptops in the classroom--an ableist policy--or lamenting the ubiquity of phones in the classroom. We have grown to accept that technology, including digital technology, is a universe of tools with affordances--things that facilitate certain kinds of uses. It takes thoughtfulness and time and sometimes training to figure out how to use them all but it can be a lifesaver.

  8. Ungrading got a lot of attention. At first everyone everywhere was really consumed with the absurdity of grading the spring 2020 semester, when everything was “disrupted.” Many of us had been talking about the absurdity of grading in a uniform sense well before the pandemic struck, but suddenly people understood that there was something glaringly not-meaningful, and certainly not-objective, about carrying through with a grading scale that had been invented for circumstances that no longer applied.

  9. Faculty began to invite others into their classrooms, or into quick meetings. There was a generous sharing of attention, energy, and expertise that would not have warranted a costly and exhausting trip across the country, spewing carbon emissions and costing thousands of dollars, but it’s easy to spend an hour with colleagues.

  10. Everyone, and notably teachers, were vulnerable, at least at the beginning, sharing stories of despair, fear, uncertainty. People showed their kids, their messy houses, their piled-up cardboard boxes, their cats and dogs, and (as I did) their sourdough bread. We got glimpses into people's lived realities in ways that would have been seen as unprofessional in the Before Times, but now one of the pleasures of the pandemic is that we get to learn more about our colleagues. This is not to gloss over the reality that many people aren’t willing or able to share their circumstances whether because of disability, poverty, shame because of conditions, or simply lacking the bandwidth to show a scene.

  11. I like having everyone on equal footing on my Zoom screen, rather than having a back of the room where people hide, though for introverts this is a double-edged sword, to use a dreaded weapon metaphor. I like seeing names, though I confess that it has made me lazy and not try so hard to recognize my students without the crutch. And in my larger classes when people are in small little boxes, with masks, and all I see is light brown long straight hair and nice eyes, I can’t promise I would recognize my students if I walked across campus inside and saw them.

  12. We have come to really treasure the need for collective energy. At first there was a lot of talk about the relative merits of synchronous and asynchronous teaching, with the latter giving options for students to engage asynchronously according to their own needs. But others really needed the shared attention, what anthropologists call joint attention, that adds to our individual energy and helps us do difficult things. This can be fun, it can be laughter, it can be a shared rhythm of a conversation. It can be play. It can be amazement at looking at something at the same time and taking a collective embrace. Anthropologist/sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote more than 100 years ago of collective effervescence, a term that resurfaced during the pandemic as people realize that what they missed, or at least what some people missed, was shared copresence that added up to something bigger than the sum of the individuals. We missed football, and concerts, religious rituals, and even lectures, and bars and coffee houses and all those things that involve gathering. Of course some people persisted in doing those things anyway, even when they were forbidden. But for me in my classes one of my goals was to try to create conditions that would mimic or even achieve some degree of collective effervescence even while we were meeting remotely. There were occasional successes. My students said they looked forward to coming to our class, and I tried to make it worthwhile, with small delights.

  13. I haven’t missed having meetings, in person, rushing across campus to get to something obligatory and then sitting there watching someone read wordy slides, but I have missed the chance conversations in the hallways, before and after classes, before and after meetings, waiting for the printer to discharge a long manuscript or for the microwave to finish heating my leftovers. I have certainly missed the physical activities that do not require the self-discipline of deciding to exercise, as I move along long hallways or walk from the parking lot or walk to and from the library or go across campus even for those imperfect meetings. I’ve enjoyed seeing images of the relatively empty campus, where wildlife has been flourishing.

I’ve learned and learned and learned, exhausted even when it goes really well. I’ve spent hours preparing for things that take just a moment to enact. I’ve created new plans on the fly. I’ve probably done a third less in each class than I used to. I’ve second- and third-guessed myself.

But as I contemplate the end of this strange period, I realize that there are many good things, and I need to appreciate, convey gratitude for, them.

I don’t know if I will ever get to Part 2 of this list, but I am leaving open the possibility. The curriculum of blogging, like in my classes, is open.