Teaching in a Pandemic 3: Grades Mean Nothing

(Read previous entries here and here.)

So far, it’s going okay. I have started posting introductions and discussion questions for the blocks of content that my students will be covering for the rest of the spring. Across all my classes, there will be a total of twelve blocks for students to read and respond to. Prepping one block takes me about two solid days of work. I have posted five so far, with seven left to go. Allowing time for housework, fresh air, cooking, and other essential things, I’m probably looking at between two and three weeks more of work to get everything online. Then I’ll be spending the rest of April grading assignments as they come in and keeping an eye of the discussion forums.

Students have started engaging in discussion already. Only a few so far, but that’s understandable. I know everyone is busy right now and it’s going to take people time to get used to new ways of doing things. Responses have been productive. Students are engaging with the ideas I want them to engage with and showing that they have done the new readings and can relate them to ideas we discussed earlier in the semester. That’s as much as I feel I can ask of them right now.

I’m holding virtual meetings with my classes this week via Zoom (videoconferencing service). Not to teach anything new, just to check in with them, go over the procedure for the rest of the semester, and answer their questions. I’ve let everyone know that these meetings are entirely optional, and there will be no negative consequences if they don’t join in. I hope a lot of them will show anyway. I miss seeing them, and I’d like to know that they’re okay.

The big question hanging over all of this is: what will happen to this semester’s grades? As I mentioned last time, the university administration is considering the possibility of shifting to a pass/fail system for this semester, or of giving students the option to individually take courses as pass/fail. Nothing is certain yet, but clarity will hopefully come soon. I’m divided on whether I think it’s a good idea or not. On one hand, there is no way to treat this semester like an ordinary spring or to imagine that the grades students get at the end of it are really comparable to their grades form other semesters. A lot of my students are in difficult situations right now, and going pass/fail might take a burden off their shoulders. On the other hand, implementing such a big change on the fly is going to be a mess, and I worry about people falling through the cracks in a system that none of us have had time to think through and shake the bugs out of.

You see, the secret truth about teaching is: grades mean nothing. Or at least nothing much. A grade is never anything more than your professor’s best attempt to convey to you how well they think you have understood what they were trying to get you to see, and there is no objective way of measuring that. Even in disciplines that have clear right and wrong answers, the decision about what questions to ask is still fraught with human subjectivity. Good and conscientious professors will try to use their grades as a way of communicating honestly with you about what you have accomplished during your time in their class, but the whole thing is an eggshell balanced on top of a rickety shack built on quicksand. You don’t have to stir the sand much before everything breaks.

Let’s hope we don’t break things too badly and we can find a way of doing right by our students.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 2: Students Are Stressed Enough Already

(Read my last entry here.)

Just a day after my last post, the university administration announced that all classes are going online for the rest of the semester, so I have spent much of the past week figuring out how that’s going to work. I started with a few basic principles and worked my way on from there. Here’s what I started from:

  1. Everything sucks right now, and it probably sucks worse for my students than it does for me. I want them to have a meaningful educational experience, but I don’t want to add to the burden of what they’re already dealing with.
  2. Different students are dealing with very different situations right now. Some of them are relatively safe and calm; their lives have not changed much. Others are back in the midst of bad or stressful home lives from which college was an escape. Some of them have plenty of time and technology on their hands; others are lucky to get a few hours to themselves and have a dodgy cellphone connection to the outside world at best. My course needs to work for all of these students.
  3. My students are good students. They want to put in the work that I am asking of them and do well. If they are struggling right now, it is a reflection of their circumstances and the failures of the larger governmental, social, and educational infrastructure they live within, not of their willingness or ability to learn.

Putting these basics together, I have made the following decisions about my courses:

  1. I will not require anyone to be available at any particular time. I will miss our face-to-face interactions in the classroom, but trying to recreate that experience online is doomed to fail and will only put unnecessary stress on my already stressed students.
  2. I will not require any work that depends on having a stable internet connection and plenty of bandwidth. As long as people can get online occasionally, that should be enough.
  3. I will not hold anyone to more stringent due dates than are absolutely necessary for me to be able to fully and thoughtfully review their work before giving grades.

From these fundamentals, I have decided how my online courses will work.

Instead of the rest of the semester being divided into class days with their own readings and assignments, I have divided the remaining content into large blocks organized around a common theme. Each block represents a week or so of what we would have done in class. Students can now do the readings on their own time, and I am writing short introductions (covering the ideas I would have been introducing in class discussion) with broad, open-ended discussion questions attached. These discussion questions are posted online as discussion threads on Canvas (our course management website). Between now and the end of the semester, I am asking every student to make at least two comments in the discussions for each block. Participating in the discussion threads is counted as part of the attendance and participation grade for the course.

In addition to the discussions in the blocks, students have most of the same writing assignments that were scheduled before we moved online, but I am shifting their due dates to the end of the semester, so that everyone can get their work done at their own pace. I have dropped a few assignments that seemed overly burdensome: those that involved library research (because, even though there’s a lot you can do online these days, it seemed like too much pressure), or visiting museums (because, I mean, duh).

These changes have meant rearranging the grading standards for some courses, which is tricky, but I’ve tried to make sure everyone still has plenty of opportunities of getting good grades. The university administration has made some vague noises about shifting courses to pass/fail grading for this semester, but no decision has been made yet. On the one hand, going to pass/fail would make my job a lot easier—I could give most of my students their course grades right now. On the other hand, some of my students have been putting in a lot of time and effort, and it would be sad not to be able to reward them with the grades they’ve earned. Well, we’ll see what comes of it.

I can’t say with any honesty that I know how the rest of this spring is going to go. We’re all making it up as we go along. I have confidence in my students. They are strong, smart, and hard-working, and I want to see every one of them come out of this experience okay.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 1: Nobody Knows Anything

I’ve decided to use this space to chronicle my experience teaching college classes during the covid-19 pandemic. I can’t promise how interesting this will be to anyone else, but here’s a glimpse inside the process.

We’re still in the first few days of the officially-declared pandemic, and nobody knows anything right now. The federal response in the US has been just about useless. Actions at the state and local level have been more coherent, but we still don’t really know what the next few weeks or months are going to look like. Will we be stuck at home? Limiting our social contacts? Returning to business as usual? Lining up for tests? Hunkering down under quarantine?

The university has not been much help either. Classes have been canceled for a week, in addition to spring break, but no one knows what comes next. We’ve been told to prepare for possibly teaching our classes online. Or not. Or only for a few weeks. Maybe. They’ll tell us later. Maybe.

Now, I don’t envy the administrators who have to make the call about whether to massively disrupt thousands of people’s plans for the next two months or to put those same thousands of people at risk of contracting and spreading a deadly virus. I understand why they’re hesitant to make a decision at this point, but it really isn’t possible to make any plans when I have no idea what I should actually be planning for.

In the absence of any clear direction from the top, I’m thinking of making a decision on my own. I’m thinking that I will plan for all my courses to run online for the rest of the semester. Then, if in-person classes do resume, I’ll make them optional, because I know some of my students have personal or family health concerns, and I don’t ever want to put anyone in a position of choosing between their grades and their or their relatives’ health.

The big problem is: how, exactly, do I do that? I have some colleagues who have taught online and done it very well, but their experiences don’t exactly translate: those were planned online courses that they had months to prepare for, and every student knew what they were signing up for. That’s a long way from cobbling together half a course on two weeks’ notice for students who weren’t planning on taking an online course. I have no idea what kind of technology my students have available to them or what their own living situations right now allow in terms of time and resources, and I have never even thought about teaching online until a few days ago.

The one good thing to emerge so far from this confusion is that I have had to spend some time thinking very seriously about what I want students to get out of my classes, so that I can focus any online teaching on those elements. It’s been a useful exercise. Of course, I have spent plenty of time already thinking about what students should take away from my classes (I’m an ancient historian—having to explain to other people why my field is worth studying is an occupational hazard), but I’ve never tried to distill half a course to its fundamental essence before.

I’m teaching three different courses this spring: Classical Tradition (a broad history of the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome), History of Rome (from the foundation of the city to the end of the western empire), and Roman Law (an intensive course on legal reasoning—mostly using Frier’s casebook on delict, for those of you who know what that means). Classical Tradition is an introductory-level course mostly for non-majors, History of Rome is a mid-level course with a mix of majors and non-majors, and Roman Law is an advanced course mostly for majors, especially those in the pre-legal track.

We’ve already covered more than half the material for each course. From what’s left, I’ve tried to extract the most important questions I want my students to grapple with:

Classical Tradition: Why did new religious movements, like Christianity, the cult of Isis, Mithraism, and Islam, emerge out of the context of the Roman imperial frontier? Why did some of these movements thrive while others foundered? How did the followers of these movements engage with, repurpose, challenge, or reject the artistic and literary legacy of Greece and Rome?

History of Rome: How did the Roman Empire reach some level of stability in the second century CE? Why did that stability fail in the third century, and why couldn’t it be recovered afterward? What choices did people living in, at the edge of, and outside the empire make in response to these changes?

Roman Law: What’s the most effective way of getting away with murder if your weapon of choice is a live bear?

Okay, I’m kidding about that last one, but not by much—that is exactly the kind of bizarre hypothetical that we often argue over in class. Hard cases, as they say, make bad law, but weird cases are the ones that really show you how the logic of the law works and where its limits lie.

A little more prosaically,

Roman Law: How did the Roman jurists try to construct a logically consistent set of rules that could cope with the vagaries and inconsistencies of Roman society?

Now all I have to do is figure out how to give my students some meaningful way of engaging with these questions online instead of in guided classroom discussions.

I’ll check in later and let you know how it goes.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Learning in Safe Spaces

I remember when my father taught me to drive. The first time I got behind the wheel of a vehicle and tried to figure out how to get my feet on the right pedals and work the gear shifter, we weren’t sitting in a high-powered sports car. We weren’t on the highway or in the middle of rush hour. We were in an old Ford Custom truck with three-on-the-tree (for those of you who know what that means), on a deserted dirt road that had fields on one side and woods on the other. I did my false starts and gear-grinding in that truck where the worst thing that could happen was that I might slide off into a ditch. No matter how badly I messed up, I wasn’t going to hurt myself or anyone else. After a good long time of practice, I learned how to listen to the engine, smoothly slide my feet from pedal to pedal, ease the shifter into gear, and start and stop on anything from flat to a good steep hill. I have since driven confidently on single-lane mountain roads and through a Boston rush hour in everything from a sports sedan to a moving truck, but it all began with the skills I developed through slow practice on those sunny afternoons.

Much the same is true about a lot of the important things I’ve become good at in life. I didn’t learn to swim by being tipped off the side of a boat in the middle of a shipping lane. I learned by splashing around in water wings with my parents keeping a watchful eye on me. I didn’t learn to cook by tossing together a souffle or a pig roast. I learned by mastering one recipe at a time with my mother teaching me why each ingredient mattered and what each step in the process accomplished. Pretty much anything difficult I’ve learned to do, anything where getting it wrong risked doing harm to myself or someone else, I’ve learned by starting slowly with someone helping me figure out what I was doing and how to do it safely and well.

The same is true of my academic education. Now, studying history is not like learning to drive or swim. If you do it badly or recklessly, you aren’t likely to pose an immediate risk of physical harm to yourself or anyone else, but history is powerful. So much of our sense of identity, both as individuals and as communities, is wrapped up in how we think about our past. Misunderstanding how and why things happened in the past can lead us to make seriously bad choices in the present with real and devastating consequences. My teachers and professors were as careful in how they constructed their lessons as my father was when he took me down that dirt road and handed me the keys. It wasn’t that they kept us away from the hard parts and the painful questions, any more than my father kept my hands off the shifter or my mother locked up the salt. It was that they made the classroom a place where everyone felt welcome to bring their own experiences and observations into the discussion, where we could get things wrong and still know that we were respected as students and scholars, and where we could tackle complicated issues a little piece at a time.

There is a lot of talk these days about “safe spaces” in college classrooms, and a lot of misunderstanding about what that term actually means. It doesn’t mean a space in which we avoid difficult ideas. It means a space in which we engage with difficult ideas carefully, thoughtfully, and purposefully. Learning to grapple with challenging and painful ideas and with opinions radically different from our own is an essential part of a good education, but these are not things we learn effectively in a free-for-all. Part of my role as a professor is to be careful about how we engage with difficult ideas, the same care I exercise in choosing what texts my students will read and what assignments I will have them write.

That care includes meeting my students where they are, both as scholars and as human beings. It includes respecting the fact that everyone in my classroom is a unique individual with their own talents and burdens. It means recognizing that what is easy for some of my students to do will be exhausting for others. History is a powerful thing. How we think about the past has enormous consequences for the present, and the weight of those consequences falls more heavily on some people than on others. If I am to teach all my students effectively, my classroom must be a place where everyone feels welcome and knows that they will be taken seriously.

The history of the ancient Mediterranean may seem so distant and so tame that nothing arising from its study could possibly harm anyone, but the cultural authority of Greece and Rome has often been invoked in modern times to justify declaring certain groups of people outside the bounds of civilization. The detritus of past and present racism, sexism, anti-immigrant bigotry, and other prejudices still clings to the history of Greco-Roman antiquity. Even students with no ill intent may unintentionally poke at raw wounds in other students’ lives. It is my role as professor to know when we need to slow the discussion down, peel back the historiographical layers with care, and acknowledge the discomfort that comes not only from having our own wounds poked but also from realizing that other peoples’ wounds are not the same as our own.

Some people are fond of claiming that there are no safe spaces in the world and that colleges should prepare students for the harsh realities awaiting them by being equally unsafe. On one hand, this claim is far from true. The world is absolutely full of safe spaces for those of us who happen to have been born into the right demographic and socioeconomic groups. Ideas that unsettle the powerful are frequently pushed out of public view. My students who will have the hardest time finding a safe space in the world are already perfectly well aware of this fact and need no further education on that score.

But it is true that one of the functions of a college education is preparing our students to engage intelligently and productively with a world that will not always respect their histories or give them the space to think critically and carefully. Staying thoughtful in the midst of a shouting match is a difficult skill, and like any other difficult skill it is best learned with careful practice under a teacher’s guidance in places where the cost of making a mistake is minimal. Whether it’s rush hour traffic or the tumble of political discourse, we gain the skills and confidence to handle unsafe spaces by practicing in safe ones. I will do the best I can to make sure that my classroom is always a safe space for my students.

Here there be opinions!

Putting Trigger Warnings on my Syllabi

160303booksThe question of whether we, as professors, should include trigger warnings on our course syllabi has been bubbling in academia for a few years now. I’ve been uncertain what to do and my university’s administration has not taken a public position. After wide reading and long thought, I’ve decided to add a content note to my syllabi. Here is how it goes:

This course involves topics that may evoke strong reactions. These topics include war, violence, slave-holding societies, non-consensual sexual activity, and various forms of social inequality, but other topics may come up in the course of class discussion. I will do my best to inform you about what upcoming readings will cover, but it will not always be possible to predict what topics will arise in discussion or what associations may arise for you as you read.

It is your responsibility as a student to complete all assigned coursework and readings and to participate in class discussions. It is my responsibility as your professor to help you overcome any obstacles to doing so.

If you anticipate that some topic may be difficult for you, or if you discover that an assignment provokes a reaction that prevents you from continuing your work as a student, please come see me to discuss it. If a topic arises in class discussion that makes you too uncomfortable to remain in class, you are welcome to leave the room until you feel ready to return. If you need to leave the room during class discussion, please come and see me afterwards when you feel ready to do so. In either case, we will work together to find alternative ways for you to do the coursework.

You are also welcome to seek support and guidance outside of class. Student Counseling Services is at your disposal, as is Campus Spiritual Life. You do not have to discuss difficult emotional subjects with me if you do not wish to, but if I don’t know that something is creating an obstacle to your coursework, I can’t help you find a way around it.

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Why I Always Grant Extensions

160303booksAs the middle of the semester approaches and assignments start coming due, the e-mails start coming in. Students start coming to me before or after class or poking their heads into my office between classes. I know what they’re going to ask. Some of them know the word for it; others just know what they need: a few more days to work on their papers and projects. An extension.

There’s always a reason. The flu. Grandmother passed away. Father in the hospital. Car trouble. I know pretty much what they’re going to say before they even open their mouths. And I know what I’m going to say, too: yes. Always yes. I never ask for proof (though my students will often bring me notes and I will look at them out of respect). Anyone who asks can have a few extra days.

I have known professors who take pride in never having granted an extension, or if they do they want to see the doctor’s note and the obituary in the newspaper and they will run the story down like an investigative journalist tracking a political scandal. For them, deadlines are deadlines: the line past which you’d better be dead and have a note from God if your paper isn’t done. I respect my fellow professors who teach this way, but it’s not my way.

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