I remember distinctly wishing mightily for more introspective time in January 2020. I had often wished for this, but it was overwhelming this time. Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes you get it.
I attended one last face-to-face meeting on my way off-campus Thursday before Spring Break. I wondered if changes were coming, and rumor had it that an announcement would be made that day or the next. COVID-19 was very much in the news, but the “killed by warm weather” rumor was floating at the time and most people were torn about what to do for health and safely. This was Trump country too, a public university in the middle of a very red state. On that Thursday, March 12, the university president sent an announcement urging students to take all their books and their laptop home with them “just in case.” Faculty were assured that the university was not closing “at this time,” but also informed that they needed to start planning for “alternative delivery methods.” During Spring Break, on Thursday March 19, the situation became clearer. At that time, classes were delayed one more week so that faculty could convert all face-to-face classes to fully online. The situation was at last clear. There would be no face-to-face Spring semester 2020.
As someone who teaches a graduate class in how to teach writing online, this should have been an easy conversion, one based on my existing best practices. One of the classes was even already an INET class. However, the situation we were prepping for was not online teaching in the traditional sense and we also had to somehow delete a week of coursework while maintaining the integrity of the class. Another issue was economic. Many of these students, heavily first-generation college students, were not technology-rich, or for that matter, rich at all. Every semester, I had students in face-to-face classes who took notes using their phone, some even writing papers by texting, using the Microsoft Word app on their one and only device, their phone. Almost all had gone home for break, mainly to St. Louis and Kansas City, and left all but a suitcase in their dorm or apartment. Many, I believe, missed the March 12 email telling them to take all their books and laptop home with them, making them dependent on shared family resources. That could mean no stable internet and no computer other than a shared one that siblings also needed for their K-12 classes. These students did not sign up for wholly online learning to begin with, either because they suspected how much work it is, doubting the propaganda about easy, self-paced learning in their PJs, or lacked the physical resources that make online learning possible. Some embraced it that spring, yes, but on the whole, this quick shift away from traditional teaching made existing economic stresses and differences painfully obvious. Welcome to pandemic pedagogy.
On the faculty end, online learning resisters had their judgment day. Some chose to duplicate the “sage on the stage” using some form of video; the university has Mediasite and a studio for faculty use, an option until the campus closed. Others tried Zoom or other streaming (Microsoft Teams was another favorite) to duplicate the conversations that happen in their face-to-face classrooms with some succeeding and some not. I aimed for asynchronous INET for all my classes. I did not think this was the time to try something too far from my wheelhouse and in that, I was doing the same as my colleagues who went for the invisible or visible lectern, only I was on the opposite end of the pedagogy continuum, arguably a better fit for the situation. One plus for the semester was that student evaluations were cancelled. The university simply did not have the workforce on campus at that point to make it happen. Colleagues living close to campus started going there for walks since it was a beautiful, empty space, a safe space with large echoes.
It’s been a year now and it remains to be seen what we will keep and what we will toss in this’ new, grab bag of tools and techniques. At times it’s like the forty years of Computers and Writing research on writing pedagogy and technology happened on another planet in a universe far, far away that no one can enter unless they already knew it existed. At other times, it seems like a world full of potential where we can finally make significant, positive change in how we teach writing/ composing/ creating online, face-to-face, and all those interesting spaces in-between. Most days, that is what I think, but not every day.