|The pandemic has been a time of introspection for some. The lack of places to go, people to see, and things to do has been coupled with a forced reevaluation of how we go about almost every aspect of our lives. There is also a measure of concern about what the world will look like once we exit this pandemic. Many of us who are in regular staff and faculty positions are fortunate enough to be safe and secure in our own little bubbles, and thinking about emerging from that brings with it some anxiety.
In talking through ideas for this post, my wife suggested A Christmas Carol and the idea of taking stock of my career and feelings about teaching. Where am I? Where do I want to be? Questions that we all struggle with, and questions that may have been brought to the forefront during the pandemic. Please forgive me publicly doing a little self career counseling, as well as a little license with the A Christmas Carol concept…
The Ghost of Teaching Past (Pre-pandemic):
The Ghost of Teaching Past takes the form of my 4-year Review Committee, which just submitted my letter a couple of days ago. Preparing my materials for my 4-year review, I had to sit down and reflect on both my recent work and on my long-term accomplishments since coming to University of Delaware. Before the pandemic, if I had been asked to briefly describe my teaching I’d have said it was a “work in progress”.
I was fortunate the Department of Physiology at University of Kentucky valued teaching, and that I had the mentorship of Dr. Dexter Speck (among others) to get me started on the right track as an educator. Actually getting started as a full-time college instructor in 2011 made me realize that although I was aware of what I should be doing, that didn’t really mean I knew how to actually put in practice while actually doing that job. I was thrown in the deep end, and had to do a lot of on the job learning (sorry NJIT students!). As time progressed, I figured out that I preferred to have students focus on really learning a few fundamental concepts, as opposed to conducting a whirlwind tour through everything. I began using more case studies and data in my courses, but grand plans for massive course overhauls were subsumed by the day-to-day. I still lectured a bit too much, and although I talked a lot about testing higher order concepts in my classes, we probably ended up in the border country between lower and higher more often than not. I was neither universally loved by my students nor universally despised. Somewhere in the middle of things, I suppose. But always at least vaguely improving as I learned and became more experienced.
Starting off, there was nothing in my career but the teaching. I wasn’t as involved in APS as I am currently. I had no scholarship or research of any sort. No expectations of university or professional service. Plenty of time to focus on my teaching and on my students. But then that changed. I began to get “career aspirations”. I started pursuing opportunities to be more involved in things I was interested in, beyond just the teaching, and forgot how to say no when asked to be involved in things I was maybe a little less interested in.
Maybe a bit like Scrooge, I wandered away a bit from my initial focus, in pursuit of that career. But, that is what you are supposed to do right? Get involved. Publish. Get promoted. Become well known in your field. Move into administration someday.
The Ghost of Teaching Present (Pandemic):
The Ghost of my Teaching Present takes the form of our newest puppy, Ladybird, who arrived in the opening days of quarantine. Early after we got her, she would sit on the desk and fall asleep while I taught, providing the perfect commentary on my work. Later, she would come bouncing downstairs to check-in on what was happening when she remembered that there were other people in the house, and pee on the rug at my feet if I didn’t get up and take her outside.
All summer my institution debated their fall plans, alternating between the optimism of a fully in-person semester, various versions of hybrid curricula, and being fully online. We ultimately settled on almost exclusively online, with only a handful of small and specialized courses meeting in person. The constantly changing plan made it difficult to actually move forward with preparing, both because you didn’t actually know what you were preparing for and also because just the idea of preparing for all of the potential possibilities was mentally exhausting. This led into a very difficult and dispiriting semester. I was burnt out.
Spring then proceeded in largely the same fashion, just (thankfully) without the same back and forth on in-person vs. remote course delivery plans. If this was the montage segment of the movie, you’d see the fast-forwarding of the days going by, with me sitting in slightly different places around the house, wearing slightly different college hoodies, dogs coming and going from wherever I was to see what I was doing and bark at me for not taking them for walks, and any of those days could really be any other.
This is a common story though. For many educators around the country, and around the world, it has not been a matter of IF someone will experience burn out during the last 12+ months, but WHEN. And, of course, a large portion of our ranks were already teetering on the brink of burn-out before the pandemic ever began (1,2). There are many reasons for faculty burn-out in 2020, and that has been written about extensively (3,4) – for example, did you know there is a burn-out scale? (5). For me, it was the constant time in front of the computer and the blurring of the line between work and personal time even further than it was before the pandemic. Back when things were “normal” I had a fairly long commute, but that allowed me to mentally and emotionally shift from work mode to home mode and vice versa. During the pandemic my commute has been about 15ft. We also can’t forget the overriding stress that was 2020 regardless of what you do for a living and where in the world that you are.
It was also that teaching just didn’t feel as fulfilling. I actually hated teaching towards the end of the fall 2020 semester. I didn’t look forward to classes. There was a feeling of isolation. Teaching to a computer screen full of black boxes with names, but mostly no faces. No feedback. Conversations via the chat box. Turning down letter of recommendation requests because even though I know the name, I can’t attach a face to that name, or a single interaction that I had with them. We’d gotten away from what made me like teaching in the first place.
As we catch back up, it is the middle of the spring 2021 semester. I have actually come to realize that I was starting to make better connections with students than I typically would have most semesters. Yes, I wasn’t chatting with the handful of people who sat in the front row every day anymore, but I was learning more about more of the students than I had before. And, they were learning more about me. Having the glimpse into my life through the lens of my webcam, seeing my pets and kids, all of my stuff and my wife’s stuff on the bookshelves and walls. This leads to conversations that might not have happened otherwise. For example, during an office hours appointment, one of my dogs came downstairs to bark at me, and this made the student’s dog start barking, and that led to a 20min conversation about dog adoption and training. Surprisingly, no one has said a word about the life-size Slimer from Ghostbusters that sits over my shoulder…
In class, though much of what I hear from my students is via the chat box and direct messages, I am hearing from what feels like a wider cross-section of the class. Even when teaching online there are the students who always volunteer to answer questions, but now for some questions I’ll get numerous responses all at once. I think this also helps me avoid some of my implicit biases, because I am not calling on people, but fielding what comes in. Despite being terrified to look at my course evaluations from spring and fall as part of my review process, I actually found them to be much more positive and supportive than I could have possibly imagined.
The pandemic forced me to reorganize all of my course materials so that students could largely navigate through them on their own. Since it was miserable to talk at a computer screen, I finally ditched all my lecturing and made over class time to be solely focused on working on and talking through problems, and then just-in-time teaching built off of group quizzes and surveys asking students what they needed more time/explanation. I try to be more intentional with my communication to the class, but I am still working on the whole “sending a weekly email announcement” to my classes routine.
Do I enjoy teaching again? No, not yet. But, it is better. My courses are better organized though, and I think I have gotten back on track with fully flipping my courses and being more student centered. As difficult as it was, 2020 did positively impact my teaching for the long-run. I encourage everyone to look for those positives amidst all of the negative feelings, and think about how they can carry forward to the future.
The Ghost of Teaching Yet to Come:
The Ghost of my Teaching Yet to Come doesn’t seem to have arrived yet. I don’t think it will come in quite as bleak a form as the one seen by Scrooge in A Christmas Carol though, and that in and of itself is a progress from a few months ago.
At the moment, it looks like in the upcoming fall semester we will still be online for the large class that I teach and others of that size, but moving back to in person for most (if not all) smaller classes. This means sort of a transition semester back to “normal” – but how does that transition work, and do I even want to make it?
Do I want to go back to campus? Honestly, I am not sure. But, I am definitely not as excited about it as many of my colleagues and my students. I don’t miss my office on campus, I prefer my home office. I definitely don’t miss the lecture halls that I am stuck teaching in. Of course, the feeling of a campus full of students will probably help me warm to the idea once we get back to “normal”. In the short term, I do know that I am not looking forward to teaching in person in the fall. Many of you have conquered this already, but I am not looking forward to trying to teach through a mask, or figure out how to run my new human physiology lab course with the students socially distancing.
For my big physiology course, I actually feel like I might be a better teacher online, at least when compared to being forced to teach in old, out-of-date, stadium seating lecture halls. It is easier to field responses from all of my students via chat in zoom. It is easier (at least it seems so) to have students work in small groups than it is in that cramped lecture hall, with no space for laptops, or the ability to actually turn and face each other. And, I feel less pressure to lecture since I am not spending class standing behind a lectern in an auditorium.
The pandemic has initiated a change in approach for educators – a widespread, forced adoption of technology and new teaching practices (6,7). How will the increased comfort with technology, on the part of the both teachers and students change education going forward? Now that more teachers and students have had experience with online education, will preferences shift? (8) As a parent and teacher, I’ve joked with others that there will be no more snow days because we have set up these systems to allow remote learning.
Will students want and expect more of an on demand, 24-7 approach to their courses? Will students (and parents) feel that the “college experience” is worth the extra costs associated with coming to campus, or will they flock to institutions where they can learn online wherever/whenever they want?
Or, will the future look like what I think my fall semester will look like? Big “lecture” courses online; small classes and labs in person. Many of us already taught a combination of in person and online courses before the pandemic, but will that become the norm? How much will we as educators even have a say in it?
Those are the details, but what about the big picture? As for what directions my career takes, I have even less answers. Despite the nice, neat boxes quantifying our time devoted to particular tasks on a distribution of effort report, I don’t think any of us have really figured out the proper balance between our teaching, our scholarship, our service and the rest of our lives.
May we all gain the insight of the next steps to take and emerge from this pandemic sure of our directions!