Saturday, December 12, 2020

Have you reimagined your digital pedagogy today?

The academy has handled the pandemic poorly, responding to declining enrollments and budget shortfalls by increasing class sizes, cutting entire programs, and laying off contingent employees en masse. The situation is especially grim in public university systems like CUNY, bled for decades by austerity. In the midst of all this, those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs are enjoined to "reimagine digital pedagogy" so as to somehow replicate the experience of face-to-face teaching in a remote setting. This is impossible. There is no way to replicate a face-to-face course online in the best of times, and resisting the limitations of online teaching during a pandemic guarantees the professional exhaustion that people who monetize their blogs call "burnout."

I'm reluctant to talk about burnout in my own case. Certainly, I've found it harder to slog through the more tedious parts of teaching in an online setting, but it feels like a petty bourgeois complaint. Living in a crumbling empire with no functional public health system or welfare state, I'm very fortunate to be able to work from home and still make two-thirds my regular income. I'm fortunate to still have health insurance. I'm even more fortunate not to be dead from COVID-19, as nearly 1 in 1,000 Americans are now (including many of my colleagues), or "recovered" but still experiencing chronic symptoms, as many millions more are. For some academics, this fortunate position carries a kind of survivor's guilt, which must be expiated through good clean work. I think this drives much of the injunction to pedagogic "innovation," and I think it's ultimately harmful. Assuming the pandemic persists through 2021 (a safe assumption, since Biden's plan is just Trump's plus an unenforceable mask mandate), we'll be in much better shape if we concentrate our individual efforts on making online courses less demanding on students and ourselves.

The remote situation is obviously difficult and carries many more small annoyances and uncertainties than face-to-face teaching does, especially in a mid-semester shift. In the Spring, I approached the abrupt transition to remote teaching by immediately adopting what the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center called the "minimum viable transitioned course" model. I moved all three of my classes to an asynchronous schedule, uploaded recorded lectures for the remaining material, encouraged students to complete as much work as they could, and gave an A to anyone who turned in anything. I took this approach in accordance with recommendations from faculty and student activists, and with the recognition that Spring 2020 was a moot semester. At first, I felt a pang of guilt that I was cheating students out of the semester that they signed up for. By the end of the semester, this had been mostly assuaged by student emails thanking me for relaxing requirements.

While this Fall was more "normal," structured around regular video meetings and a closer-to-usual workload, I nevertheless abandoned the needlessly punitive tools that I used to take for granted as part of face-to-face instruction. Most of these fall under the umbrella of what Jeffrey Moro calls "cop shit:" absence penalties, plagiarism checks, and other standard policies that treat students with suspicion by default. Some of these I'd stuck with only out of inertia, like plagiarism detection—99% of the time, SafeAssign just alerts me that a student has quoted something, so I've learned to ignore it. The biggest change for me was late penalties, which I'd ordinarily assess to the tune of 10% for each class day, barring a good excuse. I had naturally abandoned that in the Spring, and I maintained that abandonment into the Fall. In theory, late penalties incentivize timely submission. In practice, there's little difference between the number of students who submit on time with them or without them. The only difference I did notice this semester is I received fewer rushed, 11:59pm submissions. Based on this (anecdotal and limited) sample, I've come to the conclusion that late penalties don't do much besides encourage rushed work and artificially lower grades. Even if we get "back to normal," I won't be restoring them.

I've taken the remote setting as an opportunity to assign less and take a slower pace, as well, organizing my courses for the Fall around a single central theme with an average of one substantial reading every two weeks. The schedule looked too sparse as originally laid out in the syllabus, but it turned out that in a few places—particularly around test dates and holidays—it was actually too busy. My reticence about "burnout" as a buzzword aside, it's true that remote work requires more energy in certain, meaningful ways. It is impractical to assign the same workload for an online course as a face-to-face one. Of course, some disciplines don't lend themselves to a similar restriction in focus, particularly lab sciences, math courses, and even social sciences and humanities programs more standardized than Political Science. There are certain things one must learn in Calculus I to be prepared for Calculus II (or so it's been explained to me; I BSed my undergrad math requirement with "Algebra in Application to Economics"). But this I think only strengthens the case for moderating workloads for more flexible courses, especially those that satisfy general university requirements as many introductory social science classes do.

None of these revelations is particularly novel or exciting. But it's essential to acknowledge the scope and limits of teaching in the US during a criminally mishandled public health emergency. The most important and useful thing we can do is extend more patience to our students (which they will appreciate and reciprocate!) and set not necessarily lower but more realistic expectations.

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