What Do We Need to Teach Now?

Many faculty members are so preoccupied with how to set up an online class that it's as if the big, important questions have gone missing, argues Deborah J. Cohan. We must also model for students how and what to prioritize.

March 20, 2020
 
 
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Just last month, I launched my first book and started a book tour. When I planned my syllabi in January, I was worried about having some absences from classes and how to minimize the disruption of that for my students. Little did I know how truly upended our semester would become and how all my best-laid plans and contingency plans, of which I always have plenty, would also be out the window.

I also had no idea how prophetic the title of my new book, Welcome to Wherever We Are, would be or how the essential message of the book might inform how I am reshaping my pedagogy now. My book is about what we hold on to, what we let go of, how we remember others and how we’re remembered. It’s those questions that I am relying on now to structure how I move forward and how I will try to inspire my students to move forward.

Multiple times a day, I am bombarded with emails from companies across the country trying to capitalize on the recent shift to online teaching and learning because of COVID-19. They are looking to sell their goods and services to educators at a needy and vulnerable moment. At the same time, I have been receiving emails about my university going online and am involved in an online briefing about our future plans. And I’ve been invited to join groups on Facebook to strategize and share ideas about “pandemic pedagogy.” One group has ballooned to over 23,000 members. Much of this is well intended. Much of it is also terrifyingly misguided. As a sociologist, I find all of it endlessly fascinating.

College is a chance for pause and thoughtful reflection, yet that is so often not how it feels even under normal circumstances. This is the time to do this, more than ever. The more this pedagogy ride keeps spinning, right alongside the relentless, panic-inducing blizzard of information and misinformation about the state of the world, the dizzier and more exhausted I feel. It’s simply not the time to fetishize methods or to add more content or more to the to-do lists. A crisis should not prompt us to add more; it should encourage us to distill things to an essence and to model for students how and what to prioritize. Keep busy, they say. Get still and centered, I believe.

If you ever wondered what the McDonaldization of education looks like, here we are. We are being expected to rush it out, fast and hot, and many devoted faculty members feel pressured to supersize their content. I want to step back and ask, is this what we want to consume? Is this what will nourish and sustain us? Will this be good for our individual and collective bodies, minds and hearts?

In Parker Palmer’s landmark book, The Courage to Teach, he writes, “The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts -- meaning heart in its ancient sense, the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.” Doing this requires great compassion for students, for oneself as a teacher and for the entire learning process. The spiritual teacher Sharon Salzberg describes compassion as “the quivering and trembling of the human heart.” Right now, our hearts and bodies are certainly trembling, and we need compassion for our students and ourselves more than ever.

In the flurry of posts and emails, it’s as if the big, important questions have gone missing. So many faculty members are wholly preoccupied with the basics of how to set up an online class with Zoom features, how to narrate PowerPoint slides, what to wear to teach online in a synchronous format, how to condense information into a new format, what videos to choose, how to record lectures with other people at home for students with their own set of responsibilities, how to prevent students from cheating on online exams -- the list is truly endless. Students are emailing about advising and extra credit.

It’s understandable. When people are nervous, they fixate on the little they can control. This reminds me of when parents of college-bound students go into a buying frenzy before school starts. In all the frantic rushing around and back and forth trips to purchase and return at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target and Walmart, some crucial conversations about big life issues seem to go missing.

What are we modeling for students when we engage in a frenzy about teaching methods and tools amid a global crisis that will have epic impacts on health care, economics, politics and human rights? Instead, what might we want to model? What do we really think our students need and want right now? What do we as educators most need and want right now?

For me, my goal is this simple and this complex: to try my best to be kind to myself as I move in and out of fear. In fact, I even sent that as a message to all of my students via Blackboard with an announcement that I will provide more information as I learn more and that I plan to streamline and simplify as much as possible going forward. By doing that, I was trying to convey to students the importance of early and direct communication, our shared humanity, my own sense of vulnerability, and the need for self-care.

If I had it my way, colleges and universities would eliminate grades this semester and move to a no-grade system or a satisfactory/unsatisfactory or pass/fail option. Again, what are we modeling as important? Yes, I was once that A student who would have wanted my A preserved rather than morphed into a passing grade. But in actuality, I would have also benefited from a structure of authority showing me the advantages of taming my self-expectations and loosening the stranglehold of perfectionism. We inhabit bureaucracies that we made, and we can demonstrate the creativity and ethical conviction to make necessary humane changes in them.

This shift to online and the issues it brings forth have convinced me more than ever that online teaching is much more about transferring information than about anything thoroughly transformative on intellectual and emotional levels. And things are bound to flop when methods drive and dictate content. In this current pandemic situation, online delivery is determining what we do with our students. That’s a lot of power to hand over to a mode of learning and teaching that does not work for many students and educators and that often feels limiting and constraining.

Instead, right now, students in sociology might consider the sociology of the coronavirus, how private troubles are indeed public issues of the social structure and how existing social inequalities deepen the health crisis and the health crisis will create deeper social inequality. Students of art, English, theater, dance and music might consider the creative work that has emerged in response to the rockiest periods in our history. Business and hospitality students might consider the role of pandemic crises on the tourism industry and the lingering effects on community building. Surely, every discipline could make some connections here.

But I’m OK abandoning a lot of that also. So what if students wait and learn some of the concepts I hoped to share with them in future classes instead? They need not master them in an emergency. As older adults, most of us are scared and uneasy. Making myself busy with technology and loads of assignments to grade and discussion boards to monitor, with far too many students, is not going to accomplish anything for anyone. My focus will be on easing my fears and those of my students and doing anything that assists our mental and physical health.

I want this moment to be an opportunity for my students to pause and think about how they might be better and healthier selves, citizens and leaders in the face of uncertainty, crisis, fear and change. I want them to think about how and where they can be of the most service and how they can channel their energy to effect change. I will urge them to think about what they want to hold on to and what they could let go of, and I want them to think about how they want to be remembered. I want to encourage them to dream about how they can chart a course for and about hope, even and especially when it feels like there is none. Aren’t these the eternal questions of the human condition and lessons we want to impart on and off campus? It just might be that this current emergency prompts us to re-evaluate our real purpose in teaching.

Often, at the end of a semester or even years later, when students share with me what they really got out of my classes, I hear time and time again how it was never really about the content as much as about how I showed up for and with them in moments of great fear, grief, loss, sadness and seismic shifts in their lives. It’s about how I took them to their farthest edge, stood there with them bearing witness and paying attention, and didn’t let them fall off. No amount of Zoom, Google, Moodle or Blackboard will ever make that happen.

Students often come to us wanting a degree. Yet when all is said and done, they suggest that they actually yearned for something else: a new lease on life, an alternative approach to how to craft a life worth living. And they look to us as their professors for how to do that. I can’t imagine burying myself in online minutiae now. Worldwide health is too precarious, the world feels too uncertain and all that dis/ease feels frighteningly loud and overwhelming. I need and want what I instinctively believe my students need and want: reassuring leadership, humor, quiet and rest, joy and beauty, a departure from the mania, and a release to be still.

I’m reminded of a gorgeous poem, “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, partially excerpted here:

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still,
for once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much …
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves …

Bio

Deborah J. Cohan is associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort and author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption (Rutgers University Press, 2020).

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