Uncharted Territory: The Art of Discipline and Improv

These are required elements of a COVID-19-era hybrid course, a president (and instructor) learns.

September 17, 2020

In the summer of 1987, I worked for the Let’s Go budget travel guides put together by Harvard Student Agencies. I was to cover 16 towns in south and southwest France, along with Moscow and St. Petersburg in the USSR, and do this on a budget of $25 a day, everything included. I didn’t own a credit card. I had no extra cash.

For seven weeks, I maintained strict discipline, writing about cathedrals and museums and vineyards and double-checking train schedules and prices. When my money ran low, I ate baguettes, tomatoes and cheese. When I missed the last train in one town, I hitchhiked. At different times, I felt excited, happy, terrified and exhausted. I was in mostly uncharted territory and learning much about discipline and improvisation. Over all, I had one of the best summers of my life.

Can 2020 be a best year of my life? Perhaps. I was thinking of discipline and improvisation as my fall semester class began in late August. My attention was focused on completing one more module. Discipline. Then, two days before classes started, I realized I had not spoken with my TA! I had met her once online weeks earlier, and the connection was fuzzy. I tracked her down. I learned that she had not been a TA before, was working 12 hours a day at a sales job in Florida and would not be on campus till October, thought the job was just busywork and not full-on interaction with students, and she had no reliable internet connection.

I told her she was released from the job. We shared a moment of dismay, then we both laughed and confessed our mutual relief! I had not been disciplined enough to communicate with her about expectations, the business school had not checked to make sure she and I were a match, and my TA had not taken the initiative to communicate with me. It all seemed a mess, but I quickly asked my former presidential intern to step in as a temporary TA, tutor me on the learning management system and answer students’ questions. Improvisation. We sorted out matters until the business school found me someone new.

My Principles of Leadership class at Utah Valley University is hybrid: everything online except for two face-to-face classes book-ending the semester. The first in-person class was on Sept. 11. Less than half the students were there. A few streamed the session online. Others seemed simply to be missing in action.

The technology wasn’t perfect, despite months of disciplined preparation by our staff. To be recorded, I had to stay in one place, which I found practically impossible. I started moving around. Lucky for me, two of UVU’s presidential interns were there to help. They literally became roving cameras, holding their laptops in front of different people so that those online could follow the conversation.

One student spoke to me after class. His mom was ill, and he was shuttling between the university and her home a couple of hours away. He was behind in class but working to catch up. I noticed he had only one arm. “Are you an amputee?” I asked.

“No, I was born with only one arm. My parents adopted me. They didn’t really make a big deal of this. They just told me to do what kids normally did.” He added that he had served a two-year church mission in my country of origin, the Philippines.

Another student mentioned in class that she was a cancer survivor. A third recounted that she graduated high school many years ago but never went to college. She had a flourishing career but also wanted a college degree. I was thinking that my students, those present and absent, were likely to understand discipline and improvisation because of their life experiences and because now they have to navigate through a pandemic. They have much to teach me.

We are in the fourth week of the fall semester at UVU. COVID cases are spiking in the county. We are following strict protocols for safety, self-reporting and contact tracing but don’t control what happens off campus. A couple of classes have been moved online. Enrollment is down 3 percent. Several hundred students have dropped out. We will call all of them to find out why and help where we can. Everyone is committed to a disciplined semester, but I know we are improvising and will need to be creative and resilient as the pandemic continues.

At a campground in Basque country in France, in the summer of ’87, I felt poor, tired and lonely. I didn’t want more cheese and baguettes. I wanted to dump Let’s Go and go home instead. I’m glad I stayed. My journals from that summer are packed with memories and lessons that have shaped me as a leader.

In my class and at UVU this fall 2020, I am confident that we will be disciplined as needed and will also be flexible. We will improvise and help one another through a difficult time. When we look back on this, there is a good chance we’ll say this was one of our best years. We grew, learned and proved to be stronger than we ever thought.


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