Current Affairs Higher Education

the bitter end of another pandemic semester

UB’s faculty senate sent out an email today recommending (imploring) faculty to find ways to “reduce student stress levels while preserving learning outcomes.” No one needs to be told it’s been some hard months tacked on to a hard 2020. And now it’s getting to be crunch time here and at many colleges as we enter the last 3 weeks of classes. Now it’s time for final projects and final exams. For many students, 30-40% of their semester grades are still to be decided.

In many respects, my classes this semester and last semester are quite the same. They are upper-division media studies courses with around 20 students. There’s a fair amount of reading and writing. I’m using the same basic platforms to teach the course (Discord for the live meetings). I made a slight miscalculation because until late January, my class this semester had fewer than 10 students registered so I designed it to be more like a grad seminar in my mind. In the last week the enrollment more than doubled. That said, the classes have been quite different in terms of student engagement. I should be clear that neither was optimal. However last semester 30% of the students would participate in an average meeting. This semester it’s more like 10% (e.g. 2-3 students). I’ve responded by doing some informal in-class writing, so at least I hear from students, but even there it’s been tough.

To be clear, this is in no way a complaint about the students. What I am describing is a very difficult learning situation, which, again, I am sure you know.

I’ve made quite a few adjustments on the fly. I reduced the readings by about 25%. UB eliminated Spring Break, but I gave my students one anyway. Now I am pondering eliminating the last reading response assignment and reducing expectations for the final research project (i.e. reducing length requirements basically). Will such changes affect the course’s ability to achieve learning outcomes? Good question. I’d answer it this way. If my basement got flooded and on my way down the stairs to inspect the damage I spilled my coffee into the basement, would I have added to the flood?

For universities and certainly for students and faculty like myself, COVID has been a good example of what the science fiction author Iain Banks termed an Outside Context Problem: “An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.”

It’s actually a very weird thing. It’s not really about teaching online. I’ve been doing that for 20 years. Somewhat ironically, it’s about what my current course is about (at least in the most general terms): a material-historical understanding of how human cognition, agency, community, society etc. emerges in a natural-cultural context and how that context has been rapidly shifting in relation to digital-information technologies with a slew of ethical, political, philosophical challenges and so on. The pandemic is an outside context problem for us in Banks’ sense but also in the sense that we have all been thrown out of the contexts on which we rely to learn and work at universities (and yes, not only universities, but I’m talking about my class here). We have this idea that we can learn not just “online” or “at a distance” but largely cocooned from each other. It’s a theory of mind and learning that fits neatly with the fictions of artificial intelligence. Trying to learn in this way is analogous to having the entirety of your social life be on social media. On an individual level it’s a challenge, but when everyone is facing that same challenge, well… you know.

And it’s just fraying at more than the edges now. We got to the end of last spring on adrenalin and craziness. The students (and faculty) buckled down and made it work (more or less) in the fall. But now? It’s like all those folks across the nation going out with their masks. It’s like my state, which has suffered so much, opening schools and restaurants and what not even though the disease is spreading much more than it was at this time a year ago. And I don’t want to debate that decision here. My point is just that people can obviously only hold on so long. And I think that’s what what’s happening.

So the preserving learning outcomes line strikes me as a kind of sardonic gallows humor. Have we learned our lesson? Maybe, maybe not.

3 replies on “the bitter end of another pandemic semester”

I normally read Digital Digs, so was excited that LinkedIn pointed me at this. I am teaching completely asynchronously, and 1/3 of each class has largely disappeared. I was also wondering if you meant to say “slight miscalculation”. Sorry, occupational hazard.


My teaching is about the same this semester as last, though I am teaching one very small grad class where we do have some synchronous meetings. The other two classes are asynch and the discussions in all three classes are mostly asynch. The level of discussion and interaction hasn’t dropped much in these classes for a very simple reason: I require it. Without going into all the details, I require students to participate in the discussions and I count the number of posts they make in these discussions.

The bigger problems for me are kind of everything else. Not surprisingly, I still have a lot of students who are struggling in the rest of their lives with Covid related things. I’m having my own (albeit extremely minor in comparison) problems, and I think the all online/distancing thing has started to make some of my colleagues even more batshit crazy than they were before Covid.


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