The discussion of how we’re going to manage the fall semester has been on my mind the last few days.
But, because of the chaotic nature of the move online this semester, I am paying particular attention to construction of my summer courses which, of course, will be entirely online. Over the past six weeks, I have learned a great deal about online teaching—though I have done it before and even taught for an online university for a bit years ago—for I had retreated from online classes over the past few years. I believe strongly in the value of face-to-face instruction over online instruction so had been willing to only go so far, any longer, only teaching hybrid, half online and half classroom, courses when I taught online at all.
That, of course, has had to change, and quickly.
Now, when I am planning my summer courses and thinking about the fall (which will certainly start online, though we may migrate many courses to the classroom partway through the semester), I am considering the online as a necessity and not as an alternative. That changes my attitude in general. Now, I have to consider online learning in new ways to meet the new circumstance.
One of the things that I will continue to require that I asked soon after we moved online this semester is a journal. What I have read from what you students have volunteered so far (you have not been required to turn in the journal) makes me believe that keeping a journal or, more accurately, a log of activity can help students in a time where there is a lack of structure in general.
Some teachers are using synchronous online interaction with students, meetings through Zoom or another app, to provide structure, but I am not comfortable with that. The tendency would be to lecture, which can be useful, but I can’t lecture to faces online… I need to actually see my audience to do that, otherwise I end up simply reading a script, which bores everyone.
So, I stick to the asynchronous, which also allows the students to work out their own schedules, something that can be important when others in the household may be sick or have scheduling problems of their own.
If I were setting up classes in a stable situation, I might consider synchronous classes as an occasional touchstone, using them for motivational lectures of fifteen minutes or so, but I don’t believe that would work, now. I would have to offer each lecture at least three, probably four times. And I don’t think I could manage the enthusiasm through all of them.
In the rush, however, I did not prepare my classes this semester for writing journals, assuming that I could model journal-writing for them with my own. That is not proving enough.
For one thing, I am used to writing every day. I have been doing it for years. It is easy for me to forget that my students can’t just sit down at the keyboard and pound out a thousand words in an hour, not even when they are simply recording their thoughts and the events that have surrounded them.
So, for the summer classes and those in the fall, I will provide much more instruction on writing a journal, using the idea of a log as a starting point, a log of activities, almost hour-by-hour, certainly day-by-day. I will also ask my students to create their own schedules for writing, deciding a specific time each day or every other day for writing, half-an-hour or an hour at a time. Part of the log they turn in as part of the journal will include a record of the times they wrote and even the daily word-count. I won’t require specific numbers, but I will provide goals.
Also, I will ask the students to send me their journals several times during the term and not simply at the end, as I am asking this semester.
What I am thinking, too, is to give more explicit directions for journal topics, making them even less free writing than I made them this semester. I think I will develop lists that students can use as sparks for writing if they can’t think of what to say outside of recording the events of their lives. These are going to take time to develop and will have to be revised throughout each term. I didn’t really have that option in the confusion of our hurried transition.
One of the things I don’t like about using journals is class—except when I’m teaching advanced classes where students are already experienced writers—is that journals don’t carry with them particular images of audience. Before one can become a really good writer, one has to internalize the concept of audience, having developed the habit of always having something to say to someone and always combining the two, never writing nothing to no one. That’s quite a skill and it takes practice to reach it—and guidance. I shouldn’t have simply thrown my students into it as I did this semester.
Our second paper was supposed to support learning to address audience, but the classroom exercizes I had planned fell by the wayside, also victim to coronavirus, and I did not have the time to design online replacements.
All of us teachers have been learning this semester, and learning quickly. The question of how best to utilize journals is not the only one I’ve been addressing. If we weren’t so overwhelmed by the pandemic, I would be able to think of this as an extremely useful experiment. Unfortunately, though, it was forced onto us—and actual students should not be the subjects of experiment.
That said, I hope that this strange semester will work positively of the education of all of my students in all of their classes. That it will work, in fact, for all students everywhere.
With only a week to go before the next paper is due, I am looking forward to seeing students live up to the potential I know is there.
It’s a tough time for all of you, but go for it! Reach beyond the current crisis and pull yourselves beyond!