Pandemic Pedagogy, Productivity, and the Neoliberal University

As part of the OpenLab team’s ongoing conversations about access and pedagogy, I’ve been invited to respond to Jesse’s post from April, “On Burnout, On Rest: Pandemic Pedagogy.” Jesse urges “all of us—but especially faculty—to slow down” and give both ourselves and our students (or in the case of staff, anyone we supervise) time to breathe, rest, and physically and emotionally process the trauma of the past year and counting.

Jesse’s call to “slow down” makes me think of another sense of the phrase: an organized work slowdown. Slowdowns are collective job actions — similar to a strike — during which workers agree to perform their assigned tasks but deliberately decrease their efficiency or productivity. An example is when workers on the London Underground agreed in 2003 to run trains 15 mph slower than usual for 48 hours to force the Underground to take action on several safety issues.

We haven’t seen this in the form of an organized job action at CUNY or at other universities, but we can see its spirit in calls to extend the tenure clock for faculty, extend “satisfactory progress” timelines and provide additional years of funding for graduate students, and/or to revise our pre-pandemic late work policies. In essence: It ought to be okay to work slower, do less, be less productive or efficient. And this ethic must be implemented across the board, for all people. It must be the norm, not the exception granted only to those who can “prove” a need.

This is important for three reasons. The first reason is that we can’t use our own personal experiences as benchmarks for what other people ought to be able to do, so we must apply the greatest possible flexibility and understanding to everyone. Many people, including me, view March/April 2020 as the most difficult and traumatic part of the pandemic, but that is not true for everyone. For some, the difficulties of that time never ended. Many people are still unemployed, still lacking medical care, still behind on rent, still grappling with long term effects from COVID, still unable to safely go out in public, and/or still grieving loved ones. For others, the “worst part” simply came later. For some, the worst part is now. COVID cases are currently the highest they’ve ever been in India and Brazil, trauma that isn’t “far away” to anyone who has loved ones in those countries. One of my friends is in India right now, trying to teach and attend Zoom meetings on Eastern Time, which for her are in the middle of the night, while also coping with mass death from Covid-19 all around her, the effects of the recent super cyclone, and not being able to see her family, since her mother works at a hospital. 

The second reason is that everything I said in the previous paragraph applies even when we aren’t in the middle of a global pandemic. The pandemic has created increased awareness and empathy for some of the struggles people face, but these struggles are not new. Even if more of our students — and our colleagues — are dealing with food insecurity, financial precarity, and personal trauma this year, some of them are always dealing with that. My first semester teaching at CUNY, two years before the pandemic, one of my students confided in me that they were facing the serious possibility of homelessness. The year before that, when I taught in New Jersey, a student lost her father the same week her mother was diagnosed with cancer. And these are only representative of the circumstances that students have chosen to share with me. 

The third reason goes back to labor issues and worker exploitation. In short, we all ought to be required to do less, and do it more slowly, because today’s standards for what an employee should be expected to do are already far beyond the job requirements of years past. For decades, increases in productivity have far outpaced increases in wages. As a long term trend, all workers are being asked to do more, faster, and better, and we are not being compensated in kind. This is the opposite of a slowdown: it’s a speedup. 

One example is how the academic job market has changed over time. Some people are saying that many of today’s applicants to PhD programs have CVs that could have once landed them not only a tenure track position, but tenure. Several of my PhD classmates have already published books — in some cases, multiple books. The pandemic and the transition to online learning are a great example of how this phenomenon of labor speedup works: many people working in education (and in other sectors) have reported needing to work harder and longer than ever before. 

Converting course materials to an online format can take dozens of hours, especially if you have to learn an entirely new digital platform. Professional staff have needed to develop entirely new procedures for doing their jobs in an online format. And now, as we prepare for a partial reopening this fall, many of us will be expected to do our jobs in both formats at once. Some faculty are being required to teach in a “hy-flex” mode, in which some students attend class in person while others attend online at the same time. Others have been asked to teach their courses entirely online, but to provide both synchronous and asynchronous options for students. None of this had been expected from us in the past, but will likely be considered reasonable in the future. 

So, again: to whatever extent we are able, we should slow down, and we should reduce our expectations for both ourselves and others. We can’t reduce the speed of the entire higher education economy without mass collective action, but we can do it for our students, or for our supervisees.

When I revised my Fall 2020 syllabus in preparation for this past semester, I cut out an entire unit and replaced it with extended time for students to spend working on their projects. This isn’t reducing “rigor.” It’s reducing stress, and my students are learning more. As long as I’ve been a student, teachers have admonished that “cramming” is never a good study strategy because students won’t retain the knowledge. So why do we as teachers “cram” content into our syllabi? It takes time to learn deeply, even under the best possible learning conditions.

Slowing down is personally beneficial, pedagogically beneficial, and not something we should feel professionally guilty about. Our expected standards of productivity are imposed onto us by the neoliberal — that is, capitalist — university. We aren’t failing ourselves, and we aren’t failing our students, to refuse these conditions to the extent that we can.

Flexible Pedagogy at Bronx EdTech 2021

On May 7, I presented on “Choose Your Own Grading Schema: An Online Learning Experiment” at the 2021 Bronx EdTech Showcase. Keynote speakers at the showcase included Mariana Regalado (Brooklyn College), Maura Smale (City Tech), and Matt Gold (Graduate Center).

You can download my slides with the link below or by clicking on the image of the title slide.

Alt text is in the caption
The title slide of a Powerpoint presentation. Text reads “Choose Your Own Grading Schema: An Online Learning Experiment” Olivia Wood, PhD Candidate in English, CUNY Graduate Center, Graduate Teaching Fellow, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Pedagogy Fellow, City Tech OpenLab

Last semester, after teaching mostly asynchronously with no penalties or cutoffs for late work, the responses I received in students’ end-of-semester reflections were mixed. About half said they were incredibly grateful for the flexibility my class structure offered. The other half said they wished I’d required attendance at the optional Zoom sessions and held them to their deadlines under pain of grade penalty. They recognized that while ideally they would be self-motivated to participate as much as possible, external pressure would have been helpful.

In my presentation, I shared how I revised my syllabus for Spring 2021 to account for both strands of feedback, and how students have responded.

At the beginning of the semester, students chose via Google Form which grading plan they wanted: Structure and Accountability, or Maximum Flexibility. Students on the Structure and Accountability plan were required to attend the weekly Zoom sessions and complete all assignments on the syllabus. Students on the Maximum Flexibility plan were not required to attend Zooms and were only required to complete select assignments marked in bold on the syllabus– unit projects, unit reflections, and a few other smaller tasks– but were still welcome and encouraged to attend class and complete other activities. After each unit, students were given the opportunity to switch grading plans if they wish, after reading an overview of the exact assignment and points breakdown for each plan on the coming unit.

Students responded very positively to this method. About one third chose the Structure and Accountability plan for the first two units, and most students chose the Maximum Flexibility plan for the third unit. Additionally, several students on the flexibility plan also regularly chose to attend the synchronous classes and participate in ungraded activities.

This new system does not appear to have affected the distribution of final grades compared to the Fall 2020 semester, nor was there a clear correlation between the grading plans a student chose for each unit and that student’s success in the course; I have several students making As who chose Structure and Accountability two or more times, but I also have several students making As who chose Maximum Flexibility for all three units.

While the numerical outcomes do not seem to have changed significantly under this new grading system, the students have almost unanimously reported feeling less stressed about the class, feeling trusted and understood, and feeling empowered to make the choices that are best for their own individual lives and situations.

I’m also extremely happy to report that for the first time in my three years of teaching, I don’t have a single student who has withdrawn or “disappeared.” Every student who stopped participating in the course in the middle of the semester has since returned and is turning in work again. While one might assume that no late work penalties will lead to most students leaving the bulk of their work to the last minute (and this is true of a few), most of my students have been turning in their assignments only a few days past the recommended deadlines, and several routinely turn in their assignments early.

After each unit, I asked students to respond to a series of reflection questions, including “What did you do during this unit that helped make you successful?” and “What additional resources/supports do you wish you had had during this unit?” Just as I give them feedback on their writing and ask them to revise, I also asked them for their feedback on my course design that I could use when revising for future semesters.

All but one of my students said that they think I should continue this “multiple-path” grading system in future semesters and wish other professors would do the same. (The other student said they didn’t like the stress of having to choose how they would be graded.)

Take a look through my slides for quotes from my students’ reflections, and if you choose to adapt my system for your own classes, please tell me about it in the comments!

On Burnout, On Rest: Pandemic Pedagogy

As a sick and disabled disability justice scholar, I have spent all year asking everyone to slow down. Luckily, many folks I work with understand the importance of what I am asking, even as we still have deadlines and timelines to hit. Others feel the pressure even more intensely: my Black and brown and Asian colleagues, more precarious workers at CUNY, colleagues on a tight tenure clock, scholars unable to find full-time work or any work at all. It feels like there is no time, not enough time.

It’s been a whole year since I last saw any of my colleagues in-person. People have had babies, gotten ill and become disabled, articulated their gender in new ways, graduated and defended dissertations, and moved away. All of this has happened without fanfare or celebration or gathering.

What hasn’t happened: collective mourning, solidarity with sick and disabled people, or ethical leadership in higher education.

2020 was tough on everyone. Even those of us privileged enough to be able to work from home without disrupting our finances too much, we have witnessed a lot of loss. Every day, friends of friends post about the passing of beloved parents, grandparents, disabled pals, frontline and essential workers. My own chronic illnesses have worsened dramatically during a year without medical care, and I have to spend a huge portion of my time resting and recovering, storing up energy for a few synchronous events a week. In between, I am lying down. I have learned the hard way that to ignore the rest my bodymind demands is to betray myself and my work; rest—challenging the voices that berate me for taking a break—is an essential piece of my access-focused pedagogies and methodologies. 

My closest friends and family are almost all fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Most of us are white, financially stable, employed, and hold at least Bachelor’s degrees. The story is not the same for CUNY students. Early figures don’t give a lot of information, but knowing that 85% of CUNY undergraduates are students of color paints a grim picture for their vaccination access. Many CUNY students work service jobs in retail, food service, and healthcare, and some are eligible through their jobs. And many Black and brown CUNY students have rightful hesitations about receiving brand-new medical procedures without a fuller picture of how the Covid vaccines may affect them long-term.

All of this is to say: this year has hardened a lot of us who work to educate and support student success. If before, faculty stringently enforced attendance policies, now we want proof of a positive Covid test to excuse an absence. Pictures of funeral programs, or a death certificate. More medical documentation for new disabilities emerging from post-Covid infection or medical neglect. The lack of care and compassion here is alarming. We absolutely must do better: learn to trust students and each other.

For me, working on my dissertation has been an elusive project. After four years of steady work on my dissertation, I have ground to a halt. My emotional capacity, necessary for my work in autoethnography, is near zero. I fill my time with applications for awards that I will never receive in an academic climate that fetishizes machine-like production that I can never even hope to emulate. I had *7* interviews in 2 weeks for 5th-year fellowships for my graduate program. I submit documentation to account for my slow timeline, while pre-Covid, I burned through doctoral coursework and exams with lightning speed. I am so tired, and I want nothing but a break.

As our patience wears thin, I invite all of us—but especially faculty—to slow down. Our breakneck pace to keep up with an invisible, always-moving goalpost will not protect us from pain, loss, and trauma. It definitely is not protecting our students, who have experienced incalculable devastation: economic crashes resulting in homelessness, food insecurity, mourning for a world they were promised that no longer exists.

From the former captain of Team Doing-Too-Much, I am asking you to please slow down. Rates of psychiatric illness (anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, panic) for higher education students and workers are spiking from previously record-setting highs, and we’re losing community members to suicide. Many folks who contracted Covid are now disabled by post-viral illness, and parents (mostly mothers) are profoundly burdened by lack of safe childcare. In disability justice communities, flexible deadlines, communicating openly about access needs, and extending gracious trust are central practices to building community and solidarity. I invite all of us to learn from the radical disabled people who center care and compassion in every relationship. Try to rest: sit and chat with a loved one without checking emails in the background; try out a video game you’re curious about and just be terrible at it for a while; share a meal over video call with your best friend.  Your bodymind, your spirit, will thank you.

With the semester underway

Today we are launching Swipp Email Insights so we are doing pretty good!! What about you guys? #new #email #marketing #customers #solution #happywednesday
Photo by Getswipp

We’re two weeks in to the Spring 2021 semester. Each semester so far has been so different, with Spring 2020 allowing for faculty and students to get to know each other and the courses before the switch to remote, and Fall 2020 imposing the obstacle of starting the semester without any in-person experience for the vast majority of courses.

What’s different about Spring 2021? We’re hopefully learning more and finding ways to foster teaching and learning using digital tools, kindness, and patience. But we’ve also used up much or most of our energy reserves.

With all of this in mind, we want to ask:

How are you doing?

What support do you need?

What’s something that’s working that you can share as inspiration?

No pressure to share, but if you want to, please feel free to share some thoughts in the comments here.

Spring 2021 Support

Jane from Central New York, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The OpenLab team is here to help you through this semester! Here are a few of our resources to help you through:

The Open Road offers OpenLab news, the full archive of what we’ve spotlighted, our support schedule for open hours and one-on-one appointments, information about how to request a workshop, and a link out to OpenLab screencasts.

Two really helpful modules, Teaching with the OpenLab, and The OpenLab for Students, can help instructors and students get asynchronous support for teaching and learning on the OpenLab.

Our email support offers anyone the opportunity to write in to get help with a specific question.

Finally, we hope you find a little comfort with our Comforting Content for COVID Coping. Sometimes we tweet comforting images or video from our Twitter account, @CityTechOpenLab, using the #ComfortingContent hashtag.

Is there topic in open pedagogy you’d like to see us address here on Open Pedagogy on the OpenLab? Let us know here in the comments or by getting in touch directly!

The OpenLab at CUNY IT 2020

Last week, the OpenLab team presented a panel at the 19th Annual CUNY IT Conference. The theme of the conference was “The Next or New Normal?” and in our panel, we discussed some of the initiatives we’ve started since last spring to support City Tech’s faculty, staff, and students during remote learning.

These initiatives include:

  • A new course template designed for remote learning
  • Model courses and/or course hubs for classes in Communication Design, First Year Writing, and Mathematics
  • Self-paced OpenLab training modules for both faculty and students
  • Short OpenLab skills screencasts
  • Setting up a system for online real-time support (office hours and 1:1 appointments with the digital pedagogy fellows)

Check out our slides below!

Click on the image to view our slideshow!

Many members of our team participated in the panel, including OpenLab Co-Directors Jody R. Rosen, M. Genevieve Hitchings, Charlie Edwards, and Jonas Reitz, Senior Instructional Technologist Bree Zuckerman, and Digital Pedagogy Fellow Olivia Wood.

CUNY CUE Conference & OER Showcase

On October 29-30, teachers and researchers from around CUNY came together online for the annual Coordinated Undergraduate Education Conference, this year coupled with the annual Open Educational Resources Showcase. Keynotes from Dr. Robin DeRosa and Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani highlighted issues of equity, access, and open pedagogy for staff and faculty working with OERs at CUNY, and participants shared many resources and ideas between campuses and projects.

The OpenLab team presented on two panels to highlight our ongoing work around access and accessibility in open digital pedagogy. The first panel focused on reflecting on our Open Pedagogy discussion series on the many aspects of access and accessibility in open digital pedagogy from 2019-2020, and Digital Pedagogy Fellow Olivia Wood wrote a great recap of this panel.

The slides for this panel are linked below!

Title slide of Access, OER, and Open Pedagogy on the OpenLab presentation
Click image to view slideshow


The second panel, facilitated by Cailean Cooney, OER Coordinator at City Tech, and Elvis Bakaitis, Adjunct Reference Librarian, highlighted discussion between former OER faculty fellows Prof. Colleen Birchett (English) and Prof. Christopher Swift (Humanities), who shared their work developed during and since their OER Fellowship, and OpenLab Digital Pedagogy Fellow Jesse Rice-Evans (me!) who talked about access and OERs beyond zero-textbook-cost courses.

Prof. Birchett shared her OER site from her summer 2019 course “Home Away from Home: Stories from the Diaspora,” an ENGL 2001: Introduction to Literature (Fiction) course, and discussed how she incorporated OER materials and open pedagogy into her course

Prof. Swift discussed his OER site, THE 2280, “History of Theatre,” which uses mapping software and place-based pedagogies to explore the role of New York City theaters with students through the NYC Theater Research Project. He brought up some of the difficulties of place-based learning during distance learning.

I felt it was important to contextualize the choices that faculty and staff make in creating and using OERs to address some issues of inequity in higher education. To address this, I shared selections from my piece “Open Access Pedagogy: A Manifesto,” which is published in full on the Anti-Ableist Composition Collective site.

I pose a politicization of open access that centers the lived experiences of people doing the teaching and learning. The scholars I am centering here (see bibliography) are speaking to a widespread practice of centering access pedagogy—pedagogy that is culturally responsive, flexible, and reimagines “rigor” as intellectual curiosity, critical rhetorical skill-building, and an embrace of non-normative English.

All participants highlighted how OERs and open pedagogy have influenced their teaching, learning, and research. View the slides below!

Title slide from presentation on Open Pedagogy and OERs in the Classroom at City Tech
Click image to view slideshow

Open Pedagogy Recap: OpenLab at the CUE/OER Showcase!

On Friday, October 30, the OpenLab team along with City Tech librarian Cailean Cooney hosted a digital workshop as part of the 2020 CUE Conference and CUNY OER Showcase.

This conference was originally planned for March 2020, but was rescheduled due to the pandemic. Because so much about our teaching and learning environment has changed since then, we adapted our February Open Pedagogy session to talk with folks about access and accessibility in our current circumstances.

Below are our discussion questions- talked through together via Google Docs instead of on chart paper!- and some highlights from participant comments.

1. What connotations do you have with the word “accommodation”?

people shouldn’t be “accommodated for,’ but instead design should consider the full range of human experience / abilities / dispositions”

“an accommodation is a place to stay…it’s a place at least comfortable, ideally welcoming and friendly, for all of us.”

Requires medical documentation, submission to disability office, approval and recommended “reasonable accommodation” for traditional learning styles”

Flexibility, willingness to make things easier and accessible.”

2. How do OERs help us address equity and access? What does the platform you use to share open course materials with students have to do with access? 

if students can’t get to materials from their available devices, this is a huge barrier to entry! mobile/tablet access is how many CUNY students (and honestly fac/staff) use the web!”

The platform is critical and should not be a secondary consideration. Using proprietary platforms to share open content is (IMO) problematic, and is a reason I’m happy that open solutions like openlab exist.”

Our LMS on campus simply can’t be used on a mobile phone even though the vast majority of my students are using mobile phones”

3. How does our current sociocultural situation affect how we think about access in higher education? What new questions or concerns have come up around using technology to facilitate access?

Access to … food, health care, child care, technology, space to work– it’s all part of the mix. We have to think of “access” in this much larger context.”

I’m thinking much more about how to take time into account in course design, course expectations for students, and for faculty. For instance, the time it will take to do required readings?”

I’ve most of all been thinking about how to make my sites accessible to those with poor internet access. Post-COVID, I realize that I need to redesign sites checking for bandwidth, loadability. I tested my sites with Google Page Speed, and although they seem fast on my internet, they clearly are not easily loadable.

I’ve been using more radical course policies than I have been brave enough to try in the past. I don’t want to go back, even after the pandemic. The current situation is just a more heightened/visible version of a situation that totally already existed.”

FLEXIBLE DUE DATES”

The technology needs to be taught, not just assume everyone knows how.”

4. What are some current strategies you have, or would like to try, to make course content accessible / useful / usable to all students, with shifting and complex needs?

Reflection-based grading: students respond to their own work from a reflective perspective, analyze what they struggled with and did great at, and assign themselves grades based on their work towards each project in the first-year writing/whatever course. (Read Jesse Stommel on ungrading!)”

Check-ins with students”

Lastly, some resources that might be useful in considering accessibility strategies:

May 8 Event: Disability Justice and COVID-19

Hi OpenLab pals! Sending all of you tenacity and compassion in these trying times.  

I’m sharing this upcoming event here on Open Pedagogy for a few reasons:  

This event is run by and features Black disability justice leaders, including Dorian Taylor, Elandria Williams, Lateef Mcleod, and Leroy Moore Jr., in a time when many disability organizations center white organizers over BIPOC activists. Listening to Black and brown disability activists is crucially important for us as members of the CUNY community, as COVID-19 is disproportionately harming Black and brown New Yorkers, many of whom also work and study at CUNY.  

The organizers of this digital event have also included ample details about accessibility, including information about interpretation services, breaks, and descriptive alt text for their chosen images. This level of detail is crucial when planning accessible events, and must be a central aspect of coordinating remote and online events!  

From the organizers:  

We’re hosting this webinar to offer the perspective of people grounded in #DisabilityJustice work as we all respond to COVID-19.  

ASL interpretation and live captions will be provided. We will also have breaks.  

Register at: https://bit.ly/djgrounding

What’s working?

 

cheering panda saying yay!
“yay! panda” by Rakka, via Flickr

With the end of the semester is in sight, but before we all scatter to our virtual summer spaces, the OpenLab team wants to hear from you about what worked in this distance-learning semester. What’s something that you found useful, that you want to keep in the upcoming online Summer or Fall semester? What’s something that you have incorporated into your pedagogy that you’ll continue to do–or not do–into the foreseeable future? Leave a comment–short or longer–to share your brilliance with the OpenLab community.

Does this make you think about what’s not working? Save that thought and add it to the What’s not working? conversation instead.

If you have ideas that you want more help with, either from a pedagogical angle or a technical one, please check out our expanded Help materials, contact our team via email (OpenLab@citytech.cuny.edu) or contact form, or participate in our virtual office hours.

Yay for all!