Our Pre- & Inter- Pandemic Teaching was Never “Normal” (p.s. nor our post-pandemic teaching, too!)

Two Perspectives

I wish to talk about specific methods I and my colleagues adopted for pre-, inter and post-pandemic teaching.* I come at this with two perspectives:

  1. Teaching – As a freshly-tenured professor of religious studies at a public, R1 university (University of Alabama). My current research coordinates and publishes research with the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project.
  2. Administration – As the faculty technology liaison for UA’s college of arts and sciences. I consult 1:1 with faculty on teaching technologies, supervise quality assurance for online course development of all departments’ online courses, participate on campus tech/computing committees, and organize faculty development events. I also moderate the Teaching Hub, a site for faculty voices on teaching and learning.

Pre-pandemic in Alabama, I helped arrange for Todd Taylor and the Adobe team visit our campus on February 7, 2020. They introduced the potential of Creative Cloud for higher-ed to a group of over 200 faculty, staff, and administrators. On March 13, our university president announced suspended on-campus teaching, and on March 17 2020 announced “limited business operations,” requiring remote work for everyone except mission-critical employees. That’s when the inter-pandemic period began.

To be honest, the changes in course delivery and teaching did not substantively circumstances for everyone at UA. In particular, several of my departmental colleagues didn’t experience a radical shift in what we were already doing. I was teaching REL490 “Artificial Intelligence in Religious Studies” in Spring 2020. My last in-person class session established how we would complete the course while dispersed across the country.

Our department didn’t fully realize just how ‘prepared’ we were for inter-pandemic teaching, which we sorted out through the summer. Most everyone at UA made the shift online quite smoothly compared to news I heard from other campuses. UA had already learned some difficult lessons before “2020.”

Academic Continuity Before “2020”

Why were we prepared? Very tragically, Tuscaloosa experienced a devastating tornado  on April 27, 2011. That day in Alabama saw 62 tornados kill 253 people, injure thousands, and destroy many homes. Among them were UA staff, faculty and students. On-campus activities were suspended. All faculty were tasked with finding ways to close out the semester.

Natural disasters are more visible than pandemics. Just a few years prior, UA established shelters and classes for students from institutions affected by Hurricane Katrina. The trauma of 2011 lead to extensive “academic continuity” preparations. IT offices were tasked to continually find ways to harden physical systems, ensure data storage, and enable distributed work. Each college set up planning groups. Since my hiring in 2015, each semester involved college-wide exercises designed to test our capabilities for “suspended operations” (e.g. staff and/or faculty would be required to work off-campus).

Going Public Online Pre-Pandemic

My department was prepared in another way, too. In 2001 our program was declared “non-viable” by its governing body. Religious studies at UA was in trouble. Russell McCutcheon, my department chair, outlines what happened in his article. The department began a process of continually reinventing itself. McCutcheon calls it ‘staying nimble.’ I joined the department long after these ‘staying nimble’ days began. Looking back, my faculty perspective allows me to see how REL’s pre-pandemic strategies came into play inter-pandemic – which is where we are currently. These strategies will continue to be useful strategies for our post-pandemic futures.

As an academic unit, REL’s made a strategic shift to 1) go public online, and 2) use that online public persona to collect and sustain a local community. The rationale was survival. Building a local community by going public speaks to what our discipline has to offer a flagship university.

Going public online developed distributed expertise about online media across the faculty. We did not necessarily develop expertise in LMS/CMS content delivery. Administrators are mistaken to think ‘going online’ means ‘online teaching.’ The desire for another revenue stream obscures taking a broader, long-term perspective. None of our courses are “flipped” in the trendy sense of the word. We apply social theory concretely to our strategy for online presence.

As I understand it, the department’s strategy is to continually develop online presence with a suite of interconnected online platforms (e.g. WordPress sites, Soundcloud, Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and most recently, Minecraft).

Presidents hall in minecraft and real life

The objectives are to:

  • attract new students to our courses
  • recruit majors (p.s. few to no students ever declare “religion” majors when applying for college…)
  • highlight student and faculty achievements
  • have fun and develop camaraderie
  • find new ways to “stay nimble”
  • listen for the voices of current students and alumni

The inter-pandemic outcome of going public online was a faculty already working to sustain community through a variety of online environments. Our recent Honors Day video highlights all of the above.

Inter-Pandemic Teaching

The above applied directly to my Fall 2021 course, REL502 “Public Humanities and Religious Studies.” 502 is a microcosm of REL, where students develop their media skills to convey our department’s motto: studying religion in culture.

“…work in the Department highlights the manner in which those behaviors and institutions named as religion are elements of ordinary cultural practices.”

REL courses teach there is no ‘normal.’ Nothing is ‘natural.’ Our students learn how group and social dynamics structure ‘normal’ and ‘natural.’ As McCutcheon says, We Really Can’t Afford to Go Back to Normal. REL502 teaches students this structurally reflexive approach for going public online.

The 502 syllabus is designed to teach attitudes and skills oriented towards public pedagogy. Since 2018, we team-taught 502 using a host of digital mainstays for the course:

  1. A WordPress site hosting the syllabus and course schedule.
  2. Slack channel for inter-session preparation, communications, and debriefing.
  3. Adobe Creative Cloud tools to experiment with a variety of media and platforms (both mobile and desktop apps).

a slack dialogue among students

N.B. Students gave permission for their names and work to be shared from our Slack channel, as well as for the video at the conclusion of this post.

Making the inter-pandemic shift was somewhat simple. Instead of huddling around laptops in a seminar room, I live-streamed, weekly class sessions to demonstrate and workshop through screen-sharing.

Among the mainstays for creating a learning community were the live-streamed sessions and Slack (many of my colleagues had success with Discord, too). I used Slack for:

  • student advice posted on slackPre-class prompts (which ultimately are pre-assignment prompts) to guide the class search for examples to review and thereby assemble our methods for critical evaluation of content, form, and practice.
  • Post-class summaries of what we learned and wish to carry forward.
  • Encouragement, relevant news, and resources for our media experiments.
  • Posting the experiments as links and/or embedded content.
  • Sharing reflections on process and lessons-learned for each experiment.

Our class community is not restricted to “2020.” All four years of class cohorts use the same channel. I encourage each cohort to search back through the channel. I cannot understand the effects of current students seeing previous conversations, experiments, struggles, work-arounds and outcome. And previous students sometimes chime in on the current class to offer encouragement and suggestions.

The Results of “Never Normal” Teaching

Did it work? Yes. From the get-go REL502 – and all my other courses since 2009 – are designed from the principles I once called “effective social learning.” Shifting a course already designed for distributed online collaboration to live-streamed sessions is not logistically difficult (Here’s how a colleague used Github and Discord). The primary liability was the processing power of students’ desktops.

student comment about processing problems

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with a series of snapshots from REL502:

* Parts of this post are adapted from my presentation at the Post-pandemic University conference at the University of Cambridge in October 2020.

Collaborative Learning?

collaborativelearning2How do you think a classroom ought to be structured? Who is the expert — is there even one? Is everyone in it together or are some speakers more authorized than others? After all, one of the people in that classroom is assessing the others — or is everyone assessing everyone else, with the same consequences on the line for all?

Consider this article:

collaborativelearningRead it all here.