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.

A Moving Target

Logo for the University of Vermont's Department of Religious StudiesLong ago, at the start of a Fall semester, I was speaking with someone newer to our Department about whether it was likely that we would have a tenure-track search that year; we had recently had a faculty member depart for another university, leaving our then small Department with no one covering Asia. We hoped to fill that gap, of course, but one can never be sure if requests for lines (whether replacements or new) will be granted by the University. “But surely Asia is important” I was told in reply, the person assuming that the University administration would agree.

I replied by asking whether they thought that the 22 other Departments in the College of Arts & Sciences also had unfilled lines and uncovered areas of importance to them — such as Modern Languages and Criminal Justice, or Chemistry, Biology, and Political Science. For while I may not think that another Elizabethan specialist is really needed in the English Department I can easily imagine how important such a line might be to someone over there (thus making its way into their rationale for requesting the position). So I suggested that if I were the Dean or the Provost I’d likely not be making these decisions — after all, resources are limited and not everyone will get what they want — based on the scale of value used by each Department in making their staffing requests but, instead, I’d probably come up with some other set of criteria, one that I could use across units that each employed their own local, different, and sometimes competing or even contradictory criteria for what was important or valuable. Continue reading

Course Prep and Summer Projects

home office desktopIt was indeed an odd summer, for everyone. That we all know.

What you might not know is that the REL faculty, despite being home since mid-March — minimizing trips out of the house, shopping carefully, and, in some cases, spending lots of their time either homeschooling children or packing up and moving houses (whether just across town or across the country to join us here in Alabama) — have been busy working. A fair bit of that work has been focused on revising Fall classes, of course. The rush to take all courses remote, back in the Spring, was followed by a summer of closely watching the infection rates around the country, and not just here in our region (since a large percentage of our students come from all over the US, and beyond) while trying to calculate the likelihood that the virus and measures to address it on campus (e.g., social distancing in classrooms, which reduced classroom occupancy by up to 80%) would require us to make use of remote teaching tools once again.

But class prep and homeschooling weren’t the only things that faculty have been focused on this summer. They’ve been making progress on a variety of projects — likely not the sort of progress they had planned, since the summer is when most faculty members dive into projects that took a backseat to teaching in the Fall and the Spring. But progress has been made all the same. Continue reading

REL Update: Starting the New Fall Semester

UA graphic listing tips for staying healthy during the Fall semester

In mid-June we posted an update about the upcoming Fall classes but with the semester’s start now just two weeks away, it’s time for another update on some specific changes to REL classes.

So while we certainly leave major details about re-entry to the University to communicate to students, staff, and faculty (with information found at UA’s health info site, concerning such things as the required COVID-19 testing, new conduct rules, and the required health check every three days [which requires your Bama credentials and a cell phone number]), there’s some details about REL that we’ll convey here. Continue reading

Our Actions Have Implications

University of Alabama sign on the need to wear a face mas.

We’ve been getting some inquiries from friends around the country who have seen news reports on so-called COVID-19 parties hosted by some students in Tuscaloosa (as well as elsewhere in the country, according to reports). The local Fire Department’s Chief reported this to the city council the other day but now we see that it has made the national news — such as this report from yesterday morning: Continue reading

Fall Update: Changes to Courses

Books and a Department of Religious Studies mug in a library

As noted in the previous update on the Fall semester, being nimble and adaptable to changing circumstances is among the key skills students need for success this Fall, whatever university they’re attending; after all, COVID-19 continues to present very real challenges in many U.S. states, let alone countries around the world, significantly affecting the well-being of some age groups as well as people with certain risk factors; in response, such new policies as regular use of masks in classes and decreased seating capacity in lectures halls and labs due to physical distancing guidelines developed by the UA System and the University itself (see the Academic Affairs portion of UA’s now-released guidelines) mean that a number of adjustments are now being made to ensure successful Fall classes. After all, if you’re familiar with the seating pattern in a typical classroom at any university, maintaining the mandated 6 feet of distance from the instructor or from the nearest student (something that will be indicated with lines on classrooms’ floors and with seats marked so as not to be occupied) means that a room will now only seat a small portion of those enrolled in the courses. Continue reading

Update on REL’s Fall Planning

Sample image from self-reporting healthcheck app.

In early June we posted an update so that everyone knew that REL’s plan for a safe and productive Fall semester was the main thing now occupying our attention. With the UA System’s recent release of it’s plan for Fall, complete with a variety of recommendations for each of UA’s three campuses, we feel that the time is right to update everyone again on what the Fall in REL may look like. Continue reading

Stay Tuned and Stay Safe

Photo of Religious Studies seminar roomEarly on, someone added me to a Facebook group dedicated to issues in higher ed that involve or are impacted by COVID-19. I’ve only posted there a few times but have routinely monitored the posts of others, sometimes finding useful links but often being somewhat perplexed by the sorts of things that I see.

For example, consider the post asking others in the group about their routines for cleaning classrooms between classes and how long they’re waiting between classes. As someone commented there, that’s a question best directed at a campus’s facilities operation, let alone the Office of Academic Affairs and the Registrar, since the vast majority of members of the group seem to be faculty, each focused on issues revolving directly around the virus’s implications for their teaching and what they can do about it. Custodial services, though it surely affects us, isn’t something in which we have much of a say, if any. Continue reading

Living Room Classrooms and Kitchen Offices

Popular Mechanics magazine cover from the 1970s with home office pictures

As universities across the country are making plans for whether, and if so how, to return to face-to-face instruction in the Fall semester, I wanted to send out a big thank you to the REL faculty and staff who, like so many others around the U.S. and the world, quickly turned their homes into their offices and their classrooms for the past two months. That means that private internet connections and home utility bills have quite literally kept the lights on and the information flowing for all of our schools and for all of our students.

While it may seem a small thing when judged on an individual basis — after all, I was going to pay that cable bill anyway… — it’s actually rather remarkable when you consider that, collectively, the day-to-day operations of the university have almost completely shifted to the homes of its faculty and staff. Add to this the families of their own that many of them have, let alone their own concerns for the situation that we’ve all found ourselves in (coz they too were scrambling to find homemade masks), and you arrive at a pretty remarkable past two months, in which they each became the University of Alabama.

So, as the Spring semester ends, and as we transition to a summer of online instruction, all the while working to put the proper conditions into place to have a safe and successful Fall, I just wanted to highlight what’s been going on behind-the-scenes for the past 8 weeks. While we’re very grateful for the staff who remained on campus — after all, many essential facilities workers have been busy on campus all this time — and for all of the students who each had to figure out their own adaptations to instruction going remote, the way that faculty and staff members’ living rooms and kitchens became lecture halls and offices, complete with all of those unscripted pet interruptions, also deserves our thanks.