Reflection 2021: Responding to the Padlet Posts & the Chat from May 19

Guest Post by Dr. Nancy Chick

I’ve been reading the Reflection Graffiti posted on Padlet, nodding at every sticky note prompted by the questions, “What questions are you left wondering after this year? What questions do you want to ask other teachers? We are still in a long stretch of time marked by great uncertainty. What questions will we have answers to someday, but cannot know answers to yet?”  I’ve also been reading the comments in the chat* for the May 19 talk, and have pasted some of them (anonymously) onto the Padlet to put them in conversation with the reflections.  I’d like to offer some thoughts in response, not so much with definitive answers, but instead with some thoughts that continue the reflections and others that may prompt exploration toward next steps.

First, the reflections seem to map in concentric circles of scale, starting with processing individual emotional reactions (yellow), then concerns about faculty-student interactions (pink), then questions about what to carry forward into post-pandemic teaching (green), and finally questions about organizational change (blue).  (See image below.)  These nested levels of reflection help illustrate where people were thinking in May.  Unsurprisingly, many are thinking concretely about their teaching practices in the fall. 

The Guilt Ouroboros

What do we do with feelings of guilt about our imperfections of the last year? And should we feel guilty for not having such an imperfect experience?  

If you attended my May 19 talk (recording here), you know I’m wrestling with some guilt as well. From what (little) I know about guilt, it doesn’t do any of us any good–unless it motivates us toward positive change.  I propose we do the following:

  • Reflect on the last year. 
  • Make a brief list of what we did under those incredible circumstances that we wouldn’t want to repeat under normal or near-normal circumstances. Keep that list. Revisit it when we’re ready to plan for the fall.
  • Then, write any feelings of guilt, shame, and regret on little pieces of paper, and burn them in our summer campfires, backyard firepits, or outdoor grills.
  • Then, let’s commit to focus instead on compassion for ourselves and others, and not forget the magnitude of what we’ve all just been through.

Working with Students

How can I work in partnership with students without contributing to burnout? How can we sustain the kind of care-taking students needed all last year?  

I’m no expert in trauma or guilt, but I’ve read some of the research on burnout, cognitive load, and stress.  If I remember correctly, a lot of the research on burnout in nursing (part of a project I was working on at Vanderbilt) suggests that their high burnout rates are in part caused by not seeing the positive impact of the work they do. Nurses rarely see whether their patients survive, much less thrive, so they don’t have that concrete reminder of the meaningful effects of their stressful work.  How can we extrapolate from that into our own settings with students?  

How can we help students see the effects of their meaningful work?  How can we help them see their successes?  I see potential in metacognitive activities like the following: 

  • Ask them to identify and share the exam preparations that worked well for them.
  • Assign an ongoing learning log where they recap engaging-to-them moments,  celebrate successes, and chronicle epiphanies. 
  • Have them write “how to do well in this course” notes to future students–and not just at the end of the semester. 
  • Collect and share anonymous notes from students about how their classmates have helped them in the course.

The second question in this area is about our own burnout and sustainable practices moving forward. I wonder if shifting some of the caretaking to the students–as outlined above–will take some of that off of our shoulders. The list above might also help them learn how to do some self-caretaking and peer-caretaking.

Teaching Forward

What will we carry forward from pandemic teaching? What should teaching look like in the next academic year?

These are the most common questions I’m seeing…everywhere.  On my campus, I hosted an end-of-semester faculty discussion guided by these questions and sent out a survey to capture the thoughts of more than those who attended.  I’m seeing Tweets, articles, blog posts, and conference sessions focused on possible answers.  It strikes me that the answers should be contextual:

  • What would UM-Dearborn faculty as a whole say in response?
  • What would individual departments/disciplines  say?

The first question will allow for some campus-wide understanding of, for instance, an appropriate range of class-time engagement for UMD classes next year.   

The second question may be the most important because your disciplinary colleagues around the world are asking the same questions. How will physicists continue to “show the class how physics works,” as one of you wrote? Convening a conversation among your departmental colleagues and reaching out to your disciplinary organizations’ listservs or social media would surface the best ideas.

Institutional Change

What changes will “stick”?  What that’s gone well will last?  How can we ensure that our shifts toward greater humanity will not only last but spread across the whole institution?

This is the $64K question.  Here, I look to the experts in organizational change, especially for theories of change that make sense for institutions of higher education.  In thinking about our shift towards greater humanity, I think it would be helpful to get down into the nitty gritty and spell it out.  What would a more human-focused university look like, from admission to commencement?  What are those key moments where this approach is needed, or would have the greatest positive impact?  I think of procedures and process for the following:

  • Academic dishonesty 
  • Grading 
  • Support for studying
  • Assignment deadlines
  • And more.

Breaking down this change into specific policies or units on campus might make effecting that change more possible.

All of the above is from May.  

We have an entire summer before us, with more time to reflect, to ask questions, to seek possible answers, and to effect intentional change.  

I want to end by going back to the concentric circles of the May thinking.  What if we add a fifth circle at the outside, something about what’s happening socially in the world around us?  I imagine all of us are reflecting at that level as well, but what happens if we situate them as directly related to our reflections as educators and colleagues?  How do the above shift, or take on a different depth?  I don’t want to move on too quickly.  Let’s keep asking questions, reflecting on our experiences, and trying to see what we can’t yet see.  

*  I read the chat only after we finished because I’ve fully embraced the human inability to multitask. I think this should be one of the big takeaways from the pandemic: we were all confronted with the undeniable limits of our cognitive load, and multitasking was one of the biggest stressors. But this is another conversation, or blog post.