Fall 2020 Opening Remarks to Academic Departments
Saying that this is going to be an unusual semester might be the understatement of the year. When in recent memory can we say that we have transitioned from an emergency—the covid-induced rapid shift from mostly in-person instruction to all remote instruction, right into the initial phase of what may turn out to be a full-blown crisis involving the economic, social, and political impact of the pandemic. These impacts are especially salient here in FL, where the virus spreads unabated, yet we’re also about to welcome thousands of students back into our midst. Under these challenging and rapidly changing circumstances, how exactly do we do our jobs? Must we act heroically to meet the needs of the university and our students?
These are big questions, and to answer them it’s perhaps helpful to consult big thinkers. In Camus’s novel The Plague, Dr. Rieux is a character who reflects about heroism and what it means to be responsive during a plague. He says: ‘This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.’ A character asks Rieux what decency is. Doctor Rieux’s response is as clipped as it is eloquent: ‘In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.’
So, if decency is the best response to a plague, and decency is also about doing one’s job, what does this mean for us? In response to various surveys and questionnaires, students at FGCU and elsewhere have been quite vocal about what decency from faculty looks like to them. To students, decency is perhaps best expressed through: 1) effective, empathic communication, 2) predictability and structure, particularly in one’s use of our Canvas LMS, and 3) flexibility.
Communication is especially important early in the semester when teaching and learning may be taking place in modalities that are new to our students, and perhaps to us, as well. Guidance from our students regarding effective communication includes the following suggestions:
- Spend time to learn as many students’ names as possible.
- Share information about what excites you about the subject matter.
- Do something that shows you care about who they are.
- Ask a beautiful question that excites them about learning.
Above all, communicate with your students about your expectations and the concrete actions they can take to experience success in your class. And communicate with them like they vote in Philadelphia: early, often, and through multiple mechanisms.
Students have also noted the importance of predictability and structure. When we transitioned to remote instruction students reported that faculty who had Canvas courses that used clearly structured modules to organize the content and sequencing of the course were able to smoothly adjust their courses to remote instruction. When students are able to view in Canvas the entire sequence of their assignments, activities, and assessments they are able to anticipate what work they have to complete and when. This predictability acts prophylactically, defending students against the anxiety and dissonance that are consequences of uncertainty and disorganization. Covid has caused massive disruption and uncertainty; neither our courses nor our actions must exacerbate those conditions.
Finally, our students have praised faculty for our flexibility, and they sincerely hope that we will maintain this disposition in the year to come. As their feedback about structure and predictability indicates, however, flexibility does not imply making frequent changes and additions to the course schedule and activities. Students want their faculty and their courses to be stable and consistent. Therefore, flexibility is about faculty being attentive to the challenges and disruptions the pandemic has caused and receptive to the individual circumstances of their students. For faculty this may mean adjusting deadlines or offering choices regarding assignments and assessments. Flexibility works best when it is transparent and equitable; that is, when we explain why we are making adjustments, and we ensure that everyone has the opportunity to benefit and no one is penalized by our changes.
If we communicate clearly, construct courses that are predictable and well-organized, and maintain a disposition of empathy and flexibility, it is highly likely that our students will have a successful academic experience. The staff of the Lucas Center want to support your efforts to provide meaningful, fulfilling, transformational learning experiences for your students. We can do so through consultations, teaching observations, eliciting student feedback, and in many other ways. We are available at your convenience, and I am happy to answer questions and provide details about Lucas Center plans for the fall.