Back to School: A Report from the Field

Most falls, “back to school” is an overused slogan used to sell pencils and autumn-toned sweaters. This year, it describes my actual teaching situation: I am back to teaching in-person in a classroom for the first time in nearly two years.

Returning to nursing school? Keys to success - American Nurse Today
“Back to school” means back to in-person for Kelsey this year.

I cannot say that the transition back into a classroom was entirely smooth. A perfect storm of seasonal allergies, some acid reflux, a cold, and projecting my voice in front of A GROUP OF CO-PRESENT HUMANS resulted in me losing my voice. Like truly: no voice. Given that I’ve been speaking nearly continuously since I uttered my first word (“dog,” much to my mother’s chagrin), the no voice thing was a shock to my system.

Other than my voice-loss, however, in-person teaching went relatively well. Below, I detail some of my observations from the first few weeks back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Before last week, I hadn’t been in a room with 70 people (the size of my largest class) since March 2020. I had anticipated that being around so many people might be a bit discombobulating. And, it was … for about three minutes.

Then, everything promptly felt very normal. This was representative of my experience overall the first two weeks. Yes, the students were adjusting to being back in a classroom, but, overall, they were keen to listen, ask questions, and engage. The lessons flowed, more or less, according to plan. Not one projector worked how it was supposed to.

Teaching 2021: the apex of hand sanitizer stations.

Indeed, other than the masks and the sheer volume of available hand sanitizer, I found that teaching in-person in 2021 felt very similar to teaching in person in 2019.

Some teaching strategies are more easily executed in-person

I appreciate the many digital tools available for various forms of group work and collaboration. I also know that online, hybrid, and blended teaching models have lots to offer and are here to stay. But I’m going to come out and say it: some things are easier and better in person.

Group discussions are significantly easier to prompt and manage. Small group activities, particularly those involving props, work better in-person. And class management — being able to assess how long students need to complete an activity; being able look out and see confused or bored faces; being able to notice a student’s raised hand mid-lecture — is, quite simply, much easier.

I will say, however, I miss zoom’s help with names. Having each student’s name permanently attached to their sternum (or wherever the bottom of their zoom frame lands) is really very helpful!

Students raising actual, rather than virtual, hands in class? What a thrill!

What you think about modes of delivery is strongly influenced by your own personal circumstances

Three years ago, if you’d asked a random professor, student, or administrator what they thought about hybrid, online, and blended teaching delivery options, you would probably have been met with a shrug or a blank stare.

Today, everyone has an opinion on modes of delivery. And I’m finding that most people’s opinions are based on their individual circumstances.

Students who work full time tend to prefer hybrid, online, and blended models. As do students and faculty with heavy care responsibilities or extended commutes to work. Folks who live near campus, have been isolated for much of the last eighteen-months, or identify as extroverts, on the other hand, tend to appreciate in-person classes.

Opinions on delivery models tend to stem from the deeply personal.

The fact that people prefer models that fit their own needs isn’t revelatory, of course.

But, I do think it’s noteworthy a lot of the arguments for and against different delivery models begin from the individual and extend to the collective rather than the other way around.

And, I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little worried about this trend. Of course, personal experience connects individuals to communities. But, also, what’s best my life isn’t a good gauge for assessing teaching and learning strategies more broadly. I’m hoping that as the Fall speeds along, the conversation might begin to change to focus on collectives and communities.

Systems are still very good at incorporating change into their frames

I teach three classes a week: one Tuesday, one Thursday, one Friday. I began to lose my voice after the Tuesday class. I was hoping that it would come back before Thursday, but it was not to be. So, Thursday morning, I made the decision to move my first class to zoom, where my students could turn up the volume on their devices and I wouldn’t be tempted to shout. This was, I thought, an upside to pandemic teaching: more flexibility and accommodation options, for both students and teachers.

Proving the perseverance of my optimism, I again hoped my voice would be better Friday morning. It was not. In fact, it was worse. I had to strain to speak, and even then, the sounds were thin and squeaky.

I debated whether to cancel the class. But, I hadn’t given the students much notice and cancelling when I could zoom felt like poor form. Also, I was once a fairly high level athlete who was told by many a coach to “tough it out” and play through illness and so I’m very bad at taking sick days. And, you know, I’m in a limited term appointment and am not super keen to draw attention to myself for cancelling last minute. So, I decided to hold the class on zoom.

My voice barely made it to the end. And, even though I drank my weight in honey-lemon tea and refrained from talking for the weekend, my voice was still hoarse the following Tuesday.

It's all about Sick Time.” - Cardinal Services
Sometimes, taking a day off is important.

The truth is: teaching on Friday made my voice worse, and I should have cancelled class.

This made me aware how easily systems adapt to integrate new tools and strategies into their logics. On the one hand, online teaching can create flexibility and accommodation for individuals. On the other hand, it can also discourage folks from taking days off because you can zoom-in from almost any circumstance, can’t you? But, not taking sick days serves the logic of the institution. Rest and healing are required for the health and wellness of students and teachers, as humans.

Despite the voice debacle, I’d say my first two weeks back in a classroom were good. And, they also helped me identify that I’d like to direct some of my activist teaching energy toward the systems that are shaping the “new normal in teaching” in, and after, the era of covid.

SEPTEMBER 2021: Welcome!…back?

Hello friends, and welcome to autumn term 2021. Are we all seated comfortably, with our masks and seat belts comfortably adjusted?

Buckle up for another school year with the Activist Classroom!

And an adjustment it sure is. Both of us find it hard to believe that two years ago it was normal to head for campus, enter one’s office or one’s classroom, face other humans, and begin talking together.

Now, it it feels odd, disquieting, discombobulating: like we’ve lived an entire life between 12 March 2020 (that’s the day it all shut down for Kim, while she was riding the train home from her campus office in London, Ontario), and 4 September 2021 (that’s the day Kelsey marched into her brand-new office at Concordia University in Montreal, a school she had not even applied to work at back last March, and where she has been working entirely remotely since autumn term 2020 began).

Kelsey, the first time at her office (after being employed at the university for over a year).

That weird temporal drift you’re feeling? It’s real. It’s in our bodies, our brains; it’s in our cells, our neurons, our reflexes when we step off the sidewalk so someone can pass at social distance, when we turn away from other humans (even masked ones) on the subway.

And it’s going to take some time to unlearn.

You’ve probably been thinking a lot about this already, even if only indirectly – even if only through the twitches in your body. And if you’re like us, you’ve probably been inadvertently hoovering up media posts about coping with The Great Return – most likely while stuffing half a sandwich in your mouth between fielding student emails & administrative missives about vaccine and masking policies.

In this first post of the 2021-22 academic year, we’ve decided to share some of what we’ve been hoovering these last few weeks; then, we’ll each share one thing that we are hoping, and one thing each we’re fearing, as we take our first tentative steps forward/back/around in time.

Kim’s recommendations:

I get a lot of email newsletters from media orgs I trust, including the Guardian, the New York Times, and The Ink. I tend to go for letters that focus on gender, political and social equity, racial justice, and the climate emergency.

The Ink by Anand Giridharadas

This week, the NYT gender newsletter, In Her Words, published a piece on boundaries in the workplace: how people who identify as women in the US are fighting back against orders to return to the office full time, refusals to mandate masking up, and other practices that risk their own and their family’s/community’s health and wellbeing.

I recommend the piece highly for its practicalities, but also for its key take-away: in this unprecedented No-Longer-Before-Time, we get to say what we need, and we have the right to be heard and accommodated. (This is something disability activists have long known and told us, of course – may our voices lifted together continue their revolution!) We also have the right to expect that those up the chain will anticipate our needs and prepare accommodations so that we do not need to ask for them all the time.

Check the newsletter out here, and follow NYT gender on Insta here.

I’m also a regular reader of University Affairs (in fact, I have a piece coming out in UA shortly on editing as peer mentorship; I’ll share it when it’s out!). Recently, UA did a pair of very useful stock-takings: where are Canadian campuses on the fight against systemic anti-Black racism, and where are they in the long process of decolonization and reconciliation (which, to be very clear, is a VERY long road, one which most of us have only just begun walking)?

University Affairs: Ever useful.

While these pieces are not “about” COVID and The Great Return, they are very much about the urgent cultural shift that took place alongside the pandemic and shaped its wake: the need to, at last, look past the power of neoliberal capital and think about how our lifeways are failing huge swaths of our population, burying truths that need rising and acknowledging. One of the COVID silver linings, for me, is that these truths are in front of us now, and they will not go away without a fight.

For some of us who are enmeshed in decolonization and reconciliation processes on our home campuses, this stuff won’t be “news”, but it’s important I think to get a sense of how the larger conversations around these crucial topics are building in different places. In particular I find it valuable to hear from Black and Indigenous campus leaders on how it’s going for them and what else they need from us.

The pieces are here and here; I highly recommend them also to readers outside Canada, especially our UK readers who are working in their own contexts on decolonization initiatives.

Kelsey’s recommendations:

Neither of my recommendations are about university teaching specifically but I’ve found both helpful as we fall into another September.

The first recommendation is a piece in The Conversation by Daniel Heath Justice that offers an eloquent and clear set of steps for recognizing and addressing residential school denialism. The topic is specific to the territory now known as Canada but the article’s argument-counter argument structure offers an excellent model for refuting inaccurate and oppressive claims more broadly. I found it particularly helpful for thinking through potential applications in real world settings, which feels particularly pressing with a Canadian federal election on the horizon.

I need to give a disclaimer on the second recommendation: it is published by a magazine/blog that is owned and operated by a for-profit investing company (albeit a self described women-centered investing company). I have zero affiliation with the company, and beyond a quick website peruse, know little about them but ….

Ellevest’s post on practical steps for handling work overwhelm made its way to me, and I’ve included it here because 1. The start of semester can be, ahem, overwhelming and 2. I found the tips and advice realistic and useful.

Organization: One of Kelsey’s favourite ways to manage overwhelm.

Kelsey, what are you fearing?

Very practically: Classroom management in relation to Covid-19 protocols. My institution (and province) requires that masks be worn in class by students at all times. I’m not overly worried about students not wearing masks at all. But I am a nervous about how a behaviour such as a student repeatedly, not accidentally, having their mask below their nose might affect the classroom dynamic and put me in a rule-enforcer position.

More philosophically: That we will individually and collectively get worn down by the march of “the new normal” and that our compassion (for students, for colleagues, for ourselves) and our commitment to change and activism will become misplaced in the hubris of the everyday.

Kim, what are you fearing?

My two greatest fears at this point, in descending order, are:

1) that we will not learn and absorb the best lessons the last 18 months have offered us, especially what it means to have compassion for the whole human in the classroom and the academic workplace. (Snap, Kelsey!)

2) that we will not learn to live with this virus – because live with it we must, and we need to start now. That’s why vaccines are so, so crucial, and why scientists are heroes.

Back to school?: the question that has many of us re-examining, well, everything.

Kim, what are you hoping for?

I am on sabbatical this autumn; this feels a really lucky escape! That said, I’m on sabbatical for a specific reason: I have a book project and two teaching research projects that really need making headway on before January.

I’ve been thinking a lot about workload these days, precisely because mine is significant yet also incredibly flexible at the moment, and that’s a gift I struggle to accept. I’ve also been thinking about mental and physical wellness, because I’m at a moment in my life and in my body that demands such thinking.

I’m hoping that I may learn to accept the gift of flexibility in my sabbatical labour, along with the gifts of kindness and compassion when I don’t get it all done – in other words, that I’ll allow myself to make my own wellbeing project #1, with no guilt attached. (I’m going to write about this in an upcoming post; stay tuned for more.)

Kelsey, what are you hoping for?

Broadly, I hope that the waves of the covid ocean ebb and become part of a tide that doesn’t overwhelm our bodies, health care systems, and publics.

More specifically, after spending much of the last year in Montreal — which had strict health measures that kept me fairly isolated from the public — I feel like “back to school” stands in for “back to society.” I hope I bring the lessons and growth of the last year into my re-entry. I hope that I maintain my hard-fought enjoyment of downtime and my on-going relationship with balancing the different parts of my life.