What we’re taking with us: three term-end tips from Kelsey (#ACsurvivalguide)

Holy smokes, we made it through another bizarre, shaped-by-the-pandemic semester!

Image Library | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC
This is the organic shape of Covid-19. The specific shape of your pandemic experience may vary.

I haven’t yet had time to do full reflection and inventory from the teaching year (aka, I’m still marking!!). But, already, I know that the last eight months have drastically impacted how I approach teaching. Here are the first three things I’m “taking with me” beyond this topsy-turvey COVID-19 era.

1. Slow down.

For many, this has been a mantra for the pandemic as a whole. For me, it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn (and relearn) throughout the year in the classroom.

I have a lot of energy as a human and a teacher. On top of that, I value multimodal learning that offers students a range of entry points to engage with material. By extension, my lessons have traditionally incorporated lots activities: there’s a cluster lecture, a close read, then a scavenger hunt!

Slow Down - ELGL
Good advice from a turtle.

Online teaching looked me in the eye and said simply: it’s too much.

Because, here’s the thing about virtual teaching: simple tasks, like sharing documents for peer review, take longer. This extra time-taking has forced me to slow my lessons down and give more time to fewer activities. You know what? My classes are better for it. The simplified lessons give students more time to engage with one another and sink into tasks. Moving forward, I will definitely pare down my lesson plans to hone-in more, and offer more time and scope for settling into the task at hand.

2. Do the same work for myself that I’d do for others.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like, and am good at, planning, scheduling, and organizing. When I first started teaching, I used to schedule and organize administrative tasks like marking. As I’ve transitioned from part time to full time teaching, my workload has ballooned, and I’ve often forsaken this prep work for myself.

“Organize” is one of my favorite eight-letter words.

This year, I had two courses with TAs. To support my TAs, and their transition to online teaching and marking, I did a lot of extra scheduling and administration such as providing detailed instruction sheets for their assigned tasks.

In doing this work for my TAs, I also did it for myself. Clear workload breakdowns in advance of performing said work? Super useful. Pre-written explanations for common structural or grammar issues? Way faster. And who came up with these teaching hacks? I did.

This reminded me that I need to 1) remember the value of front-loading administrative and planning work and 2) use my own skillset to not only support others but also myself.

3. Leverage the online tools.

In the fall semester, I took attendance manually (with the backup of zoom) in my classes. (For those concerned with access, there were alternate options for those that couldn’t attend live sessions). At the end of that semester, collating and cross-referencing my messy notes with zoom’s weird output format took me an eon.

The title of this children’s book, Just a mess, accurately describes my attendance-taking process in the fall semester.

For the second semester I had time to learn the attendance tool on Moodle (my school’s online learning platform). It took me twenty minutes to set up, and it allowed students to record their own attendance and log it in the system. Not only was this quicker and easier for everyone, it also helped ease student anxiety because they had access to their own attendance record.

It’s easy to huff and puff about technology, and there is no question that zoom freezes suck, but this was a good reminder that the tools can be helpful too – if we take the time to explore them a bit, when we have that time and space.

As I continue to get distance from the semester, I’m sure I will uncover more reflections to share. But these feel like a meaningful start and a good reminder that even in the strangest of times, there can be improvement and learning.

Work/Life: Is there even a distinction anymore?

Dear Kim.

Last week, a friend suggested we work together on a project.

Possible answers swirled through might head: Absolutely! Let me check my schedule and get back to you? That’s a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, idea.

Image result for no good very bad
A picture from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

“Yeah …” I managed. “That might work. Let’s talk about it more next time?”

“Sure!”

The conversation flowed on, but I can’t help but reflect on it.

To contextualize (and because I have friends that read this blog), this person is well outside of academia (yes, such people exist in my life!). My friend is totally lovely. I value them immensely. And also: the thought of working with them made every muscle in my body tense up.

In doing a bit of soul searching, I think my full body resistance to working with my friend is that I view my roles as friend and as collaborator differently. As a friend, I’m a supporter, a cheerleader, a patient listener. As a collaborator, I have ideas, impulses, and opinions. I also have skin in the game, so I sometimes state, and advocate for, my opinions. For a friend that hasn’t experienced me in work-collaborator mode, I suspect that distinction would be a little jarring.

But I realize that in this weird new Zoomiverse, the distinction between my different selves is slipping. As everyone keeps noting, the pandemic has flattened our experiencing, putting our teaching, writing, learning, and socializing lives in front of a screen. And that screen is often the same screen, in the same location, in the same home, that one has been in for months.

Image result for computer screen
Does this blank computer screen feel frighteningly familiar?

How, precisely, is attending a Zoom screening of a theatre show for a class I’m teaching distinct from watching a Netflix show for pleasure before bed?

How, exactly, are department meetings distinct from teleconference family check-ins?

Is there any real distinction between my professional and personal selves (other than the fact that professional me wears nicer shirts) now that those selves spend all their time in front of a computer?

More importantly, do the distinctions between work and non-work activities matter at the moment? Should I be trying to protect those boundaries? Or is it a time to let them go?

Any thoughts for a drifting online teacher?

– Kelsey

Balancing? Or drifting away?

Oh God Kelsey, WORD.

I’m having an especially hard time with this one lately. Maybe it’s the wintry conditions here in southern Ontario (not -36C, sorry Calgary! But still stupidly cold by our standards), or maybe it’s FEBRUARY, or maybe it’s just that we’re coming up on T-minus-almost a year ago.

I look at the staircase that links my kitchen to my office and I think: dammit. It’s the stairs again.

I WISH.

One of the paradoxes of COVID is this: we’ve been in the same space, more or less, for a year now. Because that space has had to open up to contain our entire worlds, our worlds have also had to shrink to fit the space of our homes, our screens. The thing that seemed kind of unusually cozy (even a bit like an adventure??!) at the start of it all (permission to stay home!!!) now feels not only unbelievably stifling, but like a recipe for emotional burnout.

The Infinity Staircase, after you’ve stared at it every day, fifteen times a day, for a year.

I’m struggling like you with these feelings, but I’ve come up recently with a couple of useful hacks for changing things up a bit.

FIRST: I bought some good wireless headphones. (Pro tip: if you work for a university in any capacity, email your line manager right now to find out if there’s a tech fund for people like you. Chances are there is, and all you need for top-quality wireless headphones is access to $300.)

How is this a game changer? I now leave not just my home space, but my headspace, when I go out walking the dog (or just myself). I do take some work calls on walks, but mostly I try to reserve walks for personal calls. The latter human interlocutors are more understanding about all the dog-meets-dog-shuffle-sniff-sniff noises, and it’s fun to share Emma’s walkies travails with said humans. It all adds up to a change of pace and space that I can attach, cognitively and in my muscles and bones, to pleasurable chit-chat. Sometimes, friends with dogs in other cities even take synchronous dog walks with me!

Kim and Emma the Dog out walking on a very frozen Lake Ontario. Kim enjoys the sun! Emma prefers the smells.

SECOND: try moving the screens around. (I realize this one might not be feasible if you have just one big screen you use for all the things; in that case, try the phone. I have never used my phone to watch videos, but perhaps I’m a luddite that way.)

My strategy is to reserve all work-related viewing for upstairs in the home office, and all home-related viewing for downstairs in the living-dining area. Whenever possible, I use my iPad (second hand and circa 2013 – seriously, this is all it’s good for now!) for Netflix, Crave et al. (Also for reading newspapers, an excellent after-dinner activity.) A change of place, and/or a change of screen, translates – as with the dog-walking-with-headphones – into a slight shift in how the tech is used, which can make a not insignificant difference to your sense of why you’re using it. I mean, if you think about it, our teaching and living technologies have always overlapped (from reading to walking to having coffee with people); it’s about the when, the where, and the how we frame experiences to be either “work” or “life”.

(And one more hack, which [maybe?] by now goes without saying… no screens in the bedroom, people. For me, this one is huge. Reading before bed is a pleasure no pandemic can take from you.)

A kitty cat with a good book and a cuppa. Let’s pretend it’s decaf! Seriously: all the other memes I could find featured thin white women reading in bed. WTF is up with that?

Now Kelsey, to your OTHER issue, the catalyst for this post.

I can’t speak to the project your friend proposed, or your interest in it, but if the big issue is actually your fear of letting such a collaboration fully and completely consume the thin sliver of matzo currently separating your two Kelseys, perhaps the best thing to do is to let your friend know that, right now, the prospect of any more work intruding upon your home-life relationships is more than your Zoom-ravaged heart can handle.

Tell them that as soon as it’s allowed, you’ll meet for a sunny coffee on a bench atop Mount Royal and talk about how collaborating as friends could work, and about what challenges it will inevitably create (you are so not alone here). Because at the end of the day keeping work and life separate isn’t just a labour of COVID; it’s an ongoing challenge for us all.

– Kim

The view from Montreal’s Mount Royal in autumn. We will meet again!