Guiding principles for academic work in unprecedented times

Guiding principles for academic work in unprecedented times

A lot can happen in two weeks.

Two weeks ago, I was arriving in Brazil to begin a five-day residency with the faculty of Escola Politecnica at Universidade de São Paulo, to support their use of active learning in the STEM disciplines. I was mildly worried at the time that either the US or Brazilian government would – as I saw it at the time – overreact and restrict international travel, forcing me to miss the trip.  One week ago, I was returning home on an overnight flight from São Paulo to Atlanta, wondering why the flight was only half-full (though not complaining that I had the entire center row to myself) and somewhat annoyed at two guys who coughed uncontrollably the whole way, preventing me from sleeping. Before I left Brazil, I put this blurb in the agenda for the weekly meeting I have as department chair with our two assistant chairs:

Coronavirus preparations: I have no information about a potential university shutdown or migration to online courses other than the emails that everyone got from the Provost. We have a unit head meeting tomorrow and I will have several questions to ask about preparing ourselves should we end up shutting down and/or moving courses online. Meanwhile, I’ve asked [one of our faculty] to prepare some short videos for the department on basic online teaching tasks such as creating videos, putting video on Blackboard, etc. and I may add to those myself (how to use Zoom, etc.) along with teaching resources in case this should come about. (In my view, it feels like we are headed in this direction, although again I have only a small amount of information about this.)

In the three days following sending this out, my university – like many others in the US – suspended all face-to-face classes and ordered all courses to be converted to online delivery. Tomorrow morning, my department will be going live with nearly 100 sections of courses serving thousands of students, approximately five of which were designed to be taught online or hybrid.

This was only a few days ago, but it seems like a lifetime. Again, a lot can happen in two weeks.

I've not posted here in some time, and I've been off social media for Lent, so it may seem like I've not been doing anything lately. Au contraire. What I have been doing, is overseeing the mass conversion of a large mathematics department to 100% online course delivery almost literally overnight. A large part of this is just giving faculty a means of talking with each other, listening to them, and giving them resources to make things happen based on what they need.

The prime example this week: Some faculty asked to have a pop-up meeting for anyone interested, to discuss any aspect of online teaching that needed to be discussed. I grabbed an open classroom for Wednesday and sent an announcement out. Almost 50 people showed up, some from outside the math department, and despite having no agenda or plan we worked hard for almost two hours to iron out some general principles and strategies that would guide our work.

This week I'm going to commit to posting something every day here that might be useful for others in our situation. There's been no lack of unsolicited advice posted online this week, and I don't pretend that what I post will be more than a linear combination of what's already out there. But, let me begin with those general principles and strategies from my faculty – and also some principles for department chairs, from one clueless chair in over his head to all the others.

For faculty

When you're in a situation with no precedent and you have to work anyway, what you need are guiding principles for making decisions, not a lot of details about how those decisions might be enacted. Here is what we decided in my department would guide our steps (in addition to "Rule 0" in our department which is "Put students first"):

  1. First and foremost: Keep it simple. In a situation like this, course work has to be stripped down to the bare minimum. As a professor, ask yourself: Are there topics in my syllabus that do not explicitly have to be taught according to the official syllabus of record? Are there assignments coming up that could be shortened, simplified, or removed altogether without losing any information about student proficiency on the subject? If so, start cutting. This is not the time or place to die on the hill of "I really like topic X" or "My students aren't really mathematicians unless they've seen topic Y". Cut, cut, cut until what you're left with is a skeleton of the course. Yes, it's painful. And nobody will remember that they saw or didn't see those items in three years' time. There's more to "keep it simple" than just this; keep reading.
  2. Be present and communicate with students. It's well known in the research and practice on online teaching that social presence is one of the most, if not the most important factors in student success. This is a discipline; practice it. Communicate daily with students; consider making a video instead of sending an email, so they can see your face and hear your voice. Look for ways to get students socially connected with each other. Far better to overcommunicate in this situation than undercommunicate.
  3. Establish and follow routines. Another established fact about effective online teaching is the value of structure and routine in the student experience. I wrote about this a while back in the context of students with learning disabilities taking online courses, but it's true for everyone that structure improves success.  As any mom or dad can tell you, establishing regular and predictable routines goes a long way to mitigating the very real feeling of unsettledness that many students are no doubt experiencing. A very important example is to hold synchronous meetings (using Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, etc.) with your class at the same times that you ordinarily would meet in person; also holding video office hours at your normal times. This also is a good way to keep it simple since it minimizes change. If you already do a 50-minute lecture at 9am every MWF, you just keep doing that – the only thing that changes is the way it's delivered.
  4. Trust your students and give them grace. This is not the time or place to insist on the highest levels of academic excellence, or even airtight mechanisms for ensuring academic honesty. Yes, it's quite possible that students working at home in an online setting could cheat on assignments in ways they may not in a face-to-face setting. (Although research on the subject shows no statistically significant difference in cheating instances in those two settings.) And you might not be able to explore certain ideas at the same level of depth, given the small amount of time given to prepare assignments. There are two ways to respond: Being OK with this, or setting up a mini-surveillance state. The first option is the simpler of the two and so that's what you should go with. Trust students more, and give them more grace and lenience, than you normally do – even more than you are comfortable with. You might be surprised how they respond.
  5. Perfectionism is the enemy. In our pop-up meeting, I gave the faculty two mottoes that I live by: "Don't let the perfect get in the way of the perfectly adequate" (hat tip to Better Call Saul), and "Good enough is good enough". We should still try to teach in these times as best we can; but think of it like a video game where "Adequacy" is the first level you reach and then you move on to "Excellence" once you've reached Adequacy. Far more than the online setting or even COVID-19 itself, perfectionism is what will sink us if we don't actively fight against it. This goes for students too! See also point #4 above.

For department chairs

A lot of what I wrote above applies the same way to department chairs working with faculty and upper-level administrators.

Keep it simple is also the overarching principle for department chair work in this time. This applies to department policies and procedures: A useful question that we've asked a lot this year, and even moreso now, regarding procedures is What would happen if we just totally did not do this procedure? More than once, the answer has been: Nothing. In which case we happily ignored the procedure, or did it in a way that we liked versus the way the documents say it should be done, and you know what? Life went on, stuff got done, and nobody noticed except for us, because we were happier to rid ourselves of pointless work. As a chair, during a time like this I think we have blanket permission to ignore or remix any procedure or policy that doesn't directly and obviously help students or faculty.

Along with this general rule, I'm seeing five principles as being particularly useful:

  1. Communicate with faculty, and be open to communication – but check your sources. As above, it's better now to overcommunicate than undercommunicate. I keep a Google Keep note in which I aggregate any news or informational item that seems useful, then every weekday morning I copy stuff from that note into an email and send it. While a couple of faculty have complained about their email load (sigh) most find it helpful. I also set up a Google Form for faculty to use if they have questions or help requests, and I've been funneling many of those questions to higher-ups who have better info than I do. However, I learned this week that it's counterproductive to duplicate all the news, because this can lead to information overload; and also to make sure that you don't push out an update that you haven't thoroughly checked for correctness, because you then have to push another update and this causes confusion and worsens overload.
  2. Shut up and take notes. More important than disseminating information and advice, is listening to faculty and determining what they need. This isn't the time or place to be the Great Leader Who Has Great Ideas. It's the time and place to be a leader who listens to faculty and finds and then allocates resources to meet critical needs. We need more department chairs filling up notebooks and fewer who are using this crisis to become – wait for it – thought leaders. (All fingers pointed outward include three pointing back at myself here.)
  3. Establish and follow routines, including for yourself. Faculty are incredibly unsettled too, so it's important to carry on as well as you can with ordinary department business. For example we have some elections taking place over the next two weeks; there's no real reason to postpone these elections, so we're having them, with online participation options. The newsletter still goes out every Friday. I've even kept up a tradition started this year of Friday afternoon happy hours at the local brewhouse, although it's possible further social distancing rules might kill that one off. Routines for yourself are important too; this has always been the case for productivity but especially so now. Later this week I'll write more about that.
  4. Trust and empower your faculty. What a Ph.D. signifies is that I can learn anything under almost any circumstance. Faculty are natural-born problem solvers with a high degree of adaptability. Lean on that. You do want to be mindful of giving faculty too much work; with that in mind, this is a time to delegate certain tasks to faculty and to give them lots of autonomy and resources to get things done. More trust, autonomy, and resources than you usually give, perhaps more than you're comfortable with. At the same time: Shut up and take notes about what faculty are doing, and include all these things in the next annual review – faculty are doing a lot of unplanned, uncompensated work and they need somehow to get credit for it.
  5. Practice kindness and project confidence. I think people respond to others who somehow are energized by these kinds of crises – whose first instinct is to move toward the problem rather than away, to look after others in addition to themselves, and find in these times the opportunity to make things better. It tends to work by osmosis. At the same time, there are others who react to these situations poorly and, frankly, act like insufferable jerks. Deal with this not by becoming an equal and opposite jerk, but by being nicer than you might want to be. (I've been reviewing the LATTE method a lot this week.) You just have no idea; people are under a lot of stress and don't act right sometimes. Take the lead and be the good gal/good guy.

Two questions

Finally, there are two questions that I've asked a lot this week that I will continue to ask:

  • Do you have everything you need?
  • How can I help?

I think these are always good questions to ask, but especially now.

I've changed the setup of the blog to allow comments (since I'm off social media) so let me know what you think or what you'd add.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.