Building Shared Experiences and Other Reflections on a “New Normal”: A multi-voice essay from UAF’s EAGER faculty-staff writing collaborative


March – the first virtual department meeting after the announcement stating that students will not be returning in person due to COVID-19. “What are we going to do?” said a faculty member in your department. You started to think to yourself, I have no idea. You realized that this was the first time you have shared about your teaching strategy, pedagogy and design since your graduate degree – and, the first time you have connected with that particular faculty member since last summer’s BBQ. 

I began to rethink course rules, tools, and requirements for students, and I considered what I really wanted my students to get from my course. We’d been pressed to start a conversation about our concerns, and possible modifications that we’d make to our approaches. 

Our group, the EAGER faculty-staff writing collective, discussed many of the accommodations that have been made throughout the pandemic – the very same accommodations marginalized people (with disabilities; in rural areas; of low socio-economic status) have requested, and been denied, for years. We reflected on what accommodations we provided to students during the pandemic – that we can and will continue to provide.

We found an increase in overall communication and care through technology. Students grappled with learning new technologies as they were the only option – but because of the challenges presented, students found that they had to reach out and ask questions.  The overwhelm of the pandemic and feelings of isolation drew students to reach out  and connect with one another whenever they could.  

Many faculty also found that they had more conversations with their students than they had in prior semesters, finding that students were more engaged and connected with individual instructor support. Not necessarily to keep tabs on them, but just to make sure things were okay and to see if resources (academic or personal) were needed. The last few semesters helped many of us use technology in more ways than we had previously but also helped us to better understand our students’ situations. 

The pandemic added additional stressors to many of our students’ lives, including childcare, job loss, mental health issues, technology issues, coping with hope life, isolation, and more. Using technology, we were able to frequently check in on our students and send them resources, support, and even simple words of encouragement. 

Instructors had to make a shift towards considering themselves and their students as whole people – needing systems of support, vulnerable to psychological and social distress – rather than just learners/scholars in a classroom. 

We shifted our mindsets from treating accommodations as special exceptions to being regularly accommodating in our classrooms, offices, and spaces. Being accommodating rather than granting accommodations requires us to take an active instead of passive role to student needs, and our own needs, as well. Many have pointed out that this pandemic has prompted us to consider that ability and health are temporary – and that we are more vulnerable than we tend to believe. In that mindset, we examined policies on late work and realized we offered more flexibility during the pandemic than in prior semesters. Faculty and students were thrown into the fray, forced to learn to use tools to stay in contact with one another and to make teaching and learning more accessible to students from the university. 

We utilized technology to support ourselves and our students. The technology behind our courses in the form of LMS and grading tools allows us to easily grade late work and notify students of missing items with just a few clicks and keystrokes. In past semesters, we used this technology to keep track of hard deadlines like homework assignments due at 11:59 PM sharp instead of using this technology to provide flexibility and accommodations for students. Tools like Gradescope allow students to submit work after assignments have been graded without diminishing the integrity of the assignment. 

Using these now-common tools, faculty allowed for soft and hard deadlines – or even allowed for accommodations without disrupting the flow of the course.  Instead of using the LMS tools to punish students by tracking missed or low scores, we adjusted the criteria to set reminders and encourage students to reach out for help before they received the low score. Instead of using homework systems to prevent late work, we began to use these as soft deadlines or even to automate extensions for struggling students. 

New content delivery tools like Zoom allowed students additional modalities to contribute to the classroom discussion: students could interact with the content material via synchronous Zoom lessons and contribute either during oral breakout rooms or written chats. They had the option to participate without video or in chat if they felt uncomfortable sharing, and could discuss content questions in student-led breakout rooms. 

As instructors, we were “forced” to use technology in a way that supported differentiated student learning by making Zoom recordings with CC transcripts available. These “forced” technologies also opened up new ways of thinking about things we did in person: for example, in many of our in-person math classes we did a lot of collaborative work in small groups.  We had some skepticism about this working in online classes, but tools like Zoom and Google docs allowed us to meet our needs.

We analyzed the ways in which we assess learning. In the past we were very worried about students cheating on exams, so there are tools like Respondus and ProctorU which have forced students to be more creative in the way that they cheat. Instead of assessment as a punitive measure, we should be thinking about what we really want out of an assessment.  

What we realized is that what we want most out of an assessment is actually to ensure that the student is doing the work and that they can critically think about how to arrive at a solution to a problem. 

For example, in some of our math courses we care less that a student can memorize every formula and more about whether or not they know where to apply that formula. There are some skills and concepts that students should be comfortable with using independently – but at other times, students just need to be able to effectively use resources to arrive at solutions. 

Using tools like Gradescope, we can allow students a window of time to take a timed assessment (beneficial for classes offered over many timezones). Then, the assessment itself addresses their critical thinking and knowledge of methods for particular content.  

By focusing on methods and concepts over memorized formulas and solutions, we get a better sense of how well students meet outcomes because students are less likely to cheat if they get to show their understanding of a problem and can find the resources to show this understanding.

Through noticing the changing needs of our students over this past year, our EAGER group has embraced these flexible policies in our post-pandemic classroom environment to varying degrees. 

Our new normal gives us an opportunity to provide a process for analysis. We considered a few questions:

  • How can we leverage the benefits of the technology we’ve used over the course of this past year? 
  • How can we take the compassion and empathy we’ve developed for ourselves and our students into future classrooms – in person or virtual? 
  • How do we shift our mindsets to incorporate accessibility and care as we move forward?
  • How can technology support us in designing an accessible and inclusive future for all? 
  • How do we differentiate between punitive measures and learning outcomes in the classroom? (Assessments, grading, late work, deadlines, policies, and more?) 
  • How have our perspectives on what constitutes effective pedagogy changed? How has our understanding of what academic looks and acts like changed as a result of the past year?

We don’t have answers to all of these questions. It is our goal to continue exploring and we hope you will join us. 

As we write this at 7:30am on a beautiful Alaskan summer day, we reflect on the care, compassion and individuality that this last year taught us. 

Amidst the stress, fear, and tragedy, we found more opportunities for us and our students to embrace technology; more awareness of the human experience that our students bring into their role as learners; more opportunities for us to connect as faculty to create a stronger, more empathic university. 

We can preserve that empathetic community in our “new normal” if we remember and utilize the lessons from this pandemic instead of simply reverting to our pre-pandemic ways.

Authored by the EAGER Faculty Learning Community – Debbie Mekiana, Don Larson, Anja Kade, Sarah Stanley, Latrice Bowman, Zoe Marie Jones, Ronnie Houchin, Audrey Coble, Denise Kind, and Amanda White

About Author

Amanda White (EAGER FLC)

A group of 10 Engaged Educators Aspiring for Generous & Equitable Relationships . Our goal is to engage in systematic and inquiry-driven stories of equity-based teaching and learning in a moment of transformational change in Higher Education in Alaska.

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