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In my last blog post, we talked about the role of structuring an instructor's presence in asynchronous online classes. Today we will talk about how to develop a sense of community among students.

For some instructors, having students get to know each other in a face to face class might not be a goal, but it is for me. I teach at a small school and was vexed when, years ago, I was talking to a student who did not know "Joe" in our class. This, despite that "Joe" talked a lot in class, and I call on students by name. After that conversation, I set as a goal for every class that I teach that all students interact with each other and get to know each other. While it might seem like in an online asynchronous class that would  be harder to achieve, I have found the opposite to be true.

My classes always begin online with a "get to know you" week of introductions. The discussion boards for that week include prompts to get students  to introduce where they are from, their major, and why they took the class. While this is not the most robust of conversations that I'll likely read during the semester, it sets the tone.

I tell my  students that they must show a "sustained and persistent  presence in the course through their posts  in the discussion boards." They must answer the discussion prompts for themselves - their idea - and then also comment or ask questions of each other in a way that shows their engagement both with the content of the course and with fellow students.

I have had many faculty ask me - and students ask, too - if there is a "minimum" requirement for this. I resist this. I know that this is the Age of The Rubric and that assessment has ruled our teaching plans for many years. But I think it makes for a more authentic  discussion when students are led by their interest and curiosity in their posting and commenting. I want them to keep coming back to see what so-and-so said in response to what someone else said. I want the discussion to keep moving forward. I don't see how it can do that if a student says "well, I did my five comments; I'm done." I  explain all of this in videos and in a READ ME FIRST course guide that explains my ideas. Generally, once that explanation is given students understand and accept it.  Sometimes they ask me if they are "doing enough," and we have a conversation about that in the learning journal area.  And some students complain. But I hold my position, and last fall, I had robust and wonderful conversations among the students in all three of my classes. Sure, a few of them do not participate as much. They are graded accordingly with feedback about how they could improve.

Another issue is: should you, as the instructor, comment on students' posts?  There are many  ways to deal with this, but for me, I don't. The reason for this is that I want it to be their community  space. If they go off the rails on a topic, I will sometimes post an additional question. I keep that to one or two per module, and I don't always need to do  it. If there is something weird being discussed I don't want to "pick on" one person, so a rephrased question can often do the trick. Sometimes a short video correcting the discussion is needed. I had to do that one year, when students started talking about the "unicorns" in cave paintings in southern France. I was like, "Unicorns? Where did they get that idea?!" Because, of course, and sorry if this is a spoiler, there are no unicorns! I finally found an image on the official site of the Lascaux cave that called the painting "l'unicorne." Clearly the quotation marks had no effect. The students took this image to be an image of a unicorn. This is important since the main point of the cave paintings is that these people were representing elements found in their environments to elicit some control over their lives. And if there are no unicorns...

"Unicorn" by scorpiorules58 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Found through Creative Commons.

Discussion  boards are the heart of any asynchronous class. Some faculty hate them because they can not "hear" their students. But to that I say, in a face to face class, how many students do you really hear from during a discussion?  Five? Six or seven? Ten? Unless you work something into the class to make it happen, you likely do not hear from everyone.

With discussion boards, you do hear from every student. Every single one. So "Sue," who sits in the back and doesn't often answer because it takes her longer to  formulate a response, has just as many contributions in the class as another student who can think on her feet much faster.

To me, this equalizes the class and doesn't favor those who can think and speak more quickly than others. Discussion boards are not perfect, and it's important to design questions or prompts that will get a robust conversation going (quick tip: no yes or no questions!). But it's worth it. Because for me, hearing from every student one of the best outcomes of an asynchronous class.

In my last post I talked about the importance of grouping material  into modules. It helps organize your class and students can more easily navigate where they are in the course. If  you go by weeks only, it can seem to a student that it's endless and they might not see the cohesion  you have planned.

After setting up the modules and goals for those units and the course as a whole, you need to think about different "presences." Today we will talk about Instructor presence.  How do you, yourself, connect  with students In an asynchronous course when you are not "live?" Since you will not be  requiring all of your students log onto their computers to gaze at you in a box, you have to find other means to engage with your students and to be present with them. The good news is that you can.

How can you still be present when you can't be in person?

Yesterday I was talking to a student who had one of my classes in the fall and  is in another one this coming spring. I told him I'd teach it the  same way, asynchronously. He tilted his head back and said, "Thank GOD! I wish other faculty would stop making us Zoom!" So take that for the anecdote that it is.

In any case, I plan to make my presence known in several ways. After deciding on the content of the module, I will figure out what is lacking or what ideas or images are particularly difficult, thorny, or if there just isn't enough information out there  to fully cover the artist. Unfortunately, I am finding that is the case with many African-American artists from the nineteenth century (like, no smarthistory.orgentry on Edmonia Lewis!? Come on, now!). Thus, I plan to make a narrated PowerPoint presentation on some artists for whom I have not found enough material to cover completely. But most of the content IS found on smarthistory.org and other educational sites. There  is a lot of  content out there, for free, if you take the time to search for it.

I will also record  videos of myself  introducing the course and each module. I also end each module with a  wrap up, but do not record those until I see what comments  students make as the class begins and rolls. These videos are a way to get your personality across and connect with your students.

But perhaps the best way to connect with your students  is through the learning journals. I find that this is one of the most important  elements  to an asynchronous class, especially at the undergraduate level. This is a  space where students reflect on their learning, ask  questions,  or just comment in general on how their experience in the class is going. Last semester I had many students on  my evaluations (yes, I know, I still read mine) talk about  this  feature as very important to feeling connected to the class and to me. I offer a few prompts, but usually I want students to set the tone and the topic. I want them to feel free to write anything - and I mean anything. It can be content; it can be personal. And I answer  every single entry. Every. Single. One. It's  a lot of work, but since my classes  are completely ready to go on Day  1, I don't have to "prepare" for each day the way I would for a more traditional face to face class. My time is taken up with responding to these learning journal entries. I learn so much about my students in this format; it's so important!  If you have not  tried this element of an online class, I urge you to do so, but you must make the commitment to write back to the students. Otherwise, your presence will not be felt.

Next time we  will talk about how to create a community presence among students through discussion boards and how to make them work and function well.

2

This was a tough semester. For students, for faculty, for staff. For everyone involved in higher education. However, I am convinced that learning happened. While many might not consider this the most rigorous of assessments,  many students in my classes noted in their own reflections, unsolicited, that they were amazed at how much they learned in courses they  took with me this fall semester 2020.

This learning happened despite a compressed semester comprised of two 6.5 week  sessions crammed back to back with one day in between. Students were encouraged to take no more than two four-credit classes each session, but some couldn't help but have more than that, especially seniors who had less choice in what courses they needed take. I heard more stories of stressed out students than ever before in my twenty-three year teaching career. COVID, lack of regular social  interaction, the presidential election, as well as the compressed semester itself all contributed to the angst.

And yet learning happened. I am more convinced than ever that the asynchronous approach to online teaching is the way  to go. Yes, students noted that they missed  in-person classes, but I also heard from many about how Zoom wasn't like in-class either. My students who told me how much they learned in my classes also recognized that the discussion boards allowed us to hear from everyone - unlike in a Zoom discussion or in a face to face classroom. Please do not get me wrong; I can't wait to be back in the classroom again. But rather than teach in a classroom with students physically distanced from each other and masked up, I will continue to design and offer asynchronous classes for the coming semester.

Many people have asked me what I do or how I approach course design, and I have decided to blog about the steps I take to create my classes over December and January. Our semester begins on Monday, February 1. If you or your colleagues are interested but also flummoxed about how to teach asynchronously, feel free to pass these posts on to them, or ask them to sign up on my blog to get my new posts.

I am not saying I have all the answers. But my students were very positive, some enthusiastically so, in sharing their thoughts even when they were not solicited. I think I am doing something right and want to share in case it could be helpful to others. I have benefited greatly from faculty development opportunities that my college has made available. I feel that posting my course design process may help others who were not afforded the chance to learn about online teaching until recently, or at all.

I will be blogging about how I build three classes for the Spring 2021 semester: History of Western Art II, The Art of the Medieval World, and a new class for me, African American Art. I'll be designing them all for asynchronous delivery.

You're most welcome to follow along!

The last time I posted to this blog was the Fourth of July in 2019. Wow. A lot has happened since then, huh? Yeah. A lot.

In 2019, the Art History major was eliminated at my school and only the minor remains. One of my colleagues in the department was let go.  Another retired. I am the last Art Historian standing. Odd that.

And then: 2020. The Pandemic.  I was on sabbatical for the first months of 2020,  but it was still all weird. I wrote a book during the first six months of 2020. It's now being read by peer reviewers. I should  get some  comments back in early  winter. The book, not surprising to blog readers, is about how Division III institutions  can better  support their student  athletes.

Classes have been  completely online since the fall  term began, for me, in the middle of August. I teach them asynchronously (which I will talk about on this blog in future posts).

In the middle of October I joined the Department of History. As I am now the only Art Historian at my college, a colleague who knows me well reached out to ask if I would be interested in teaching in and building a Public History program. And I was. So, we  are now the Department of History  and Art History.  I'll still keep  my office, but I am excited for this new role and teaching these new courses. There are exciting  overlaps between art history  and public history and I look  forward  to exploring them all.

And what about those student athletes? Well, as at many places (Notre-Dame and Clemson not withstanding), there are no sports on our campus this fall. Some of the teams were finally able to start practicing together a few weeks ago. But there are no competitions. Will there be  some games and matches in the spring? I hate to say it, but I'm not  holding my breath.

And I miss them. I miss the players. Zooming with them is not the same. Not Tweeting them Friday nights before their games is sad; it's a ritual I miss. And Saturdays? Oh, don't even get me started on the first crisp Saturday afternoon when  I realized I would not be traveling to campus for a game. It hit me like a brick. I finally watched an NFL game later that weekend, and I found myself stuffing my feelings with wine and Dorito's. It was a sorry sight. I knew the football team had become a big part of my life, but having it gone? It was really and very truly difficult.

So, that's news. I'm craving connection that Zoom can't bring. I'm hoping to use my voice, my words, my blog, to make some new connections and remind everyone who follows this blog that I am still out here, even if it has been radio silence for awhile.

And this is also  to remind everyone that like the football team and student athletes  everywhere, we need to continue to develop and demonstrate the resilience that they show every game, every practice, every season. Even in this crazy year, when they are not playing at all.

Hang  in there, all.

 

 

 

There has been a lot written lately about "emotional labor," an idea that is discussed in this article in The Atlantic, which explores the term and how it has creeped into areas that were not intended by the originator of the term, Dr. Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist who taught at UC Berkeley. In this article from The Atlantic, she notes that teachers are among those who "[while] doing physical labor and mental labor, ...are crucially being hired and monitored for [the] capacity to manage and produce a feeling."

I'm thinking about that because I have come off a week that was very emotional for me. This past week students came to me for all sorts of reasons: serious illnesses (or tests needed to determine them), deaths in the family (in one case a shooting), and I even learned of the sad fate of a former student. It was exhausting. I am still exhausted.

So what is the solution? I know I am not monetarily paid for this emotional work, so what should I do about this? I suppose everyone, especially professors, must decide for themselves how  to respond to this reality. On the one hand, a professor could say, students have (for the most part) families, and that they should be supported by those families. That's true, but in reality, some are not. And it's also true that we have a counseling center, and I often walk students there to get counseling if they are in crisis. I am not trained to do counseling.

But there is a trust that I have built up with my students. That trust means that sometimes they come to me with personal issues if for no other reason than they are not sure where else to go for help. I help when I can, and direct when I can't.

I realize that this explanation is not exactly the definition of "emotional labor" in its original context as penned by Dr. Hochschild. But I am not willing to hold some kind of line in the sand to not be there for students in these ways to avoid the "cost" of this kind of work. If I'm going to have my students trust me, then they trust me. If they trust me enough to share personal stories, how can I turn them away?

This is the time of year when my Twitter feed is full of tweets from professors scoffing at the number of dead grandparents and generally not believing - or caring? - about these students and their stress. I dislike the tones of those tweets and comments. Our students are our students, with all of their problems, issues, and stresses.

My college is listed in the book Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope. In the chapter about McDaniel it opens with these lines: "If you’re looking for a college free from pretense and full of genuine care, put McDaniel at the top of your list." Rather than "emotional labor," I think I am practicing genuine care. I do genuinely care about each of my students. While I may not be paid directly for that, I think it's worth any sense of cost if I can make these students feel supported, encouraged, and yes, even cared for. It is my hope that they can then do their best in the classroom, which is, ultimately, our collective goal at the college. We want graduates who will make a difference in the world. If I can make a difference in their lives, my hope is that each of them will pay it forward.

What is your view, if you teach, of the role you play in the lives of students beyond your classroom?

6

Many people, at first even myself, wondered how a woman who was a professor of art history was suited to mentor a football team. In this role, two of the repeated refrains that I have heard coaches say to the players are "Do your job!" and"Don't Give Up!"  Over the course of two years, I am seeing that I share these two characteristics: I do my job - and try always do it well - and I don't give up.

This last is particularly on my mind today because I plan to write a book for higher education institutions, mainly for administrators and faculty, about student athletes and how to engage them successfully inside and outside the classroom. It's meant to be a holistic approach that examines active learning, navigating college systems, and goal-setting for their post-college lives. My experience in those three areas, research from two focus groups, and interviews with students led to a book proposal that I wrote over the summer.

It was rejected this past week.

Now it's my turn to look to the next publisher in the same way that every Monday the team would turn their back on the previous game, win or lose, and focus on the next team they would face. I need to do the same. They have a resiliency that a ten-game season of winning - and possibly more importantly losing - teaches them. Having the book proposal rejected didn't feel that great and I know from being close to the players that losing a game definitely does not feel great.

In this book proposal rejection, I see parallels between me and the players on the team. I don't give up; I am tenacious not only with my work, but with helping them. Some of them have learned that first hand; I will not give up if they need an answer or need help! While I have never played a team sport and miss a lot on the field when the game is going on, I think I am well-suited to this role. It's time to learn from them.

So for all the members of the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team, as you turn to your last three weeks of the semester, I will be turning to the next publisher. Because as members of the Green Terror Football Team, we do not give up.

I have been thinking about the issue of helping students with issues and problems that are not always academic in nature. Students might come to faculty with issues about their personal lives regarding relationships, finances, identity; the list can go on. This type of listening is often referred to as "emotional labor" and is sometimes required to be done at colleges and universities. Often it is noted that this work is  disproportionately performed by women, and it is often not compensated financially. While harassment and other forms of discrimination also happen in the academic world that disproportionately hinder women, I am referring specifically to "the invisible labor of mentoring students [that] isn’t rewarded in the tenure-and-promotion process" that is discussed in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education. I would argue that this invisible work is not academic advising. This work goes well beyond the role of academic advisor.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, for my work as the mentor to the football team has me often wading in waters for which my Ph.D. did not give me much training. And it is work for which I am not specifically financially compensated by my institution. It could, of course, be lumped into that catch-all of "service to the institution," which can mean anything from committee work, to participating in faculty or administrative searches, to advising, and to participating in any number of "ad hoc" groups.

For me, this diagram offers a different way of thinking about my mentor work:

Related image

While I still believe that it should be compensated financially in some way, I am finding that there is a reward - an intrinsic reward - in doing this work. The gratitude that is expressed to me by my students when I listen to them and help them form a plan to fix whatever problem they are having reminds me why I teach at a small school that says we genuinely care about students. We are part of the Colleges That Change Lives book and the website for CTCL has this quotation for our entry:

“This [McDaniel College] is a community of nice, earnest, unassuming, quietly self-assured teenagers who realize they are getting a first-rate education and who regard their teachers as their friends and mentors.
Colleges That Change Lives

I am proud to be a part of that. While I work to make sure that the mentoring work that I am doing will one day be financially compensated, I will continue to realize that I'm in the sweet spot with my role as faculty mentor to the football team. I am good at it, it's what the world needs right now (at least on my campus), I can be paid for it (though my pay is for my teaching primarily), and possibly most importantly, I love what I am doing. As the diagram above shows, it's my profession and vocation, but it's also my mission and passion. They all align to that sweet green star that reflects my purpose.

May we all find a way to the green star of our purpose. And be paid for doing it. While this post doesn't advocate that this work should not be paid for, I would also say that it has its own rewards. If you're good at this work, and you're at a place that values it, I hope you'll continue to do it. And if you are a tenured faculty member, I hope you'll think about doing it. There are so many faculty on the tenure track - and many more off it - that expectations for this sort of work would be nearly abusing their roles. However, if you, like me, find yourself in the privileged position of tenured full or associate professor, think about this type of mentoring work. Because this world, and the young people trying to make their way in it, need people to guide them, friend them, and mentor them.

* After I published this post, this related article popped up on Twitter:, and my college, McDaniel is mentioned: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/showing-that-they-care-college-faculty-called-on-to-aid-floundering-students/2018/10/07/6b67d098-c6a4-11e8-b1ed-1d2d65b86d0c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b2771064700a

Today I read this column by James Lang in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The title of his piece is "What Will Students Remember From Your Class in 20 Years?" Lang recounts how he had this discussion with faculty from different disciplines. Almost no one said anything about specific course content, and yet many of us teach that content as if content is the end of the world. "Oh, I can't not cover "x" work of art in the survey course!"

What do you want your students to remember?

I have already thought about this and this is what I want them to know. I want them to know:

  • How art historians think what they think and know what they know;
  • Why art historians have different ideas about works of art and that works of art can have multiple interpretations;
  • How to talk and write about works of art;
  • How to visually analyze works of art so that propaganda and commercialized ads don't lead us to decisions we don't think about first;
  • How to read a critical piece of writing that has a thesis and to determine if that argument is proved

That is just the start. I also want them to remember that they did things in my class. That they were involved. I do not want to them to ever remember me telling them everything. I want them to remember the debate they had about whether or not the Elgin marbles should go back to Greece, or if the Second Crusade should be aimed at Edessa or Damascus, and what the future of art should be in Paris in 1889.

I believe that these goals are all incentivized by active learning. If I tell them all the things, then they are likely not to remember it next year, let alone in 20 years.  James Lang is a proponent of making small changes to teaching that allows for more student reflection and activity. That doesn't mean that I sometimes don't have to just tell them things, but it does mean that wherever possible, they are going to be actively engaged in observing an Egyptian work of art, or designing a new type of church for Justinian, or debating the role of artists in fighting fascism.

I probably won't know if I make the mark in 20 years. But I am pretty confident I am laying the foundation firmly for them to do so.

I have been teaching for over twenty years and higher education is under tremendous pressure and my college is experiencing this as well. I just started reading Jeffrey Selingo's book There is Life After College. I am doing this to try to understand the role of higher education in America now. It's very different than it was even a decade ago, and Selingo offers some context for that.

I have done a lot of reading because I want to provide the best education and experience for any student who comes across my doorway, either the doorway of my office or my classroom. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed at the different issues I must focus on. When I have a student  in my office, or when they come to my class, I am thinking of any number of things, like:

  • "It is my responsibility to teach this student and to be sure my course helps her on her way to graduation."
  • "I need to make sure this student understands and can communicate the skills he has learned in my class in any interview situation so that he can get the job."
  • "I need to retain this student because her continued attendance at my institution is important."
  • "I want to be sure that I engage these students so that they continue to want to learn and finish their degree."
  • "I want to be sure that this student doesn't end up a statistic of the millions who have some college, but no degree and student debt."

At times all of these thoughts can overwhelm and paralyze. And nearly all of those sentences should have an exclamation point after them, because each one seems pressing and necessary and URGENT. Sometimes I think I should just teach and NOT think about all of this. But is that really the extent of my job? Just teaching art history? I don't think so. I do think that my role at a small, liberal arts college is not just to teach. It's to help guide.

And yet, the more I read about our changing economy the more stressed I become for our students. The stakes are high. More and more it seems that the value that we place on individuals is really all about money. We do not hear about movies over the weekend that were good in a creative sense, just which ones made the most money at the box office. Everything is a value exchange.

I teach art history. How do I translate that so that my students can benefit from the skills that my discipline offers, while still helping them be successful in their eventual careers? How do I do that when art history is usually the degree that is maligned, as in a 2014 speech by then-President Obama (which you can read here). Or when it's mentioned in a podcast as a major that even students police among themselves: "Why are you majoring in Art History?!" according to William Deresiewicz in a recent episode of the Unmistakable Creative podcast (you can read about/listen to it here).

My institution is wrestling with the big question of the role of our college in society, what we teach and our mission. We are a private, liberal arts college and I know we help students. I know we're important. Yet, so much is changing around us. I believe strongly in the core of the liberal arts and want my students to be successful. Ultimately that is why I am mentoring students that happen to be on the football team, because I see such potential in them, and yet also a reticence among some of them to be disciplined enough in academics to have it help them launch a career.

I'd love to hear from my former students about how their experiences launched them - or did not. What would you do differently? What do you wish your alma mater did differently?

And today, I'll decide how best to teach tomorrow, and I'll also be planning mentoring meetings this week with students. That work must carry on.

1

The first full week of August typically comes with the realization that summer is waning, syllabi must be written, and the school year will be here soon. That is where I find myself this muggy Monday morning as I write this.

Most years there is also excitement about the new year starting. I am always much more excited about the "new year" in August/September than in January. I guess this is because my entire life has been dictated by an academic calendar, both as a student in school for oh-so-many years and as a professor for over 20.

But this year I feel a lot of trepidation, nervousness, and even some anxiety. There have been a lot of structural changes at my institution. Higher Education is going through some very difficult times as an industry and needs to change in very fundamental ways (and, as an industry, really doesn't like to change very much). I find myself feeling like I am standing on shifting sands because of these tumultuous times. And I'm not even talking here about the political world in which we find ourselves.

While I am still working on some writing (and likely will be until my first class meets in person on August 28), I find myself more and more looking to reconnect with students. Doing so always helps to ground me. One texted me last night about changing his major, and could I help him figure out the best first class in that major to take. (That major is not in my department, by the way). Another asked to talk to me on the phone last week because he broke up with his girlfriend and had a new idea for a business venture and he wanted my opinion. The football team will report for camp this coming Saturday and a week from today I plan to see them on the practice field.

I hope that the return of the students will re-ground me in what is important in my life. While I do enjoy the luxury of the summer, even though I have been working hard every day on my writing projects, I do miss the students, who are very much the reason that I write, read, and ultimately, teach. Perhaps I will feel less anxious when the students arrive on campus, since they are the reason that we have a college at all.

For me, it truly is all about the students.

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