How I’m Planning to Teach This Fall

The weeks before I first took students to Europe for a travel course, I often woke up in the middle of the night, unable to stop thinking about our plans — and what would happen when the plans went awry.

The same thing has been happening in recent days, as we get closer and closer to a fall semester that will be on campus… but feels like it’s happening in another country. And it’s already obvious that plans will go awry.

Like most colleges and universities, Bethel has decided to bring students back to campus in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether that’s actually a prudent or even ethical decision could take up a series of posts. But at this point the decision has been made, and I’m going to do my best to live with it as long as it holds.

What it will mean to teach under these circumstances has been driving me crazy for weeks now. So while I promised myself that I wouldn’t make concrete plans until we’re four weeks away from the first day of classes (August 31st), this is definitely a time I want to use this blog to “think in public” and clear out some of the questions, concerns, and ideas that are waking me up in the middle of the night.

What will be different this fall?

Let’s start with some of specific policies that Bethel has adopted that will affect teaching and learning:

Modified face-to-face (F2F): I’ll be teaching in classrooms at scheduled times, albeit with some adjustments to alleviate hallway congestion during transitions. But not only will the classroom feel very different (see below), we need to make F2F classes accessible to students who may be taking it remotely for periods of time — e.g., because it’s such a large class that only half can attend lecture at any one time, or because an individual student is ill or being quarantined. It’s a bit unclear how much we can still expect online students to participate synchronously (e.g., joining a Zoom broadcast from the classroom) as opposed to watching a recording later. We certainly can’t penalize students for not showing up to class, but we can schedule regular work to keep students engaged. The overriding principle is that all students can achieve course objectives, F2F or online. (And in the back of everyone’s mind is the possibility that we might need to move online, like we did during spring break last year.)

Classroom safety: desks/chairs are spaced six feet apart; students are responsible for staying masked, cleaning their desks, and sitting according to a seating chart; instructors (at least at this point) need to have a face shield and stay in a limited area up front. We’re supposed to avoid passing out paper — including quizzes and exams, which will move online.

Our (heroic!) facilities staff are still working on setting up classrooms, but to give you some sense of what it will look like this fall… This is our choir room, a floor below my office. Last spring our sports history class had almost 70 students in this room. This fall it will seat only half that many.

There are other policies, but those are the big ones most directly affecting how classes will function. We haven’t changed the semester calendar, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Fall Break or Thanksgiving Break becomes a point at which we pivot to fully online (in the event that a COVID surge hits Minnesota harder than it already has). I don’t quite know if library services will be restricted, though I hope not — two of my classes have research projects.

Then there’s the possibility that I’ll be sick or quarantined myself… but at this point I feel pretty confident in my ability to teach online. It’s the modified face-to-face part that’s hard.

General principles for modified F2F

I’ll share some course-specific ideas below, but in general, I’m going to approach the semester according to the following principles:

  1. For most class sessions, start with what we can do F2F, then think about how to make it available online. I know that this is the opposite of what many instructional designers are suggesting… but to my mind, it makes no sense to go to all this trouble for the sake of having students and professors together in person only to make F2F secondary. I’m going to start with what I can accomplish in person in the classroom, and try to figure out how to make that available remotely — and to do online what I can’t do well in person.
  2. Lean into my skill as a lecturer. Two of my classes lend themselves well to lecturing, and I’ve repeatedly argued here that the lecture — rightly understood and done well! — is actually a powerful mode of teaching. I’m good at lecturing, and I can both do it in the classroom under these circumstances and come up with ways to stream/record it for remote students.
  3. Move most “active” learning online. Now, I think lecture is a form of active learning. But other modes that more typically garner that adjective — e.g., discussion and simulation — are going to be really hard to accomplish with masked students distanced from each other and from me. I can’t simply have them cluster their desks together to talk about a reading or collaborate on a response to a scenario. I still think we can sustain some level of meaningful discussion in my sections with 15-20 students, but I’m also planning to schedule regular sessions that are purely online, using Zoom, shared docs, and other tools to let students work together.
  4. Emphasize research. The two classes I’ll discuss in more detail below both have research papers required as part of their general education objectives. That’s something I really want to emphasize this semester: what I’m doing in delivering a lecture or setting up a discussion or reflection assignment is modeling and facilitating a kind of inquiry that students will then engage in on their own, outside of the physical or virtual classroom. So long as our library resources are available, this is a kind of learning that should be able to continue in spite of the limitations imposed by COVID.
  5. Overcommunicate. I already do tend to do this, but it seems more essential now, when even the best case scenario is bound to feel disjointed and unfamiliar. That means taking more time in class to review where we’ve been and preview where we’re headed, putting everything on Moodle (including reading and writing assignments, quizzes and exams, recordings of F2F and Zoom sessions, links to all Slides presentations and handouts, photos of anything on a white board in the classroom), and creating (or having students create) additional review resources, like a fall version of the webisodes we’ve been making this summer for the online version of Christianity and Western Culture (CWC). Also, I’m planning to produce pre-semester videos to preview for students (and their nervous/curious parents) course themes and objectives and summarize how we’ll achieve them under these trying circumstances.

Specific plans for courses

I’ll set to the side CWC, both because its size makes it very different than the other two I teach and because I’m part of a teaching team and so can’t make purely individual decisions. That leaves me responsible for two courses this fall…

A U.S. Army armored vehicle in Alaska – Creative Commons (U.S. Army)

GES160 Inquiry Seminar: The Fog of War

Inquiry Seminar (IQ) is a relatively new first-year gen ed course that introduces students to academic inquiry within the Christian liberal arts tradition and cultivates common skills like research, reading, writing, and speaking. There are generally 6-8 sections per semester, each with 17-18 students and a professor asking a big question or pursuing a broad theme together. I first taught IQ in 2017, when we thought through what it meant to pursue Christian unity within a polarized society. This time we’re considering the experience of warfare, from the perspective of multiple disciplines: not just history, but everything from political science to psychology to physics. (Here’s a more complete preview of the course.)

Because it’s not just a military history course, I don’t expect to lecture much. It’s a small enough group that I think we can still do some of the discussion we would normally attempt. But I’m planning to start each week online, with one or two recurring elements:

  1. A video session that introduces what academic discipline will give us that week’s perspective on war. Because it’s not just a history of war class, most weeks I’d like to bring in an expert in another field — either a faculty member at Bethel or another institution, or an alum — to talk to students: live, if possible; recorded, if schedules don’t work out. Then that introduction will lead into readings from the field that we’ll discuss in class on Wednesday.
  2. Small group work. Normally, I would assign students to a small group for the semester and have them spend time in class talking to each other. That’s not going to work well in our distanced classrooms, so I’ll experiment with a mix of techniques to reproduce that experience online. Because one goal of the course is to have students work on oral communication, I’m planning to have them record five-minute videos on Flipgrid that let them talk to each other (and me) asynchronously, even as they work on planning, organizing, rehearsing, and delivering short speeches.

As the semester goes along and students grow more confident, I also mean to shift more of the responsibility for inquiry from me to them. That mostly will happen via their semester research project, as they use one or more disciplines to study some aspect of warfare in the 21st century. We’ll do some of that work in class with the assistance of one of our librarians, but I’ll also expect to set aside more class time for small group or one-on-one check-ins via Zoom, with concluding oral presentations after Thanksgiving.

HIS/POS305G The Cold War

Unlike IQ, I’ve taught Cold War many times, as a relatively large (30 students) upper-division course that enrolls both History and Political Science/International Relations majors and other students seeking to complete a third-year gen ed experience. It’s now an every-other-year class, so I’m already thinking of making some changes to what I did in 2018. For example, we’re going to end with conservative historian Andrew Bacevich’s most recent book, which critiques a generation of American foreign policy makers for their response to the end of the Cold War. (More on that and other course themes in this preview at our department blog.)

Also unlike IQ, this is a course that lends itself very well to lecture: my favorite part of teaching Cold War is that I get to tell a decades-long, international story using a wide array of primary sources, from declassified CIA documents to Soviet cartoons to country music. But because I teach the class in a 75-minute Tuesday/Thursday time slot, I normally intersperse several small group activities within each lecture — pausing, for example, to have clusters of 4-6 students consider a question from different Cold War perspectives and report back to the larger group. Plus I always spend a week running a nuclear crisis simulation that has students playing roles in three parallel war games. None of that is going to work well with our distanced classrooms.

So here’s my tentative solution to the problem: I’m going to break our 16-week semester into eight 2-week units. The first three class days in each unit will be F2F, with lectures and videos moving forward some part of the larger story. Then the last Thursday in each unit will be taught as an online Zoom session, with smaller groups of students using break out rooms and Google Docs to discuss a question or scenario and then report back. (It’s also a chance to review the story to that point, with students taking online quizzes that check on their accumulating comprehension of key individuals, events, locations, and concepts, with the midterm and final exams being purely take-home essays.) I think I can also use Zoom to run the nuclear simulation, though I’m not sure it’ll be realistic to conduct three simultaneous games this time. Fortunately, I have until mid-semester to crack that nut…

As in IQ, there’s a research project that will take up more of our time as the semester goes along. Students start in September by reading and reviewing a recent work of Cold War scholarship, then in October-November they’ll research some social, cultural, economic, technological, scientific, religious, or other aspect of the Cold War that takes them beyond the usual focus on Soviet and American diplomacy and strategy. So I might use a couple of those Thursday online sessions to check in with groups of students.

Or something like that.

I’ve still got five weeks to go. Surely, I’ll rethink something, our policies will shift, or something else will change between now and August 31st. But, to go back to where I started this post…

If I’ve learned anything from teaching a travel course, it’s that (a) I’ll lose a lot more sleep before we’re done, but (b) I’m never so wedded to plans that I can’t adjust on the fly, and in any event, (c) students can learn anywhere, anytime, and in any way.

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