Everyone is scrambling more than usual as the fall semester approaches. Covid-19 means that this school year is almost certainly going to be disrupted, at least for individual students and likely for an entire class or school. Many schools are requiring faculty to teach or be prepared to teach hybrid or hy-flex classes. I have been told to plan for face-to-face classes that could be interrupted and moved online anywhere from to two weeks to a whole semester.
In these circumstances, you can plan for class with two different approaches. You can try to have a course prepared for both eventualities (planning all the regular in-person work with a full alternative set of assignments and activities for online). But to minimize the disruption and difficulty for my students, I am trying to structure my classes in such a way that students can keep doing mostly the same thing each week, whether we meet in person or not, tailored to fit face-to-face, hybrid, and online schedules.
This semester I am combining my evolving philosophy about and approach to online education with my desire to add more active, flipped-classroom elements to my classes. Plus, there is a practical element: Everyone is going to be wearing masks and social distancing, and I am going to be usually teaching outside. Most of my usual lectures and several of my in-class activities won’t work without a computer with a projector/smartboard of some kind, so something has to change.
The way I usually structure my lectures is to build around a set of questions: Why did the Union win the Civil War? How did people think about the family and gender roles in postwar America, and what kind of impact did that have on American society? Then as we go, students know that they need to be answering those questions as we go through the material. I have been toying around with the idea of having students answer those questions themselves and bring them to class, instead of me lecturing. I would rather have done that in little batches, but I’m going all in because of the pandemic.
Each week, the class will be given a reading (usually just a textbook chapter and some primary sources) and a set of questions. Each week, each student will answer a question, post it on a discussion board in our LMS, and bring it to class for discussion. The questions are based mostly on the textbook chapters and any primary sources I think are particularly important or good for discussion. Students are required to use at least one primary source for evidence, and if they find a good scholarly secondary source besides the textbook, they can get additional credit for it. My expectation is that the first week or six will be a lot of me lecturing while they figure out how to answer a question well, but they should get the hang of how a historian thinks about things pretty quickly.
By way of example, here are my tentative questions for the first topic, Reconstruction, in the American history survey. Students will be given these questions, divided up by the first letter of their last name:
- How did different groups in America—northern whites, southern whites, and freedpeople—react to the end of slavery and to African-American liberty?
- What were the three most important events of Reconstruction? Why do you think those are so important?
- How and why did Reconstruction come to an end?
- Was Reconstruction successful or a failure? Why do you say that?
Each week I am aiming for a mix of more factual questions and more analytical ones, and I will rotate among different types of questions for different students. The American Yawp has a pretty good set of primary sources with each chapter, which I will supplement (it also has some discussion questions for each chapter; if I didn’t already have questions I like, I would probably just assign those questions for each week). In addition to writing their essays, students also need to be familiar with the answers other people wrote, for the purposes of class discussion; if it seems like they aren’t, I’ve got plans to require them to write up which answer written by another student was the best, and why they think that. In addition to discussing their questions, I’ve also got a few in-class activities I want to try or I think still work (like giving them an impossible literacy test from Louisiana to take as a pop quiz).
Some weeks will be much more directed toward specific sources. Here is what I have right now for the first of two weeks looking at the 1960s and 1970s:
- Read the John Lewis March on Washington speech, with the original version and the version he gave. Why are they different? What do these different versions tell you about the course, accomplishments, and limitations of the Civil Rights movement?
- Read the Huey P. Newton speech on gay and women’s liberation. What does it tell you about the relationships among those movements and the black civil rights movement? What about the views of larger society toward these movements?
- In 1960, it looked the Democrats dominated American politics and would for a long time. In 1968, the Republicans would start a period of controlling the presidency for twenty of the next twenty-four years. How and why did the liberal movement fall apart so fast?
- The 1960s and 1970s saw the beginning of the sexual revolution—why? How did ideas and practices around gender, sexuality, and the family change?
Grading these should be a snap: I have a very simple four-point rubric that is almost entirely about the substance of the answers, and I am already going to be grading participation, so that’s no added work. Assuming we don’t have any interruptions, students have those weekly questions/in-class discussions, some short research essays, and a couple of relatively low-stakes exams (based on the weekly questions they have already answered), with a participation score rounding out their grades.
But the odds of having an uninterrupted semester is, I think, pretty low. Should we have to move to entirely online instruction, this can easily go online: instead of answering one question a week and meeting in person to discuss, students will answer two, and we’ll get much more involved on the message boards. I can make myself available for virtual office hours for anyone who has questions about a topic.
The downside of this is that it is going to feel like much more work for the students, especially the ones who are not particularly studious. There are too many students who either expect or hope to sit in a room for a few hours a week while a professor talks, cram the night before to get a C three times a semester on exams that make up three-quarters of their grade, and then never think about a class again. This isn’t going to work for those students. And I am fairly certain this is going to mean a lot more work throughout the semester for me. But it also means that we’re going to be building the class together, as it were; they will be producing (or at least providing) the information for each other to learn. That’s exciting, and I hope that excitement will provide motivation.
There was a good Jonathan Rees blogpost the other week with this great line about online learning: “If you’re trying to replicate a face-to-face experience in your online class, buddy, you’re definitely doing it wrong.” If anything, I’ve come to the conclusion that more professors would be better off doing the opposite. If you only taught online and then got to teach a face-to-face class, would you be better off than someone who only taught in-person and then got to teach online?