Fall and winter teaching update (course content wants to be free)

I have written nothing in this forum for months, and the last thing I posted here was also a teaching and research update this past summer. I would surely love to provide another research update, but alas, my primary role the past few months has been one of online content creator for my two fall courses. I have not had a chance to do any significant research writing since August, and that is unlikely to change anytime in the next few months as I slouch toward the coming winter semester’s three courses and renewed undergraduate advising duties in my department. The fall semester was a strange one for me because it was the first time I did all my teaching online. I had sincerely hoped to return to the physical classroom in the winter semester starting January 6, but the newest turn in the pandemic — the rapid emergence and spread of the highly transmissible coronavirus omicron variant — has put the kibosh on that. The university here has delayed the start of our winter semester to January 17, and moved classes online for at least the first two weeks of the term, with a potential return to the physical classroom assessed each week as the pandemic progresses. Or regresses, as this is more the feeling I have as I write this and note the cascade of restrictions on gatherings, dining, and so on that were also in force a year ago. I am an eternal pessimist, master of the worst-case scenario, and so I am banking on being online for the entirety of the coming term. Not necessarily because of the virulence and lethality of the evolving virus, but because universities like mine are profoundly risk-averse, perversely reliant on international student tuition, and incapable of the kind of flexibility that might allow a pivot back to campus and in-person instruction halfway through a semester. Yet as I stare down the long tunnel of another semester online, I wanted to share both my experience of the virtual classroom, and some of the content I made for my large introductory human geography course. The rest of this piece is organized into three sections: looking back, in which I weigh the few pros and numerous cons of online teaching; looking forward, in which I discuss how the online experience might shape my teaching and the university more broadly in the short- to medium- term future; and looking sideways, in which I provide access to syllabi and some course materials.

Looking back
Online instruction in a virtual classroom is, in a word, dreadful. As I have noted before, I got out of much online teaching in the past 20+ months because of a pre-planned research sabbatical and parental leave, so coming into the fall 2021 semester I was not yet burdened and crushed by two semesters’ worth of the virtual classroom experience, which I gathered from friends, colleagues, and students to be equal parts exhausting and unrewarding. My fall schedule consisted of two undergraduate courses – one a large introductory human geography course (POLS-2300 Space, Place, and Scale), the other a senior seminar for students pursuing the thesis option in my department for completing their BA degree (POLS-4970 Political Science Thesis 1: Research Design). These are both courses that I created prior to the pandemic, and I feel very attached to them as they are core to what I view as my particular role in my department. The human geography course, formerly numbered at the 100-level, was in dire need of a revamp anyway, as I had taught it pretty much the same way since its first iteration in 2015 and it was getting stale. I have cultivated a niche of geography courses in my department and ensured they are relevant to our International Relations program, while also serving some function for the extant Geography minor and the Environmental Studies program. This means the POLS-2300 class is well subscribed, and attracts a number of students from different programs. This fall it started with 121 students, the largest it has ever been, and no doubt a result of the fact that it hasn’t been taught since fall 2018, though it ended the semester with about 105.

My other class, POLS-4970, is a small seminar with a high bar to entry (students must be in their final year of the BA program and have a GPA of at least 80, which translates to A- or something like a 3.7 on a 4-point scale), and leads into a winter semester course (POLS-4980) that results in an independent research thesis and the chance to graduate with the “with thesis” designation. I created these two courses and the thesis stream option in all of our Political Science programs in 2018 while serving as the undergraduate program chair, and I feel very strongly about them because the thesis courses help give students a unique research experience as part of their degree. They reward and challenge those students who want to develop the ability and skills to conduct strong and perhaps publishable research. The 4970 class is hard for the students because they have to be organized and motivated to do more independent work than is typical, and hard for me because it requires a lot of time in the latter half of the semester to grade and comment on research proposals. Dedicating that time to closely read and comment on students’ work ensures they’re on the right footing to complete the thesis in the second semester in a more loose course structure working primarily with just their faculty supervisor.

I provide this extensive background as a way of introducing what did and did not work in each class this fall as they went totally online. And much did work, or at the least I could see some benefits of online teaching and a virtual classroom for both student and instructor. On the other hand, in both courses I felt the class experience and my teaching would have been infinitely better had things been in-person instead of online, and on the whole, what is lost or made immensely difficult in the virtual format far outweighs the benefits it can offer. In the large human geography class, for example, I was very happy with the structure of the class as I laid it out on the syllabus (things seemed to flow well between units of course material and overall it felt like I was hitting the right notes with the level and amount of reading and written work), but I was really not happy at all with the virtual classroom and the constraints of being online when lecturing. I set the class up so it was partly synchronous, with 11 of the 24 scheduled class meetings during the semester live lectures using the Blackboard Virtual Classroom, including two class periods set aside just to discuss two major marked assignments. For the asynchronous days I had particular readings, short recorded lectures, and short unmarked exercises laid out. So on paper, a masterpiece of organization and pedagogical skill … and in execution, a middle-aged mumbler sitting in his office talking to a quarter of the registered class once every 10 days or so while trying to figure out how to make sure marks on Blackboard actually got to the students.

In some ways, this was not that different from any other previous versions of the class taught in person in a physical classroom: a lot of students skip class and don’t do the reading, and I am overly ambitious with the complexity of assignments and the amount of material I want to cover. I noticed about halfway through the semester, after the first major assignment was due, that attendance for live lectures slipped dramatically, and I eventually had over the last five or six live lectures more or less the same 30-35 students in electronic attendance. The difference this time around was that I recorded all those live lectures and made them available to students after class each time. There is really no choice about doing this. The technology is set up precisely for this, and in accessibility terms it’s excellent. I watched many of them (at 1.25x speed) before posting the links to students, and noted several things about my teaching in doing so: I move my arms a distracting amount; I have a lot of verbal mannerisms that for students must be exceedingly annoying, chief among them that I mumble, I talk too fast, and I say ‘right?’ ALL THE TIME at the end of sentences; and I rarely if ever look directly at the camera, choosing instead to focus on some point in the middle distance and slightly up to the left. Hopefully no one was logging on for the production values, because they would be sorely disappointed. I also had not planned to go the full 80 minutes allotted for a class period during the live lectures, but did so pretty much every time, because I was moving through slides that I constructed for each unit of the class, which typically covered three class periods each, and after laying out main ideas and themes I went through suggestions for what they should be doing with the material on the following asynchronous days. Despite the questionable quality of the recorded class lectures, this worked as a schedule I think, and saved everyone from having to log in and sit through me talking over Power Point slides twice a week for 13 long weeks.

But here is where the online teaching experience fell apart for me. On those asynchronous days, I really have no idea what worked and what didn’t. For those days I had a short, scripted, and recorded lecture of 15 to 20 minutes on a specific case or theme available (along with notes – these are available below so you can skip to that if you’re looking for the free content promised in the post title), and a short unmarked exercise to go with readings. In past versions of the class, students would do these exercises in groups while I went around the room and worked with them. They are usually specific reading-related questions, though some ask them to do a bit of online research. There is a lot of discussion and interaction in those days, and proximity in the classroom is essential for that to work. There is also a lot of “I forgot to do the reading so I am going to try and do it now by reading a pdf on my cell phone while Dr. Essex stares at me” on those days. Online, asynchronously, it’s impossible. Blackboard’s virtual classroom has ‘breakout rooms’ to put students in so they can work together in relative peace, but as I discovered in my thesis seminar, these do not offer the same collaboration as just being in person together in the same room. And after talking to so many colleagues and students about their online experience in 2020-21, I was determined to not have students log in every single class day for a fully synchronous class. I discovered over the semester that while most students were located in and around Windsor, many others were in different parts of Canada and in other countries many time zones away, riding out the pandemic at home while trying to keep up with classes. So asynchronous days with lots of material available and some guidance on what to do with it seemed the best path, but this also meant there was an enormous dropoff in the frequency and quality of direct interactions with and between students while working with the material. And for a concept-heavy course like POLS-2300, this was just not good. Would it have been better to have students in class more often? Maybe, but the steep attendance drop suggests that a lot of the students would not have made it to enough of these to really matter, though this is a problem anyway.

The short recorded audio lectures, on the other hand, seemed to work well based on feedback from students. They are probably usable in future versions of the class, as are the Power Point slides, but I really really really hate using lots of slides in class. I always feel constrained and hamstrung by a long slide deck, and much prefer talking more or less extemporaneously and writing on the board, as it allows for more discussion, keeps me focused on two or three main points for class instead of whatever I can pack into 17 slides, and reminds students that we are doing more than memorizing what is on those slides. But this semester I did feel compelled to use lots of slides, and while I think they turned out fine, it meant the prep I was doing felt both more involved and time-consuming than I usually do for in-person classes. Making copious slides to ensure students have things to guide them through my live lectures and across multiple asynchronous days is one of the reasons why teaching came to take almost 100 percent of my work time during the fall semester. A 20-minute recorded audio lecture, meanwhile, also took a few hours of work to prepare – it has to be written (15-20 minutes of recorded lecture is about 4 or 5 single-spaced pages read aloud), edited, recorded, and uploaded. Is it worth the payoff? Only if I can use them again later, but the shelf life is limited if you want to keep course materials fresh.

By comparison, the thesis seminar had few advantages in the online format. There is no anchoring content for this course beyond some things I give them early on about why so much social science writing is hard to read and poorly structured, some discussion of data collection and management and research ethics, and a lot of intensive writing practice built around the work of Randy Olson. It is sort of a collective independent study class in many ways, and my goal is to get them to focus first on the design of a large research project from start to finish, and second on dramatically improving their writing. In person this can work great, but online it felt always like it was just on the verge of falling apart. Perhaps that is just me projecting my anxiety about students’ progress on their projects but the seminar feel and cohort-building that is supposed to happen from successive weeks of exchanging and discussing pieces of one’s own writing was, to me, missing. We do ‘story circles’ as part of the class, and in breakout rooms on Blackboard Virtual Classroom, it’s not really a circle. It’s a bunch of digital chats and black boxes with mics on and cameras off talking to each other while I flit from room to room. In person, I could view and hear the entire class as they worked in separate groups, I could engage them as a small group and get back and forth going, I could see how well a presentation was engaging the audience from reading their faces, and I could (no offense meant here to these students) identify those who were lagging or falling behind more clearly and intervene more effectively. In the virtual classroom, it turned into more like me lecturing for an hour or more to avatars, some discussion in chat, and then several weeks of wringing my hands about whether and how students were progressing. Students could also not drop in as easily to see me or their faculty research supervisors, which meant it was very easy to fall behind as they developed their research questions, built a reading list, and developed a methodological approach for the larger project. In the end the grades have not been too far off the mark from the first, in-person iteration of the class two years ago, but the feel and coherence of the class were certainly missing something vital.

On the whole then, online teaching was great for flexibility, for allowing multiple methods of content delivery, and for providing some ease in marking, especially in the large class as I coordinated with two graduate teaching assistants (though I did make things more complicated than they needed to be with a particular digital story and map assignment, which I would greatly simplify next time around). But a class is not simply a bunch of people who happen to all log into the same video feed once in a while, and teaching is more than the delivery of content. The engagement with students and the interaction as a group, all of the subtle things about being in a room together with a dedicated academic purpose that makes the class more than the sum of its many parts, were all severely limited by the online format. It is an academic disaster to go on like this for much longer, especially at an institution like mine, i.e., a medium-sized public university with budget problems, complicit administration, and a lot of students who are not as prepared as they should be for the university classroom and need a lot more guidance than what we can offer in person, let alone virtually.

Looking ahead
Having laid out in great detail what worked and what did not, I can say there are some things from the online teaching experience that I will carry forward through my pedagogy and course planning as we return for another round of virtual classes in the coming winter semester. Really, it’s just two things but they are important enough to fundamentally alter how I approach certain aspects of my courses. First, in terms of assessment, I have grown very fond of the take-home exam. I have used these before for 3000 and 4000 level courses (senior undergraduate courses), but not often enough, and almost never for anything at the introductory levels, preferring sit-down timed exams and paper assignments instead. But the take-home exam has many benefits that easily translate from the virtual to the physical classroom, in part because it’s not tied to the classroom. Many is the time I have sat through a two-hour final exam watching students struggle to remember (or conjure for the first time) some basic piece of information, staring at a blank piece of paper (no it will not write itself), then at the ceiling (hoping for divine intercession perhaps), then back at the paper, then at me ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ LOLZ), then sighing and turning in eventually what I know they know that I know is hot garbage. I have often told students that a test is an event, but a paper is a process … unless the test is a paper, or at least, a couple of essays asking questions that require synthesizing different readings or components of a class. This is not some magical pedagogical insight, it’s simply frustration with watching students struggle with the timed mental crush of an exam rather than giving them the time and space to write something that demonstrates their engagement and understanding. And honestly, I have found over the years and especially last semester online that if the questions are written properly, the results are the same as far as a grade distribution. A take-home exam is no easier than a sit-down exam, and it is perhaps harder because the questions can be more ambitious, and if you’re the kind of student who didn’t do much all semester and then tries to cram it all in right before the exam, you’re likely not going to do well no matter the format. It also keeps me from having to schedule out a whole class day in the middle of the semester to proctor a midterm exam, or to setup makeup exams for those who missed. I had constructed my syllabi for winter semester on the assumption that everything would be in person, but had set take-home exams in both of my undergraduate courses anyway. And lo and behold, I’ll probably have to do it that way anyway given that we’re back online for the time being.

Secondly, I am trying to get rid of using slides altogether, and would certainly have attempted this in my two undergrad classes in the winter if not for the move back online to start the term. I have never much liked using lots of PowerPoint slides, as noted above. I also often give students this New York Times piece from 2010, in which several junior US military officers stationed in Afghanistan stated that they spent a huge portion of their time making PowerPoint slides. But the highlight is at the article’s outset, when General Stanley McChrystal joked upon seeing a slide “meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but [which] looked more like a bowl of spaghetti” that, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” We can all see how that turned out, of course.

The War in Afghanistan was also, apparently, a war on effective slide design.

As for my courses, I had gotten to the point where I would generally have just a couple of slides for each week of class, just enough to put main concepts and terms up at the start and give us a push into the week of readings and lecture materials. And then my lecture notes were on a post-it note, just reminding me of the main things to hit. I know that sounds absolutely wackadoo to many, but at this point, I’ve been teaching for close to twenty years. I either know what I’m talking about or I don’t, and I can fill 60 to 80 minutes with a couple of key concepts, summary of a reading, and other useful examples and facilitated discussion without much fuss. That’s not meant to be braggadocio, it’s just that at some point in the last decade I realized I was spending more time on getting slides together than was necessary. Maybe not necessary, but certainly there were rapidly diminishing returns in terms of student understanding and engagement and my lecture style relative to time spent on and number of slides made for a class session. I also just see students tuning out with a lot of slides flashing past them, and there is a sense that the moment of class – the interaction and engagement that might happen in a class meeting – is less important and less rewarding or necessary if you can just download slides packed with text later anyway. I had gotten so far from this and really made class a lot looser but more focused by using fewer and fewer slides … until fall 2021, when I reverted back to making lots of slides, spending way too much time on massaging text and images and order and color schemes. It felt necessary to do so, but if I had given the same live lectures (in terms of what I actually said in class) and recorded them without the slides, or with far fewer, it might have been the same, especially since so few students logged on and could just watch the recordings anyway. The value added of lots of slides was probably not much added value. So going forward, I am back to few slides and maybe none at all. I have felt compelled to make a few for my winter courses, as I did before, with just main points to guide the week, but I am also planning to just log in for every class period and lecture into the camera rather than working in asynchronous days and so on, since there is the chance we will be back in the physical classroom at some point and then I’ll be back to pacing the front of the room and writing on the board no matter what.

Finally, but not totally related to my specific classroom or courses, I think the student experience online is important to consider. Duh, right? This isn’t a novel insight or one tied just to the pandemic, and I can’t speak as a student, but I did see in the fall term that an emphasis on different kinds of content and delivery can be beneficial for engagement and this can easily be done in any classroom environment. Again, not news, but this is something we (well, I) tend to forget in the daily and weekly grind of teaching over a semester or two.

Looking sideways
Finally, the content you have been craving. If you scrolled down here without reading the first 90 percent of this post, well … I get it. Who has time? And yet this is why I feel it useful to share my own content in this way. I see colleagues all over struggling to get through the semester. This was a problem before the pandemic as workloads metastasize and administrations download more and more responsibility to departments and individual instructors. The pandemic has made things much worse. Teaching remotely often means working from home where family and other domestic duties cut the available time for necessary reading and preparation. Depending on where you teach and live, teaching in the classroom also might be an adventure in dodging severe illness and managing stress as institutions fail to support their core academic mission by failing to support instructors in numerous ways. Anyway, I am hopeful that by sharing here some of the materials I put together for my large intro human geography class they will find their way into the world in useful ways in others’ courses. Adapt the syllabus and the assignments as you see fit, and if you use any of the slides or the recorded audio lectures, please just give me a proper credit to your audience when you do so. This isn’t provided to fill a line on my cv or get internet clout, as I need neither of those things and sharing these materials won’t earn them anyway. Content wants to be free to roam and evolve, and solidarity requires that we be more open source with our pedagogical material. So I offer a selection of materials I think worked best in my POLS-2300 Space, Place, and Scale course from its online iteration in Fall 2021:

These last ones, the audio lectures and notes/transcripts, are in part based on other things I have written on this blog, and they are linked to specific readings assigned in the course, though I think this all worked well together. If you don’t want to download the actual mp3 file, you can also listen to the soothing dulcimer tones of my voice by playing directly from the links below.

“Tourism, place, and geographical knowledge”
“Vaccine geopolitics”
“Uncertain environmental futures and pop culture dystopias”

One thing I didn’t include here was the digital story and map assignment. It was a good idea but bloated and a little confusing as I laid it out on my slides, instructions, and rubric, but if anyone wants that please email me and I can send it, and would be interested to hear feedback on that or similar assignments you’ve used. Again, if you use the lecture slides or especially the audio recordings, just make sure to give me some credit somewhere when you do so. And let me know, I’d like to know if they are working in contexts beyond my own online course as the virtual teaching experience was deeply isolating and socially constrained. I have not seen most of my colleagues in person in two years and the impromptu discussions of our classes and teaching generally in the hallway or at lunch feel like they were eons ago. Some pedagogical interaction would definitely lift my spirits through this long virtual winter. On that note, I will close by also sharing my syllabi for my winter 2022 courses:

The POLS-8020 class is the first graduate-level class I’ve taught in about four years, and because it is kind of an empty shell of a class – I can pretty much do anything I want on IR theory and approaches – I have tried to make it interesting by focusing it on how IR deals with (or doesn’t) climate change. Thoughts, comments, critiques, extra readings, all are welcome.