Edited by G. Edzordzi Agbozo, with support from the members of the CSGSH

The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has meant that universities undergo shifts in the coming fall semester. The MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities asked for reflections on how graduate students are responding to and navigating the challenges that this drastic change brings. In the first of this two-part series of blog posts, Dina López and Amir Hussain reflect on how they are preparing for teaching online. Below are their reflections.

Dina López
Ph.D. Student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric, Texas Tech University

Today, July 1, 2020, marks the end of my first year of teaching First-Year Writing and the first summer session of a sophomore-level Introduction to Technical Writing as a graduate part-time instructor, or GPTI. The summer course ended on a nice quiet note; however, I was very relieved to see this day come. In the spring semester, which had exhausted me physically and mentally, my first-year students had been frustrated with the first-year writing requirement. It was a very expensive box to check on their list of non-degree related courses. Most of the time I felt as though I were walking a fine line between student, counselor, substitute parent, and doormat. Going online mid-semester made a lot of the complaints seem to disappear in the Zoom classroom; however, one effect of the pandemic was that some of my students returned home to difficult situations. Many returned to environments that exacerbated their mental health struggles and interfered with strategies for navigating the first year of college. For the rest of the semester, we all just floated on down to the last day, glad it was over.

That experience made me a little concerned about preparing for the summer: I had only two weeks to frontload my course and prepare for a full online synchronous class, something I could easily adapt for fall teaching. Given this new set of circumstances, I decided to become an instructor/user experience (UX) researcher to learn how I could make this course useful to my students/users in a digital environment. I began by sending out a survey and looking at their general descriptions. Most of them were juniors or seniors. Several were taking full loads for the summer so they could graduate in December or May. Areas of study varied from computer science to sports management. Class introduction posts revealed that some were enrolled in the class for the humanities requirement: they were either genuinely interested in boosting their technical communication skills or just needed the three hours.
This combined knowledge led me to prepare my class for users who were, for the most part:

● Interested in the course for its content
● Mature enough to begin working in groups with a foundation of trust
● Going to be tired as we approached the end of the summer session

Armed with this knowledge, I carefully tailored the four-week summer course and placed the bulk of the reading
assignments and quizzes into the first two weeks. I threaded the objectives and goals of each unit into the next during class discussion and lectures. Sometimes I opened a space for discussion on how each of their projects would inform their own studies (again, threading the objectives), but the general daily pattern was the same so there would be no surprises during the fast-moving summer session. I now have a conceptual framework as I prepare for the fall: study my users to determine the scope of their learning needs and create a structure and skeleton for a course, so that on the surface the course will be fairly free of issues.

Amir Hussain
Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature, Emory University

When the Coronavirus pandemic started last spring, I was in Germany on an exchange year for dissertation research and language study. Universities in Germany, like in the United States, quickly moved to online learning. Since the semester schedule is different in Germany and since I continued distance learning in another institute after I returned to the U.S., I have now taken four months of a weekly language and culture course online. Drawing on this new online experience and on my prior teaching experience, I will briefly present several suggestions for graduate students trying to navigate and make the most out of an online course—whether preparing to take a course or to teach one online. While the overwhelming majority of graduate students have likely grown up with computers and digital technologies like smartphones or social media and are comfortable with and accustomed to them, it still takes a concerted effort to adjust to an online learning environment for the first time. Following are three tips:

1. Make it Synchronous

There has been discussion about both the advantages and the challenges of synchronous (or real-time) classes versus asynchronous classes, but my personal experience as a learner is that synchronous class sessions are crucial for getting the most out of an online course. Reading materials, written discussions, and assignments can of course be done asynchronously, but having the class meetings in real-time cannot be replaced as far as getting immediate participation, input, and feedback. The online sessions can be split into small synchronous groups for activities where students talk to each other. Still, I have found the bigger discussions and conversations that the teacher guides are particularly useful from a pedagogical perspective. In a language course, for example, hearing and seeing the language spoken correctly by the teacher is very important, and the synchronous sessions can provide a place for a question-answer conversation to unfold. A recent article titled “Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom” from The Chronicle of Higher Education further discusses and presents useful suggestions for how online classes can “build community”; in that sense, synchronous class meetings become a place where, despite the distance, one becomes part of a community meeting for a shared educational purpose.

2. Make it Meta

One challenging thing I have found in my online classes has been adjusting to speaking to the computer screen and not being able to expect discernibly clear nonverbal cues that are important to human communication. Online discussion, for example, means there is a greater mediation or lag time for how one may be able to register other people’s reactions to what one is saying. For those taking their first online course—and I assume for many this would be the case—an opportunity to explicitly reflect on technology or more simply reflecting on something that one is finding challenging in the online environment can be useful. If teaching a course online, one suggestion might be to include technology and online environments into a sub-topic related to the course. In a humanities course, for example, a session on how to vet sources that one finds online or on how to use digitized primary sources for research would be very relevant for coursework and could be tied to discussions about online environments and/or digitization. Also, a low-stakes writing assignment (low-stakes meaning that the assignment is short and counts for a minor portion of the grade) could be designed—perhaps to take place within the first few class sessions—where the class is asked to explicitly reflect on their experiences and challenges with online learning.

3. Make a Presentation

My final suggestion is to have presentations—whether individual or small group ones will likely depend on the syllabus and the class size. In the first online class that I took in the spring, everyone was required to do a group presentation on a topic of their choice (but one related to the course theme) where each presenter had to speak for a certain length of time. We used a website I would recommend——to post our presentation materials online. This site provides a blank page where anything can be posted, including PowerPoint slides, images, or other website links that might be relevant for a presentation while making it synchronously available for anyone with the link to open on their personal computer. I recommend a presentation because I noticed that it makes a big difference going forward in the class—that is after one has presented online to the class, there is a sense of being more comfortable talking in the online environment in general. While some students might be intimidated by the thought of having to deliver a presentation online, having to give a presentation can surprisingly speed up the process of adjusting to online learning and its technologies. Needless to say, the sooner one acclimates to these things, the smoother the course and the overall online semester can go.