[Author’s note: I had nearly finished this post in January 2020, but during the ensuing pandemic chaos, I pushed it aside until now. This is essentially a pre-COVID time capsule, though I’ve added a post-COVID epilogue.]
A few years ago, I underwent peer evaluation of my teaching as part of a reappointment review. While being observed by a colleague, I was quite thrown off my game as he frequently stood up in the back of an auditorium full of seated students. I was baffled about what he was doing. Later, he explained that he was standing to see how many students were using their phones. Most of them, apparently. How did my course arrive at this point?
How will the successes and failures of your online pivot change the way you teach?
The year 2020 was awful for so many in academe, so I refuse to talk about the “silver linings” of Covid-19. That framing insults those who have struggled or lost loved ones. As educators, however, many of us have learned some valuable lessons from our foray into online teaching, and I hope that when things return to “normal” — summer 2021 at the earliest at my institution — we will apply those lessons to our in-person classrooms. Personally, I plan to continue recording and posting all of my lectures.
In my field of ecology, large-scale, controlled experiments are often infeasible, so we sometimes rely on “natural experiments” — that is, the occurrence of certain events, like wildfires, that allow us to study their effects observationally. My natural experiment with recording my lectures actually began just before the pandemic but turned out to be very helpful afterward in shifting my courses to a virtual classroom.
Now that I’ve given some context about my teaching in China, I can talk about how I adjust my teaching practice when I teach in China (and when I teach Chinese students at UBC).
The foundation of my teaching practice is compassion and empathy for my students. This doesn’t mean I don’t hold my students to high standards, but I consider the background of my students and teach with kindness, fairness, and respect. I recognize the incredible challenge of learning in a foreign language and in a very different cultural context. This perspective serves my ultimate goal, student learning. Continue reading
My position at UBC is unusual. First, as a member of the Educational Leadership Stream, my position is tenure-track, but 100% teaching. The really unusual part of my position is that one-third of my UBC teaching load involves traveling to China to teach Chinese students at partner universities.
A few months back, I wrote a post about changes I’ve made in my teaching practice to be more empathetic and compassionate to my students. I was pleased and surprised by how well-received these thoughts were by other educators. Now that the semester is over, I’ve had some time to reflect on how these changes worked out in the classroom.
Two years ago, I reactivated my long-dormant twitter account. It consumes more of my time than it should, but the thoughts of other faculty and students have fueled a re-evaluation of my teaching practices and my role as an educator. Most significantly, I have changed my thinking and teaching practice with regard to compassion and empathy for my students.
Compassion and Empathy
I had a relatively easy time as an undergraduate. My parents and siblings were all college graduates, so I had sources for advice. I never had any personal crises or traumatic experiences, significant physical or mental illness, nor did I face food insecurity or anxiety over how to pay rent or tuition. I was also confident in speaking to my professors and asking for assistance when I needed it. Because of this, I was initially ignorant of many challenges students might be facing outside of class. Though I was conscious that my experience was not representative, this first really struck me several years ago when listening to the episode ‘Three Miles’ of This American Life, which focused on the experiences of first-generation minority university students. I was really affected by the story of Jonathan, an African American man from the Bronx who was attending Wheaton College on scholarship. Jonathan was unable to afford his textbooks, so he did not buy them, and did not tell anyone he could not afford them. In the episode, Jonathan recounted his experience:
I didn’t do the homework… And I’m the only black kid in some of these classes…So now I’m embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn’t do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I’m not going to class. It’s a catch-22 because now I’m still the black kid now that just doesn’t come to class and doesn’t do the work on top of that, you know? But for me, it was– I mean, what am I going to say to these teachers?
That last part really got me. This probably could have been solved by Jonathan talking to his professors or an advisor, but he didn’t, and he failed out of Wheaton. Because I was comfortable asking for help when I needed it, it is hard to internalize that many of my students are not.