close-up reflection in water with green and yellow tints

It Wasn’t Just a Pandemic: Reflections – Segment 3

Overview | Segment 1 Reflections | Segment 2 Reflections | Segment 3 video

In “It Wasn’t Just a Pandemic,” our colleagues, razor-sharp despite visible fatigue, look toward an unpredictable fall semester and identify the human energy and technological resources required to responsibly adapt new modalities of teaching and learning to disciplinary content and pedagogy. Their conversation, recorded on Zoom, edited for length and segmented into four parts of approximately twenty-minutes each, concludes with remarks by President Adams. Written reflections by participants are featured on each Segment page.

One Year Later: Teaching and Learning during the Pandemic
Misun Dokko, English

Successful Interventions and Uncomfortable Conclusions

Students who began the spring 2021 semester with consistent work habits and sharp intellects and who struggled to maintain these habits have prompted my reflection. In my memories of pre-pandemic teaching, I position these types of students on a steady trajectory of academic achievement. However, during the pandemic, I have encountered several students in an introductory composition class and a literature class in which an impressive work ethic and analytic eagerness dissipated by the end of the semester. This decline in accomplishment manifested as disappearing for stretches at time. It materialized as submitting work that did not follow basic directions or did not exemplify basic comprehension of content. Strange outcomes for students who were consistent, engaged, diligent, and analytical at the beginning of the semester. That is, my recollection of  the pre-pandemic suggests that students with these academic skills progressed consistently, whereas students with similar abilities during the pandemic struggled more noticeably and required more support.

What had happened? After direct communication via Zoom video sessions or Slack direct messages, these students shared challenges that the pandemic precipitated and exacerbated. These challenges include housing insecurity; caring for older and younger members of the household; strife with parents; divorce; isolation; depression; trauma from previous violence; grief for lost friends, family, and pets; physical injuries; balancing work with school; job loss; weight gain; and more.

Supporting high achieving students involved a long series of direct messages over Slack or, more commonly, one-on-one interventions that spanned sixty- to ninety-minute sessions on Zoom. During these sessions, I encouraged students to share their experiences because, in many cases, it seemed that they were bottling up their feelings. When appropriate, I followed with referrals to the Wellness Center. As soon as students felt ready to talk about the course, we tracked missing homework and created a tailor-made catch up schedule. In some cases, these sessions also consisted of conversation about revising major essays.

For one especially promising student, these stages of discussion were followed with advisement. She had signed up for my second semester composition course during spring II, which, in the end, I had decided not to teach to preserve my own mental health. However, as she was reluctant to sign up with another instructor, we went through every instructor teaching the fall course and we decided on a good fit for her.

What do I take away from teaching during the pandemic? One takeaway is that the pandemic has caused even high achieving students to struggle in ways I had not previously witnessed. Helping them get back on track took at least an hour of a one-on-one session in which they received compassion, support, guidance, instruction, and advisement.

Another takeaway is that working closely as advisor and instructor is rewarding but draining in terms of time, labor, and my emotional state. This has led to a choice of “picking my battles.” For example, I often focused on students who showed a spark of motivation and interest. This choice leaves me with the uncomfortable conclusion that I do not have the energy to help those who have not fully developed the work habits and intellectual vigor to survive college. What happens to these students? How do we help them?

A Solution

LaGuardia students are in desperate need of enhanced advisement. The first step is hiring more advisors. A lower student-advisor ratio will enable advisors to appreciate a fuller picture of students’ academic and personal circumstances. The second step is encouraging advisors to spend more time with students. This will make it easier for advisors to be fully present for their advisees and offer appropriate referrals and guidance. In addition to benefiting students, enhanced advisement may benefit certain faculty who have shouldered the emotional work of supporting students through difficult personal circumstances.

On the need for emotional and collegial support
Michele Mills,
Health Sciences

The pandemic has uncovered a lot of faculty and student needs. For example, the need for language support for all students, including students within candidacy programs, is (even more) crystal clear. Students within the candidacy programs require concept development, writing, and communication support. Too often we incorrectly assume that the need for development in these areas ends when a student is accepted into a candidacy program. Students need support throughout their education, and I will continue to advocate for English language support services for our students.

The pandemic has also sharpened the need for psychological and physical support. LaGuardia’s Wellness Center has proven to be paramount in helping students maintain educational and emotional balance and move forward in their disciplines. As we know, so many of our students have experienced significant losses to income and housing; many have borne the loss of family and friends who succumbed to the virus. On the surface, LaGuardia students are resilient and appear to be coping well, but we know that many have kept private their losses, grief, and fears. During individual meetings, I have found that a “soft and listening presence” encourages openness and allows me to learn about their challenges and offer direction and support.

As we confront student needs, let’s also acknowledge the needs of faculty. This past year and a half has been draining, enlightening, and truth-seeking. The pandemic has propelled me to re-evaluate pedagogy, reflect on my professional development, and learn more about the virtual environment of teaching and learning. Despite everything, I will continue to grow, hoping that we will not simply return to business as usual. LaGuardia is a strong institution of learning for both students and faculty, yet we can do better. For example, we might design ongoing faculty-supporting-faculty opportunities that inspire us to be our best physical and emotional selves. Collegial support has kept me going these fourteen months, and for this reason, as we move into the future, I believe that it would be helpful to create regular opportunities for faculty to gather together without a requirement of a “product.”

On the digital divide
Thomas Cleary,

The biggest thing I’ve noticed is a change in the idea of the “digital divide.” At the library, I’ve seen more students on chat who are just learning how to use a computer while they do know how to use a phone. This happened a bit before the pandemic, but first-time students who are just beginning to learn the basics of using a computer while taking online classes for the first time is a challenge that hasn’t really come up before. Students are also much more stressed and anxious than I’ve seen before, or are at least more open about their stress/anxiety.

On learning new pedagogies
Ian Alberts,
Natural Sciences

My “pandemic” realization is based on encouraging student participation in the remote learning environment. In online classes, as you cannot ‘see’ most students, there is a tendency to simply continue lecturing. I have learned to ask that they express their opinions more frequently and solve more example problems related to the concept under discussion. Connecting the concept to the outside world works particularly well in generating student interactions. Nevertheless, asking questions online can often lead to silence. Most prefer chat messages to verbal responses online, so this also takes some time. Hence, I have learned to patiently await responses.

In f2f classes, I can walk around the class, see my students’ attempts and discuss these individually or in groups. I will try to incorporate group work in future online sessions. From my perspective, most of the above pedagogical techniques are valuable for both f2f and online classes. The pandemic has made us explore these aspects at a much deeper level.

On recommendations for online teaching and learning
Ellen Quish, Director, First Year Experience, The Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching through the pandemic has reminded us of just how important it is to

  • Learn and understand where students are coming from, and the experiences that contribute to their strengths and weaknesses. In Spring I 2020, the sudden and unexpected shift to virtual learning highlighted students’ (and instructors’) limited tech experience. In addition, traditional students’ (those who had completed a year of remote learning in high school), exhibited increased distraction and inability to fully engage in synchronous classes. While distraction existed prior to the pandemic, I found that many students would multi-task during class, e.g., drive, cook, care for children, etc. Let’s listen to what is on students’ minds right now and respond as appropriate.
  • Establish a clear and consistent system of communication. With so much uncertainty during the pandemic, being consistent about what students needed to do and how they could connect with me, and providing ongoing opportunities to hear and learn from each other were more important than ever. I include information in my introductory communication to students about how to be successful as an online learner as well as my expectations of them.
  • Be flexible. In recognizing that this has been an extraordinarily challenging time, I have relinquished any thought of “college students should know and be able to do x, y, and z.” Instead, I offered multiple explanations of assignments, concepts, etc., and eliminated hard deadlines.
  • Make it a collective effort. I was consistent in recognizing that most students envisioned neither a virtual college learning experience nor its inevitable challenges. I was also clear about my own virtual teaching challenges, and aimed to cultivate a sense of helping each other enhance our experiences of remote teaching and learning.
  • Offer support to students beyond the course content. Encourage use of support services and incorporate reminders of what is within students’ control, e.g., time management, self-care, etc. I logged onto Zoom thirty minutes before the start of class every week and always had the chance to speak with one to three students about their lives and classes.
  • Honor and celebrate students. While this is always essential, I have started every course during the pandemic with recognition of students’ strength and courage for attending college during a pandemic. I also stress that they are making history.

Final Thoughts

Teaching during the pandemic has been exhausting! In addition to the reality of the pandemic, the intensity of virtual teaching and learning, i.e., the many steps in creating, posting, and responding ,to content, along with ongoing targeted communication, has been especially challenging. The pandemic has exacerbated the likelihood of educational deficits, limiting engagement to the kinds possible in a virtual learning environment. Looking ahead, I anticipate a new challenge to teaching and learning: helping students accustomed to remote classroom understand how to be successful in-person learners.

On distance learning from the student perspective
Leigh Garrison-Fletcher, Education and Language Acquisition

After the shock of the Spring 2020 semester and moving totally online without any experience teaching online, I was able to reflect and plan. I participated in the CUNY Online Essentials Pedagogy workshop in the summer, which really helped me understand online learning from the student perspective.

In Spring 2020, I noticed many students had a hard time attending synchronous zoom meetings. Even when students were there, it was so much different than being together in the classroom—a very isolating feeling. So, I decided to try asynchronous, especially since I saw the most engagement among my students on the discussion board and thought I could foster this more with an asynchronous class.

In the Fall, I taught completely asynchronous courses, as I had done in the Spring. There was a lot of preparatory work, but luckily the summer training forced me to jump-start the creation of  modules for my course and setting up the Blackboard page. Each week, I asked students post to the discussion board and then respond to at least two of their classmates as part of their grade. Students contributed a lot of wonderful posts to  the discussion board, which showed they were engaged with the material and with one another. (I had Zoom office hours every week, and noticed more students came in the fall than in the spring. Even so, I really only got to know five students very well over the two semesters. That is the biggest difference I’ve noticed—usually I know at least what all my students look like and can spot them in the hall, and often I get to know most of the students in my classes—what their majors are, if they have children, what other courses they are taking, what some of their professional goals are, where they live, etc. In the asynchronous courses, it is very strange to be reading student work without really knowing the student. I did give my usual questionnaire at the beginning of the semester and had students introduce themselves in the first discussion board post, but without being able to put a face with a name and a voice, I had a difficult time remembering who the students were. To help, I put all the information in an excel file to help me remember when a student came to office hours—in the past, I never did this because I would remember without any problem

A major reason I like to teach is that I like to interact with students. So, my biggest takeaway is that teaching, for me, is not as rewarding when teaching fully asynchronous courses. I think my students did learn about linguistics in the fully asynchronous courses, and many appreciated the opportunity to work at their own pace. However, as a teacher, I like to know my students and feel more connected with them—something that was lacking in the online environment for me. However, the five students I did connect with, I strongly connected with—so though I had fewer overall connections during the online teaching, I really got to know those few students very well).

On workshops of resilience
Lucy McNair,

Like Santo, I see the online class this year as a workshop of resilience. Many ENG 101 students were surprised to find they personally have a chance at college work even in these circumstances. The ability to grasp this chance passes through affect and the many issues Misun raises, as well as sustained contact with a faculty member and scaffolded, disciplined tasks. The year shows clearly that not all students are up for this challenge. We need to rethink the F, “call in” to constructive dialogue rather than “call out” in ways that judge students as deficit, use our campus resources as faculty, and create paths for some students who cannot meet the tasks technologically, academically, and/or socially; otherwise we inflict more harm on a vulnerable population.

I have also often found the issue at heart is language and learning. It’s like we are not reading the same book or only imagine it in one language, not open to the many registers and languages that the students, faculty, and staff are familiar with. COIL is a great space to explore this issue. I initiated a project with a Moroccan colleague this semester in which students compared two Moroccan and two American sources, met on Slack and Zoom, and collaborated on presentations on the theme of “Othering and Belonging.” Their discovery: a whole new level of experiential engagement in what connects us. As one student wrote, “We didn’t come up with a solution, we became it.”  ​