May 5, 2020
If you're into higher education news at all, the most frequent words you'll see these days are "change" and "uncertainty." Who could have predicted the situation colleges now face?
I have always been interested in how people deal with change. The added element of uncertainty makes dealing with change even more interesting, although "interesting" may not be the most appropriate word those being forced to change would use to describe their experience.
Perhaps the biggest top-level change colleges have had to make -- and college students have had to endure -- is the transition from in-person classes to online teaching. It's clear by now that students are (understandably) unhappy about this for multiple reasons. Faculty, in many cases, are also unhappy about having to uproot their carefully planned syllabi and make the hasty switch to distance learning, all while myriad other changes and uncertainties have swirled about them.
I was curious about how professors went about the task of suddenly shifting their teaching gears to adapt to the new reality. So I did a search and found a great example of how one faculty member handled this.
In a Time.com article, 'Nobody Signed Up for This.' College Professor Drastically Rethinks Syllabus to Prioritize Human Need Amid Coronavirus, Meagan McCluskey writes about Brandon Bayne, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and shares how he dealt with his challenge of change and uncertainty.
Bayne's 2020 spring semester course, Religion in America, changed suddenly on March 11 when he got the news that all UNC-CH courses were transitioning to online status. Obviously, he knew that his approach would have to change dramatically. "I was sitting down to try to figure out how to accomplish the same learning objectives with different assignments and it became clear that we couldn't simply take what we had designed for the course online," he said. "Doing a final exam in the way we had it structured, which was a pretty traditional final exam, wasn't going to work the same way. Taking attendance at recitation wasn't going to work. We had to really adjust our whole mentality."
In order to get input from his students about the most effective way to alter his approach in light of the stark strictures now placed upon him, he surveyed his class, but found significant disparities among his students in regard to their ability to engage in online instruction. "They were coming from very different and diverse contexts. Some of them felt quite secure. They had high-speed internet. They were largely bored and looking forward to getting back to a new normal," he said. "Others were asked to travel home to Singapore and India and Brazil and were trying to figure out what that would look like. And then over 15 percent of them said that they didn't have access to high-speed internet, that they'd be relying on phones and going to other locations to try to access the internet."
Both teacher and students had been asked to deal with sudden change in 2020. Shortly before spring semester began, Bayne's mother was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and died shortly thereafter. In understandable mourning, he asked his students for their consideration and to be flexible with him as he taught and grieved.
While processing all this, internally and externally, Bayne tried to conjure a revised syllabus for Religion in America that took into consideration student circumstances, teaching limitations and the ongoing uncertainties of the coronavirus world. He imagined something that "really informed the principles about prioritizing ourselves as humans and being flexible and recognizing that we can't fully know where this is all going."
He posted his syllabus solution, which went viral, on Facebook. "I expected it might resonate with other people teaching religious studies, but to start getting emails from professors of music, from high school Spanish teachers, from elementary school teachers in New Mexico, that made it clear that there was something that was resonant to all educators who were struggling."
Here's what Bayne's "Adjusted Syllabus" looks like:
In my view, this is the product of a thoughtful, compassionate soul. I was particularly impressed with the emphasis on a holistic approach that tends to buffer the impact of sudden change. Specifically, I love the phrases "Nobody signed up for this," "The humane approach is the best option," and "We cannot just do the same thing online." Those are words of wisdom, understanding and insight.
In regard to the spirit of his adjusted syllabus, Bayne notes, "There's been, particularly in [the religious studies] field, a really strong emphasis on separating ourselves from the subjects that we study, and I think this moment is one of a series of moments in both my life and the lives of my students where that's just not going to fly. That doesn't mean that we need to inject [our personal beliefs] into the classroom. I wouldn't advocate for that. But I think the idea that we're some sort of disembodied brain that's only engaged in intellectual exercises is problematic."
As for holisticism, he embraces the concept of cura personalis, a Latin phrase meaning "care for the whole person." "It means care for the entire individual and this comes from the sense that you need to tailor education to the unique needs, situations, challenges and gifts of the people you're in relationship to."
I wish all teachers, college or high school, would embody this approach to leadership in the classroom, or, as it is now, over the internet. One of my personal philosophies maintains that challenges offer opportunity. Brandon Bayne knows this too, apparently, and his resourceful adjustments to his course has turned a frustrating situation into a moment of empathetic exploration and enlightenment for his students.
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