Teaching in the time of Corona

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, largely because it has so very little meaning these days. It passes, certainly. But, how we classify it seems all confused and out of sorts. For instance, I’m not sure if today marks the beginning of the last course to close out my fifth academic year (2019-2020) or the official beginning of my sixth academic year (2020-2021) teaching at the University of Helsinki. Why this confusion? Well the course that began today was originally planned for last spring, but was rescheduled due to Covid-19. Thus, we met for the first time today. Ambiguous time, right?

Thus, I’m straddling a weird place. Rather apropos for 2020, I suppose.

Regardless, as the time for that first ‘meeting’ of this specific course neared, I realised two things:

  1. I’ll never not be a bundle of nerves on the first day of the academic year or just prior to meeting a new group of students for the first time. It doesn’t matter how often I’ve taught the material or how comfortable I feel with it, I’m a nervous Nellie on the first day and through the first few moments of a class. Perhaps given that this was my first real-time Zoom class, I was even more nervous.
  2. This year more than most I am feeling so much solidarity with and love for every single teacher / instructor / professor I know at the moment. Whether their academic year features in-person, online or some hybrid format given Covid-19, and whether they teach the tiniest people or more seasoned and budding young scholars, educators everywhere deserve so much recognition and kudos as a special cadre of underappreciated superheroes in these times. I don’t know a single educator friend who is not a badass with the compassion of the Buddha to back up their mad skills. And, I know a fair many who are terrified for their students and themselves, which breaks my heart.

Today’s class went well enough all things considered. All of us are attempting to be a bit more forgiving and more patient with ourselves as well as with one another than perhaps we would be normally (speaking for myself here). We — students and educators alike — are all navigating strange times, and simply must deal with things as best we can and as they present themselves to us.

Hopefully, we all emerge from this surreal experience and academic year a little wiser and having met our individual and collective objectives as educators. And hopefully our students learn what we intended or planned for them and feel fortified and fulfilled, and ready to embark on whatever future awaits them.

I’m fortunate: my courses at least for the autumn term are entirely online. I would naturally prefer to meet my students in person. But, I’d much rather they and I remain healthy in these times. I genuinely hurt for those educators and students forced to enter situations in which daily they wonder if they are risking their own or their family’s health and well-being. No one should be forced into such a situation.

So, as Finnish school children and teachers across the country return, here’s to all of the educators entering the 2020-2021 academic year. In Finland, the United States and everywhere.

Be safe, y’all. And, I hope you feel supported and loved and recognised for your heroism and extraordinary efforts in continuing to inform, enlighten and educate your students. You’re value and worth are immeasurable and I for one and for what it’s worth salute you.

Google Doodle for 13 August 2020

On ‘Write It Up’, by Paul Silvia

Write It Up! Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal ArticlesWrite It Up! Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles by Paul J. Silvia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As an instructor to young (and older) PhD students, specifically providing guidance on the wonderfully wacky world of academic publishing, I think this book rocks.

It’s not just a how-to for each individual section of a manuscript, it’s also a bit like a personalised cheerleader, cutting off each objection and ‘but what about’ as it crops up. Never dull, always insightful and on point, Paul Silvia offers a delightful primer on academic writing and putting together academic articles that will be read rather than simple consigned to the published rubbish heaps that litter various libraries, virtually and otherwise. 

I’d require my students to read this book if they were undergraduates and took my classes for actual letter grades. However, they’re adults and can and will do what they want with their valuable time. So, let’s just say that I will strongly encourage them to heed his advice (along with mine to read this book), particularly if they question what we discuss and do in my own classrooms.  

One particularly useful bit of this book is the chapter on the publication process itself, from submission to journals through to revising and resubmitting based on that most dreaded process called ‘peer review’. If you, my dear students, read nothing else, read that chapter. [And, as you do, you will hear my voice, saying, ‘See? I told you so!’]

Thank you, Professor Silvia, for having our instructors’ backs, as well as providing an example of an academic writer with wit, charm and intellect that shines through careful writing. I’ll be recommending this gem of a book to all of my students forevermore.

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Missing the mark

‘Choose your words carefully and wisely.’

How many times have I uttered those very words to the various participants in my classes, lectures and seminars. As much as I attempt to instill in my students a greater appreciation for selecting the precise word that carries the meaning they intend, I unintentionally (and unfortunately) chose my own words rather carelessly this morning.

In several courses, we work on providing, as well as accepting and responding to feedback on our work. In such classes, 90% of my own responsibility lies in providing constructive criticism and guidance on how to improve as well as building the confidence of my students to keep pushing themselves to do better. Clarify. Refine. Define. Revise and rework. Describe just what they do in their research and its broader relevance to various audiences in a language that is engaging, accessible and informative. I begin these classes by encouraging these brilliant young scholars to invite, welcome and use criticism and feedback to improve upon already well-constructed and exceptionally important projects. As a mentor of mine once said, ‘[they’ve all done fine jobs]; yet, everything we do can be improved upon. Let’s discuss how.’

I well remember receiving less-than-positive feedback as a graduate student. In fact, some of the very first feedback I received helped me to improve and ultimately land my current job. Whilst not exactly lovely to hear, it was constructive, solution-oriented conversation, meant to encourage and help me become a better scholar. Was it easy to hear? Not really. But, was it necessary? Absolutely. And, the rewards were immense. They still are. (Thank you, Kathy!)

I also well remember how utterly gutted I following a particularly harsh assessment of my work from an entirely different professor, delivered in a very different tone and most likely with a very different intent. That conversation, by contrast, left me so completely shaken it took me months to recover, and I seriously questioned continuing my graduate studies. I fled — I literally ran the several blocks home despite carrying about 10 to 15 kg of books — from the meeting in tears and spent several days wondering if I’d made a huge mistake in pursuing an advanced degree.

Whilst I needed a kick up the backside to alter some of my work habits and to focus my attention on things like writing and deadlines, things I still struggle with today, that particular professor’s choice of words and their delivery tore me down and nearly destroyed what little confidence I had as a graduate student. I lost a lot of sleep because of that conversation.

Thankfully, my mentors, those whom I trusted and most admired, adopted entirely different means of guiding me and helping me to develop my skills. And, thankfully, I could steer clear of that rather careless-with-her-words professor for the remainder of my time in that department.

But, today. Today.  Whilst providing feedback, I chose my own words rather foolishly. It wasn’t my intention, but I completely understand how the message missed its mark (meaning, I missed my mark) and how I rattled one of my own students. Worse, I know how she feels, and that makes it even more difficult to stomach.

I’m not sure that I can repair my own carelessness with words. I have apologised. I’ve offered assistance and guidance to the student in question, and I will certainly work with her should she wish to (although I suspect she won’t). More than anything, I will use this as a valuable if not painful learning moment and a cautionary tale in what not to do in future. What I can and will do differently in future.

But, damn, if I don’t feel truly awful at the moment.

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