Thoughts from the edge of a pandemic

I’m taking a moment between the latest round of news about another college transitioning to online instruction and preparing my own courses for the event of online instruction to breathe. Breathing is going to be very important in the coming weeks, I’m afraid. I don’t have official word of my institution’s plans in my inbox but there is a loudly implied “yet” somewhere in there. As I’m watching announcements of the transitions march in from the north and the west, I’ve reached a moment of acceptance that it’s just a matter of time before the announcement shows up on my doorstep. In the meantime, I’m really taking benefit from having done a lot of authoring in Moodle for courses that I teach. Most notably, our general chemistry labs are authored in Moodle as “quizzes” for students to complete during the lab time. Answering questions and getting feedback during the lab period is – in theory, at least – a half-decent way to keep the lab experience from becoming an overwhelming cookbook. I’m adjusting that exact work to online simulators and spreadsheet programming as I start to plan an online adjustment. We’re especially fortunate in the physical sciences to have a set of tools that mimic physical reality spectacularly well in the PhET simulators, and through sheer serendipity many of the topics that PhET does best – electric circuits, oscillations and waves, concentration and spectroscopy – just so happen to be the topics that I’m facing in my freshman- and sophomore-level courses right now. A lot of my coping in the event of an online transition, in other words, is going to be shifting work online in ways that I’m comfortable with and that I know. That seems like it should be a guideline for all of us. This is going to be awkward especially for students and for coursework that isn’t traditionally presented in an online format, and there shouldn’t be too many steps you take that take you too far outside of your comfort zone if you do have to teach online. I’m speaking from a place of preparation, though. I’ve been thinking about what science education looks like digitally for a very long time. That may not be your place. All I can say in response to that is: most of us who do college instruction are scholars of one sort or another. We all have advanced degrees that are evidences of our capacity to think and act creatively. This is the time for that. If anything is true about this moment, it’s that we’re preparing to step into one of the biggest educational laboratories we’ve ever known. Not all experiments are successful. This won’t be perfect. Embrace that and forgive yourself for that ahead of time. And then try things to see if they work, and see what your students can do. Be prepared for your students to surprise you. The only other piece of advice I have as we step into this measure of the unknown is to remember the humanity of the person on the other side of the instructor/student divide. An online learning experience may trigger all kinds of fresh stressors and anxieties that you’ve never had to deal with before. The overwhelming majority of my students are traditional biology and chemistry majors; an online learning experience isn’t something that they signed on for when they started their college education. If I don’t practice kindness in this moment as much as any other, I’ve missed the point of why I got into this industry in the first place. Beyond that I just have a brain that’s corrupted by thoughts of all kinds. Even as I’m supposed to be on spring break, I’ve been amazed at how much the events of the past week have brought fresh anxieties and frustrations to the front of my mind. As I’m writing this, the first confirmed case in the region has been announced – in Sullivan County, Tennessee, right in the neighborhood of my beloved Bristol. I know there isn’t a thing I can do to help events along by checking Twitter endlessly. I check Twitter endlessly anyway. It’s not helping me rest the way a spring-breaking faculty member should rest. But I know I’m not alone in those anxieties right now. Life at the edge of a pandemic is uncharted for most of us. This is a fascinating bug – if you haven’t read some of the explanations of how the symptoms of the virus express themselves, it’s worth your time. Some people never express symptoms at all; others express symptoms that make pneumonia sound like a picnic. I know how many of you are tired hearing about this thing, but it’s possible it’s actually underhyped in terms of the amount of havoc it can cause – and the amount of uncertainty that could underlie its spread. Healthy fear, in this case, may involve the type of shutdown that even a week ago might have seemed absolutely unthinkable. I don’t have a neat bow for this post, either. As it should be, I suppose – it was an effort to get words out of my head so I could go back to the preparatory work that is necessary in this moment. But preparation has to happen on all levels, doesn’t it? Two weeks ago somebody might have deemed a practical guide to life in a pandemic hysterical, if not unthinkable. You still might feel that way. But we’re here, right on the brink, and we need to look at that guide anew and start thinking about the steps we take to make the prospect of a radical shift to our day-to-day lives as even-keeled and as kind-hearted as possible. Now, here’s hoping I’m wrong about everything and we can keep living life as normal! Cover photo for post by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.

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