The Sociology and Anthropology Department at my institution has been doing what so many others have done over the past couple of months – finding a way to keep our classes moving forward through the abrupt and unexpected shift to virtual teaching, the weeks that have followed, and the months ahead.
From a chair’s perspective, the most important initial challenge was to make sure all faculty received the support that they needed to make the transition. Our university has provided a wide range of trainings and services, and a constant stream of communication, so a central task was to help colleagues identify and access the resources and information that they need. Our faculty have a variety of skills and teaching styles more or less conducive to virtual teaching. Our university (like many others) has promoted tech solutions and virtual delivery for years (and we had recently shifted our large introductory sociology course online), so many faculty had skills to help them transition. Those with significant virtual experience have taken the change in stride and provided leadership. We also have faculty who shine in a traditional seminar format in close interaction with students; they have struggled to maintain meaningful courses in the new environment. But we all supported each other, took advantage of campus resources, shared ideas and skills, and have continued to serve students.
Our students have also needed significant support to make the transition and to weather their own crises. Our students are overwhelmingly Latinx (75%) and low income (70%), which puts them in demographic categories hardest hit by the crisis. Many are “essential workers,” some working multiple jobs; others have lost jobs and are struggling to stay afloat. Our university has done an admirable job of finding ways to assist our students – for example, by loaning out hundreds of laptops. But many still struggle with limited wireless bandwidth, unforeseen childcare responsibilities, or working in crowded family homes. Even in the best situations, the uncertainty and anxiety make it difficult for students to focus. In some of the most heartbreaking cases, struggles manifest in mental health issues – everything from crippling frustration to suicidal ideation. Our program has developed close relationships with campus units addressing those issues, such as Counselling and Psychological Services, and our Campus Access, Retention & Equity team. Those ongoing relationships have allowed faculty to facilitate critical connections more rapidly.
While we are all doing our best to maintain learning, this crisis has demanded that we adjust our collective expectations. For example, many courses with service-learning components, or those undertaking research with human subjects, have simply had to eliminate those elements. And pedagogical goals have been reduced unavoidably. The inevitable erosion of incremental skill-building is particularly disconcerting as we have worked to build a rigorous and scaffolded curriculum. (See Teaching Sociology 47(2) for a discussion of that process.) We know that we’ll have some ground to make up with our students in the fall, but we’ll simply have to cross that bridge when we get to it.
Even as we’re immersed in weathering the current crisis, we must push forward with planning for the future. The role of the chair as an information conduit has never been so important. I frequently find myself shuttling vital communications between faculty and administration and students about contingency plans for the coming semesters – questions about course modalities, faculty training programs, expanded services and accommodations, and many others. On a more routine level, we are now adjusting fall schedules as enrollments proceed (thankfully, adding sections to accommodate high student demand). I am also completing my final term as department chair and working with our next chair on a smooth transition. So, the cycle continues, even as the future remains uncertain. One thing is certain: If we have to continue in a virtual mode in the fall, we’ll be much better prepared to do so. We learn from crises. For better or worse, our university has had a lot of experience with crises in recent years – multiple evacuations and closings due to massive wildfires, and supporting each other through a mass shooting close to campus, which affected students directly. It would be easy to say that constant crises have made us stronger. I imagine that is true in a way – but I also know that it has taken energy away from important collective efforts, and tasks go undone or have to be put off because we simply can’t get to them. Still, it has been a remarkable effort on the part of faculty and students just to keep the wheels on the proverbial cart as we have barreled down a very rocky path. And in contemporary higher education – especially at public, regional, comprehensive universities – the only paths forward are rocky ones.