Are you OK? Are We OK?

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Here are three brief scenes that capture my end-of-2020 teaching experience. I’d love to hear yours.

Scene One: With two weeks left in our semester, I feel like I’ve done everything but reach through the Zoom screen with warm mugs of tea to reassure my students that they can DO this. Emotional support is difficult when we can’t just check in quietly with students about whether they are OK, as Erica Duran describes poignantly in this video


So, I keep logging on to Zoom before class, so students can introduce me to family members or pets, and I stay on afterward, often chatting with students about their strange pandemic work experiences, their COVID tests, and their worries. Maybe it helps? But today there’s a message from a first-semester student: “College just isn’t for me. I want to drop all my classes. I’m sorry.” It may be that the timing really isn’t right, or that there are family pressures that make staying in school impossible. Still, I’m hoping that over a phone call or two I can at least help this student feel heard. Whatever they decide, I want to help them shape this semester’s story as one of growth rather than loss.

Scene Two (speaking of loss): Just before Thanksgiving break, I plead with students through the Zoom screen to make good public health choices over the holiday. I surprise myself by telling them about a friend who died of COVID-19 the previous day. I surprise myself again by bursting into tears. Then, a student says gently, “Turn off your video; give yourself a minute. We’ll talk about something. Take the time you need.” I needed just that kindness, and that wisdom.

Scene Three: I’m in my front yard, raking wildly to expel anxious energy, and a colleague who teaches at another campus in town walks by. I ask if she’s OK, and how her students are doing. She responds with a shrug and helpless laughter. Everyone has worked so hard in such diminished circumstances. Was that really OK? She worries that her university’s administrators consider the semester a success, when what it feels like to many instructors and students is unsustainable. Unrepeatable. And yet spring semester looms, with a promise of more of the same. Are we OK with this?

At the very least, we can practice, with our students, putting words to this moment, as Andrea Lunsford encourages in this post. The “Assignment B” in this post about using a Grammar Girl podcast offers another model for helping students reflect on their growth over the semester. This challenging semester has renewed my commitment to student self-evaluation for their “participation grade” in our class, as I’ve described here. If you try this, your students will need guidelines to help them name, describe, and value their growth and persistence over the semester. Or, better yet, you could develop that rubric in conversation with your students. What metrics do they think matter at a moment like this? You’ll learn a lot from listening to them.

Administrators need to hear what we’re learning from our students, and they need to hear from us about the experience of teaching right now—even, and perhaps especially—if it means explaining how we are not OK.

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.