The View from Midsemester ... More Scattered Thoughts

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We’ve just hit the mid-way point in fall semester so it’s a reasonable time to consider how my first all-remote semester has progressed. When the semester started I was definitely gloomy as I imagined the 3 ½ months ahead (see First Day of School Blues). I was correct in my assumption that I would dearly miss my daily interaction with colleagues and students. Conveying information via email and learning management system is not the same as reading expressions and body language during face-to-face lessons.


One positive experience I’ve had this semester has been an increase in students’ attendance at office hours. I’ve approached my office hours as a “by appointment only” practice this semester. My college uses a program called Starfish where students book an appointment with me during times that I have preestablished. The system notifies me when an appointment has been made and I send the student a link for our virtual meeting. I’m keeping an office hours log with the names of students I meet with, times and topics of conversation. Prior to this semester I never kept track of student visits to my office because they often seemed so casual. Now, however, I see the benefit of being able to review conversations and follow-up when necessary. 


I’m definitely concerned about the students’ ability to stay committed to online classes for the entire school year. Here at the semester’s half-way point I’m hearing from students who are debating whether they can or should continue with the fall term. Many are overwhelmed by the challenges of family members also needing the home WiFi and technology to attend school remotely. One of my students this week told me that the daily pressure of helping his children with their school work has completely drained him of the motivation he once had to finish his associate’s degree. I’m worried about the long-term impact the pandemic will have on those students who have been struggling with economic difficulties while trying to keep up with their school and family responsibilities.


And, of course, I’m stressed about the election. As I write we are less than a week away from November 3rd. Many of my students are voting for the first time this year and these young men and women want to feel as though their votes will make a difference. The historian in me knows that voters are often disappointed and this election more than others in recent memory has the potential, especially for new voters, to yield a great deal of disappointment and frustration. I would hate to see that disappointment turn into apathy. 


Questions about the Electoral College, the importance of voter turnout, and the ramifications of the recent ascent of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court are weighing heavily on engaged students’ minds. Given the current pandemic, answering these questions with any certainty based on historical precedent is more difficult than ever before. I’m hopeful that we, as historians, can continue to encourage our students to engage politically and intellectually no matter the outcome on November 3rd.


One more scattered thought before I close: if you haven’t already, please encourage your students and colleagues to submit an entry to Macmillan’s “Black History, Black Stories” contest. I offered my students five points "extra credit" on their lowest test score of the semester if they entered and it was amazing how inspired they suddenly were to think about their own relationship to black history! In this year of ups and downs, disappointments and frustrations, my motto regarding student engagement is “whatever it takes!”

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.