Three Things I Wish I Knew in January 2020

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Although I’ve been working with college students now for more than twenty years, this semester has been unlike any we in academia have experienced in the past.

A few years back, during a particularly difficult New England winter, my college canceled school on three consecutive Mondays because of snow storms. That semester one of my US History II classes met only on Mondays for 2½ hours. Very few students in the class had internet in their homes so most relied on the college computing center for WiFi and technology access. I remember being flustered at how far off the syllabus we were when the semester finally ended in May. 

Here, in the spring 2020, however, we have clumsily converted our on-campus courses to fully online. I say clumsily because most faculty had a week or less to figure out how to best implement changes to on-campus practices in an online environment. For my colleagues at a community college we faced the enormous challenge of insufficient internet and technology access by our students. In the face of this pandemic we have been fortunate that our college has the resources to lend materials to students and help them gain short-term home access to WiFi.

Since hindsight is, of course, 20/20, I thought it would be helpful this week to acknowledge three simple things I wish I had known and/or done in January 2020: 

  • Students must have a library orientation during the first weeks of the semester. Usually we venture to the library as a class after the midterm for guidance on research projects. Had I taken this step earlier in the semester, however, more of my students would have been comfortable accessing library materials from home when the COVID-19 closures began, which would have made certain assignments easier to integrate.

  • Students must have everything they need for the entire semester at the start. In the past I have been really lax with students when it comes to getting copies of supplementary readings (novels, memoirs, etc). Oftentimes on the first day of class I will say something to the effect of: “You do not need a copy of this novel until late March.” Not anymore. Lesson learned the hard way as I currently have students unable to get access to library materials and unable to afford to purchase books online because of COVID-19-related loss of income.

  • Students must be able to download and upload materials to/from our learning management system. My on-campus students generally pass in written work in printed form. I’m learning from this semester’s experience that many of those students who choose to never take online classes do not actually know how to upload their work as an email attachment or to a learning management system’s drop box. This fall I plan to have every on-campus student submit a one-paragraph autobiography to me via our LaunchPad dropbox as a low-stakes assignment. In turn, they will be downloading my autobiography. I’m hoping to quickly identify anyone who may need extra help with our online tools as the semester is starting.

Given the speed at which we were forced to move from on-campus to fully online, these three simple tasks completed at the start of the semester might have helped my students and me transition with less stress. As educators we already need to be adaptable in unexpected situations. The COVID-19 crisis has shown us how important it is for us to prepare for big-picture crisis management. While we are fortunate to have the option to continue working with our on-campus students through online platforms, we still need to work together to find ways to make the process seamless in the future.

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.