Higher Education, Resilience

Doing Less (Again)

Pause! That is how we are describing the two-week delay in opening our physical campus. Due to a change in COVID-19 conditions in our neighborhood, all of our classes will launch online for the first two-weeks of the semester. We have paused the move-in to residence halls and asked everyone to just log into their classes for now. Ouch!

A million logistical concerns follow. The list is too long to go through here, but let’s just say it is everything from re-testing residential students to figuring out how to get books to students who had them shipped to the campus, thinking they would be here. We are working through them, one by one, but I won’t lie, it is exhausting. After spending all summer preparing for a safe opening, and wondering if we would have to shut down at some point during the semester for a 2nd wave of COVID-19, not starting as planned is painful.

As always, though, whenever I feel overwhelmed and exhausted, I start to think of everyone else’s experience. Some faculty have to change their planned course schedules to accommodate the lack of lab time. Others are creating alternative experiences overnight, just to keep everyone on track. Student affairs is busy re-imagining first-week events (what we call LEAP week), so that there is still some sense of connection and excitement about starting the semester. Students are trying to figure out where to “go” and what the changes to their schedules actually mean. No, being overwhelmed does not get to be unique to me. It seems like a good time to think about virtues of doing less.

In other columns, I have suggested that we might consider pruning our syllabi just a bit. In our love for our disciplines, we have a tendency to try to engage our students with all of our favorite ideas and readings and exercises. Maybe all of it is just too much. What if you only had ten weeks for your course? What would you cut? If you know the answer to this, that’s the “too much” of your course. Now add the time back (perhaps in a new modality). What would you do with it, now that you have made the room? Can you do something more with the existing topics? Is there room to help students practice with the essential ideas? Is there more time for you to give feedback? I don’t know… have fun with it.

Then there are meetings. How much time can one person spend on Zoom or WebEx or Teams anyway? I can positively confirm that the answer is less time than I have been spending there. How about reimagining meetings as mini-meetings? If you only had 15 minutes, what would change? I bet you would get to the point pretty quickly, and still have time for a couple of pleasantries. If the point is a long, collaborative brainstorming session, ok, that may require more time. But for most of the long list of meetings on my schedule, 15 minutes is sufficient to set up the questions and delegate the work. That will definitely be my new model this year.

Then there are committees. Oh my. We are (rightfully) committed to a lot of conversations in higher education. This is important for shared governance, to be sure, and to support the general principle that a diversity of opinions can lead to better ideas. Great. But the thing is, we frequently have more than one committee devoted to very similar tasks. Maybe more specificity would help? Or just a little review of purposes and any potential overlap? Too many committees may effectively bury ideas when they were meant to unearth them. Could we trim a few from the list?

Finally, goals. I know my list is too long. I am guessing that yours is, too. We seem to always want to strive for that one more thing. But should we? Can we really do so much and do it well? Probably not. A few years ago, we were engaged in revising our general education curriculum. Part of this was creating learning outcomes for each category. People frequently laughed at me when I tried to limit the number of learning outcomes. There was a tendency to create 5, 6 or 7 (too many). In our learning-outcomes-across-the-curriculum approach to gen-ed, this is really too much to manage. It is also just too many outcomes for a gen-ed course to commit to fully engaging. I kept arguing for no more than 3 learning outcomes for any category (competency). People thought I was kidding, but I was not. Five years later, as I watch them evolve, they are shrinking in number. I think maybe I was right. Too many are just too hard to do well.

So, I am refraining from being overwhelmed by the ever-expanding list of things I need to attend to in a highly disrupted and changeable environment. Instead, I am re-committing to doing less. I am taking things off my list, and getting on with what remains. Feel free to join me in this exercise. It might help you weather this changeable storm of COVID-19, or just normal life. Or skip it. I mean, who needs one more thing to do?

3 thoughts on “Doing Less (Again)”

  1. Agreed, less has always been more. I think of the Socratic method with the originator in action…education was about discourse and creation of ideas.
    Learning outcomes benefit from the rule of threes as does literature.
    And 15 minute meetings, yes please!
    The omnipresent meetings remind me of a fashion model that stated if you want to give up chocolate, just eat it exclusively for a weekend!
    Lastly, do your best, rest & reimagine the future. One thing for sure…it will be different needing all the creativity your academic heart can muster!

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