Imagining the Opportunities

Over the last two years, I’ve written about small teaching and small innovations in various forms (most recently James Lang’s work), pruning syllabi, and decluttering our service obligations. I have observed that sometimes we have committee structures that have overlapping purposes, and perhaps the elimination of one might be warranted. I have suggested that one less reading or writing assignment might make room for better feedback and revision processes that are so beneficial to the learning. I am a declutterer by nature and often pursue the notion of doing less. As I settle into inhabiting the dimensions of this COVID-19 world, I am noticing the power of less, once again.

In the beginning of this pandemic, all of the less in my life was felt as a loss. I lost my face-to-face interactions with colleagues. I lost my ability to go out and interact with friends. I lost the opportunity to perform. From that sense of loss, I started to fill in the gaps with Zoom gatherings, WebEx meetings, take out dinners, and lists of planned projects. I was trying to simulate my old life. But with a summer of socially distant gatherings ending and the specter of reduced social interaction upon me again, I am thinking a little differently. Instead of loss, I am feeling the excitement of a less frantic world.

Here is what I mean. This morning, I went to my eye doctor for a routine exam. This involves wearing masks, being let in at my appointed time, temperature taking, and so on. She is being very safe, and I felt totally comfortable. But then she dilated my eyes, and I was not sent to another room to wait. Because of all the safety precautions, my doctor no longer runs from patient to patient between treatments. So, we did something interesting – we talked and waited together. Wow. That never happens in healthcare. Except, I also talked to my dermatologist, my internist and so on, in my normal round of check-ups this fall. I also never waited for an appointment (you know sitting in a gown for 20 minutes while the doctor sees someone else). In the COVID-19 world, I actually get the healthcare I have always dreamed of. It probably isn’t efficient, and maybe – to cover the costs of their degrees, malpractice insurance, and buildings – the price might need to rise just a little for me (or we could make it so doctors don’t have to carry so much debt!), but boy was that slower environment a better health care experience.

Here’s another shift. Because I cannot go to my usual restaurants and performance spaces, I am hiking and biking more often. I am not alone. The parks and trails are full of families and friends outdoors together. We all practice trail courtesies, pulling up masks as people approach and lowering them when we’ve passed. We tend to nod or say hi, maybe just a little more than in the past, because we crave that little social interaction. These spaces are getting more diverse, too, which is awesome. So, we may have lost Disney World and other amusement parks, but you know what, I’m seeing a lot of joy. It is a slower kind of fun, without a lot of frills. There is plenty of room for conversation or just silent reflection. Hooray that our communities have invested in parks and open spaces. We all need them, now more than ever. I wonder if there will be a reversal of those diminishing attention spans we have long observed in education. I am pretty sure it will be a good year for LL Bean.

So, what about higher education? We have done a lot of work to try to make our hybrid and online environments simulate the traditional on-campus experience. What if that is the wrong move? Is it time to ask ourselves what the experiences we are trying to re-create are really doing for (in) higher education?

For example:

  1. Not every online class needs to imitate the on-ground experience. What if some classes really are simply guided reading and reflection experiences, with regular faculty feedback, but no group work, etc.? As much as I love class discussion, collaborative projects, and lots of engagement with students, maybe we could reimagine types of courses and balance them between highly interactive and mostly reflective. We would need clear guidelines, because each approach to learning is valuable, but with some clever design we might find a nice balance for everyone.
  2. When we say that taking five online classes is a lot (and it is), we should acknowledge that five on-ground classes is also a lot. Can we move to a unit/four-credit model and make four the norm? I know it is hard for some majors, but maybe it is worth the effort to simplify these variations on credit hours and make room for actual reflection, revision, and thinking.
  3. As we adjust to online office hours, might we not consider that this has been a good idea for a long time? Allowing people to schedule meetings around some principle other than, – this is my on-campus day – might really benefit our students in general. People might even have more room for conversations because they do not have to sacrifice time to drive in to campus and meet.
  4. Instead of trying to build lots of events on our campuses (often poorly attended), perhaps we should ask ourselves why are in the event-planning business in the first place. Speakers booked for academic or socio-cultural events are an important extension of academic programs and these appear to be successful via our web conferencing platforms. Indeed, we may want to move these to the web permanently. But what about everything else? Well, if they aren’t part of the curriculum, perhaps we should simply curate a list of activities in the area and let our students make their choices.

I guess what I am really thinking is that it is time to stop viewing the changes spurred on by COVID-19 as losses. This moment is an opportunity to re-think what we do. We might be able to shift to new ways of interacting with people and ideas. We might also just make room for things to emerge. So, I won’t try to simulate my old life anymore. I am ready for reimagining instead.

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