A Professor's Note To Himself: Stories From Isolation

"We are now working in virtual settings. Things have changed. Norms have changed. Class engagement processes have changed."

In the next couple of days, our new academic session will begin. Given the second wave of the pandemic, we will continue to have our sessions in virtual mode. We had high hope that the next academic session will start in person. We were waiting with a lot of eagerness, but come March; all our hopes were dashed. We got gripped by the new deadly variant of the virus. This time it is more severe. To remain safe, we continue to work from home, and it looks it will continue for some time now. 

Midst this reflection of dashed hopes, I decided to open my computer and started reviewing my academic calendar and schedule of my classes. The academic program will begin with the Dean's virtual address. The charm of starting a new session in virtual mode is not the same as it used to be in-person setting. They were particularly meeting old colleagues after vacation and meeting new colleagues who joined the School during vacation or during the last few days to start their new academic session. The beginning of the new academic session always remained exciting but not so since last year.

I remember that two years back, I had met a faculty who had recently joined the School on my way to my office. He told me how impressed he was with my work and teaching. I still remember the pleasantness of the meeting. He was going to teach the microeconomics course and looked very excited but a bit nervous. This was perhaps his first teaching experience. Remembering my old days when I had joined the teaching faculty, I was pretty uncertain and anxious about teaching the first time. I was part of the finance faculty and was quite concerned about building my reputation as a good teacher initially but was apprehensive about handling the classroom. 

I narrated my days of joining experience to him, and I saw a wave of relief on his face. He specifically asked whether I still feel nervous now. I replied, of course; maybe not in the same way you do. But even after all these years, I am well aware of the unknowns that loom ahead. There is always a feeling of anticipatory nervousness and wondering if I will be able to reach every student profoundly and effectively. If we didn't care about our students' learning, we wouldn't worry one bit about our effectiveness and the buzz we strive to create about our subject matter. And, let's admit it, deep down, we want to be perceived by our students as one of their favourite teachers.

He found this forthrightness refreshing and appealing. I felt some sense of respect coming from him and my acceptance as a worthy colleague. Later I discovered that he had spoken highly about me and had expressed great pride in being part of the faculty team having colleagues who can be a source of good advice when needed.

After Dean's address, I asked him if he would stop by my office in the morning as I want to run an idea past him. He felt happy, and we decided to meet at 9 am.

The following day I asked him whether he is all settled in and ready to start. Students around had brought in a lot of energy and eagerness to start. I told him that I want to run an idea by him to have a fresh view. I told him that over the years, I always felt that something was lacking at the start of each new term and, in particular, in the courses, I taught. I told him that I have always felt the need for a set of norms for the classroom and shared them with our students before the course starts. This list of norms would be a short, crisply written document that is in addition to the course outline I share with them. I want to share with the students what they can expect from the course and what I expect from them. I am sure this way, the aspiring learning journey of the students would be enjoyable. The clarify of expectations, I feel, will undoubtedly help.  I would like this process to be meaningful and interactive. I plan to do this on the first day of the beginning of the course.  I am sure the students will find this interesting as it forms part of our "assurance of learning" system, helping them understand that I prioritize their learning interests. My purpose is also to set a classroom culture through this process so that our learning ecosystem is robust and establishes norms to achieve the best possible results.

He looked pleased from the discussion. He quickly added that he has been finding it challenging how best to introduce himself to the students over last night. He wondered what he would say about his expectations for the course beyond the facts contained in the course outline? He thanked me and said that your approach gave me some clue to this puzzle. 

I quickly added that expectations emerge as a course rolls out or as students ask specific questions in that regard. I want to be more comprehensive and more proactive in this area from the start. I'd love your reaction to some of my thoughts regarding the content of classroom norms. By this afternoon, I will have a draft of such a document. Would you be willing to take a look at it and give me your reactions? I've also asked a couple of other colleagues if they would, too. Sure was his reply, and he suggested that the norms document be beneficial when the classes start this week.

I still vividly remember this interaction. 

We are now working in virtual settings. Things have changed. Norms have changed. Class engagement processes have changed. So far, we have had one year of virtual classroom interactions. We were forced very abruptly to get into virtual classes. We had no norms for the virtual courses. Of course, norms evolved as we went by. Each day, each session has been learning in the process. Break-out rooms, pools, use of a whiteboard, we mastered them all in the hope to bring some equivalence to the in-person classes. The norms have been evolving and continue to evolve since then. Questions ran across my mind - how my colleagues, who have joined, recently are going through the experience? Are we losing something big?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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Isolation work from home distance learning

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