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Remote Conversations, Style and Substance: An Open Letter from an ASU Faculty Member

BY TETTLEMA – MARCH 26, 2020

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As ASU continues to monitor COVID-19, the university has transitioned from in-person teaching and learning to remote options. In this challenging time, however, the collective innovation of ASU faculty and staff has demonstrated remarkable adaptability. As a method of celebrating the good during uncertain developments, the University Technology Office is gathering success stories of “remote resilience” from the ASU community. The situation globally and across the country is changing daily, but we also plan to share these stories to keep pace.

Editor’s Note

Conversation is a critical instructional method to ensure that students are synthesizing and critically analyzing course materials. Faculty members who are comfortable with classroom conversation are inspired to discover the benefits of online sharing to assess student achievement. 

Professor Ben Hurlbut was apprehensive about achieving the discussion-based dynamic of an in-person class through an online Zoom session, but was delighted after the class held their first remote discussion with 400 students. “Even after I ended the class, dozens stuck around in the room to continue talking, and I finally had to shut it down more than an hour after class had officially ended,” said Hurlbut. Hurlbut shared his experience with Susan Barrett, an archivist with UTO, and Amy Pate, Assistant Director of Faculty Support with the School of Life Sciences. Hurlbut agreed to share his reflection on this experience in a substantive open letter, which we've presented in full below.

Update: Professor Hurlbut reports that students continued to stay after the formal class session for the remainder of the semester, "It became a kind of pattern. I would officially end class, dozens of students would stick around, and we would continue to talk. I would usually cut it off after about an hour, and there were always at least a dozen people still in the (zoom)room."

By Ben Hurlbut, ASU School of Life Sciences Associate Professor

My classes have been going quite well. There have been some hiccups on Zoom, mostly bandwidth issues, but these have not caused too much trouble. I find the interface to be remarkably good for engagement and discussion. That has something to do with the fact that we had already established norms and rapport in person, but nevertheless I’ve been impressed. 

I have made COVID-19 a focal point of what I’ve been teaching about since spring break, so that has shaped the dynamics of class. I’m also settling into a Zoom-classroom style, which is probably independent of the substance of what I’m teaching. So, some thoughts on style first, and substance second.

Style

As you know, I run my lectures partly as discussions. I lecture for a little while, raise a question, often conduct a clicker quiz to get the class thinking, and then have an open-ended discussion of the question, e.g., by inviting people who answered one way to explain why and elaborate, then shifting to the next possible answer. These discussions involve a lot of back and forth and are quite dynamic.

I have a stellar group of School of Life Sciences graduate student teaching assistants (TAs), who are really committed to good teaching. The first Zoom class session I attended was actually my TA’s recitation section. I lurked and listened, and I really learned a lot from the way she conducted it. Indeed, all of my TAs have been immensely helpful in sharing ideas and insights with the rest of the team. In any form of teaching, we are all still learning and aspiring to do better. The transition to online has required that we learn quickly, so in this moment especially, learning from one’s colleagues is essential — and, I think, especially from one’s graduate TAs.

In my experience, they often have their antenna up to things I would otherwise miss and routinely have excellent insights and ideas to offer. Indeed, we, as faculty, should be immensely grateful to them for the effort they are putting into making this transition work. We should also give them room in their teaching to experiment and learn so that we can, in turn, learn from them.

In Zoom I have been muting everyone but inviting people to unmute themselves and jump in if they have something to say. I was worried this would cause a lot of talking over each other, especially in a classroom of 400, but thus far it has not. I also invite people to raise their hands with the little blue hand-raise button and call on them directly. That also works well. A mixture of these approaches has been fine.

In my discussion sections of approximately 25 I have essentially abandoned the hand-raise function, and simply allow people to speak up as they wish. Maybe 1 in 10 times two speak at the same time, but everyone has been very good about deferring to others and taking turns. I’ve decided that keeping the discussion as natural and as close to in person as possible is best, so have been encouraging people to simply speak up.

Generally, people have been quite open and talkative. I think this is for a few reasons, and I have tried to capitalize on them as much as possible. People who are less comfortable talking in person seem more comfortable over Zoom. I have tried to make the atmosphere as relaxed and friendly as possible in order to capitalize on this. Many people are in their bedrooms or on their couches, and somehow this does lend itself to relaxing and speaking your mind. I think this is something to be capitalized upon.

By keeping the tone of discussion informal and relaxed, people feel comfortable in whatever physical space they are in, and they seem to feel more comfortable speaking up. In other words, rather than asking everyone to act like we are in a classroom together, I am trying to set a lighter tone — like it’s a conversation with (a lot of people) in one’s living room. This seems to be making a big difference and working very well.

Inviting people to speak up when they have something to say, including by vocally interrupting my lecture, has helped contribute to this relaxed atmosphere. The classroom feels less anxious (good for learning, but also good for people’s psyche’s given present circumstances) and thus is more productive.

One of the virtues of a Zoom classroom is that you don’t have to give it up after class ends. I have concluded my lectures by saying that class is officially over, but if anyone wants to stick around and talk, they are welcome. I’ve had three lectures so far, and in each case upwards of 100 students have stayed around for 20-30 extra minutes. It slowly attenuates, but all three days there has been a lively discussion with roughly 15 people still in the room more than an hour after class has ended. In each case, I have had to cut it off myself.

Why? I’m sure it partly has to do with people wanting to talk together about what is currently happening, and the lecture has set them up for this. But I think it is also simply because people are hungry to hang out and talk with other people. Not socially, although maybe there is some of that, but communally — being in a shared social space with fellow students who one is connecting with over matters of shared intellectual interest. So, I have made it a practice to figure class will last an extra hour simply to provide this forum for hanging out, thinking and talking together.

Importantly, this relaxed, engaged atmosphere is not something separate from lecture, but is integrated with it, so that it seamlessly flows over from lecture into post-lecture discussion. The students really seem to appreciate this — they have said as much. Plus, they continue to think and learn because we stay focused on the substance of the course material. It is a pedagogical win as well as a nice thing for the students. 

Students (like all of us) have anxieties that they want to talk about and that go way beyond the obvious things — getting sick, vulnerable loved ones, losing one's job, etc. — although they also include these. For instance, one student brought up a question about what this crisis might mean for research in STEM fields, and what impact that would have on openings from graduate study in those fields. I take it that the latter was her main concern. That’s a macro-scale question about the future of science funding and research, the country, etc., but it's also a personal question.

I think being attuned to that and responding on both levels is important. A student who asks questions about how a professor is adapting whatever requirement was on the syllabus to an online format may really be asking a question about how this shift to online is likely to impact her chances of getting into PA school, and what steps she should take to account for this. I know for a fact that students are very anxious about this (and rightly so) since some professors are reportedly prioritizing sticking to their guns, over helping students think through their best strategies for this abrupt and unexpected transition — including what exactly sticking to one’s guns means in practice.

Another reason for one to be available in this way after lecture, which again is a unique virtue of Zoom, is that one is available. Yesterday one of my students said that she really appreciated talking in this way because it is “almost impossible to talk to people who know a lot” about what is going on, because in her other classes professors are disappearing as soon as the lecture is over. In my view, we should be available to our students now more than ever, even if we are all sequestered in our homes.

It is incredibly easy to do this by just sticking around in the Zoom room and inviting people to talk — no emails, no scheduling, no logistics, no planning, no nothing. And in addition to whatever might come out in the ensuing conversation, it is a way of building rapport and trust, showing students that we are there for them, even if we are all (physically) far apart at the moment. Our students are, in many cases, alone, confused, anxious and generally caught in the whirlwind of what’s happening.

Providing a forum in which they can speak up — including to each other — is a really good thing, or at least it is proving to be a good thing in my own experience. Incidentally, for many of the questions students raise, other students come in with thoughts and answers. That sort of sharing of knowledge and experience is really valuable, but so too is the social exchange and personal connection that comes with it. 

On Wednesday I gave the whole class an extension on the writing assignment that was supposed to be due today. I gave them till Sunday. I figured that this was only fair given that everyone’s lives have been upended and work time has been lost. I also thought this would be an encouraging and reassuring gesture — i.e., that I get the situation and our aim is for them to succeed in spite of it, not suffer because of it.

I was genuinely bowled over by the outpouring of gratitude from the class. Mind you, I just gave them a few extra days, not any reduction in work. Yet I think feeling that little bit of relief meant a huge amount. It also (judging from the tone of the conversation that followed during and after lecture and in the chat) seemed to encourage them to refocus on the substance of the class, not on worries over getting the grade. This is less about online teaching than about adjusting to present conditions. But I suspect that if we, the faculty, all cut our students a little slack in this way, they would feel a lot less under pressure and would do better as a result.

This is pretty obvious, but worth saying anyway: I’ve also taken time out to ask my students what is and isn’t working, what they need from me, etc. I’ve had some helpful feedback and adjusted accordingly. But just as importantly, it has, I think, further opened a channel of communication and made it clear to them that we’re in this together and must make it work together. It’s easy for us to forget that there is an asymmetry between faculty member and student that makes them inclined to keep their mouths shut. Encouraging them to open them when warranted is good for them and good for us. 

Substance

My course is bioethics, and my approach is to look at the historical, social, cultural, institutional, economic and political contexts of the ethical issues we explore in the class. For each topic, students have some sense of the social landscape of the issue or how that landscape took shape. Earlier in the semester we spent some time on pandemic preparedness in relation to issues of global health and biosecurity, focusing in particular on governance of catastrophic risks where those risks are insufficiently characterized, uncertain, unknown, etc. So, highly salient to what we are experiencing. 

When ASU went remote we were in the middle of a unit on reproductive technologies which was about to transition into a discussion of the history of eugenics. I decided to push eugenics out a week or so and took the coronavirus pandemic as a case to think about the larger issues that are at stake, both historically,  so that we can see how we ended up where we are today in terms of regulation, preparation, risk assessment, modes of response, etc., and so we can see the larger dimensions that are at stake in the decisions currently being taken.

I augmented the background material on public health to give a significant focus on epidemics in the 19th century, which were a major driver of the rise of institutions of public health. This included looking at how blame for an invisible contagion (both before and after the rise of germ theory) tended to get laid at the feet of particular groups of people, with associated judgment, discrimination, and sometimes violence. It just so happens that the neighborhood that housed the immigrant communities in 19th century NYC who got blamed for the cholera epidemics is now Chinatown, and one can see patterns that are playing out now in all sorts of prior moments, from cholera to the 1918 flu, to SARS, etc. That’s all by way of background so you can see where I’m coming from.

I have used all of this as scaffolding to raise questions about how we think about risk (individual, communal, national, international, global) and responsibility (individual, communal, national, international, global), including by reflecting on the ways such questions are currently being asked and answered — by us as citizens, by experts, governmental authorities, in shifting social norms, in policy, etc., attending to the questions of what is at stake ethically and how risks and responsibilities are understood and acted upon.

My aim is not to declare what is right or wrong, what should or shouldn’t be done, but to put us all in a position to step back and reflect — something that we need to be doing, not just as a class but as citizens and as a society! That's because we are in a rapidly unfolding and high-stakes emergency, but also because we should appreciate that this is not an isolated moment. It was shaped by the past and will shape the future. We should try to understand how, so that we can aspire to do better thoughtfully, rather than worse unwittingly and carelessly. That’s the “learning outcome” I’m aiming for.

My class is a particular kind of class, so it’s taking a particular tack. But it seems to me that this is what’s on people’s minds. And if I was teaching genetics, or evolution, or history, or global health, or statistics, or economics, or philosophy of science, there are all sorts of ways one could take it up as an object of reflection and study and learn from it. I think this is not only a potentially very effective way to advance the pedagogical goals of a given class, but also a means to give our students a channel to engage with this thing in some other mode than feeling anxious, helpless and uncertain, and by chasing after the latest scrap of news.

It's also a way of showing to one’s students that you are not just slogging through, but are trying to respond to the demands of the day, taking seriously the circumstances we all find ourselves in and modeling what we do in universities — think about, learn from, and seek to respond to the demands of our world through advancing collective knowledge and understanding. So it’s a teachable moment, not just about COVID-19 itself, but about the ways we as scholars, scientists, etc, contend with such things. 

My experience thus far is that my students (who are lots of other people’s students as well) have a real appetite for this sort of learning. Yes, it might require reworking one’s exam(s), or concocting a new lecture or two from scratch. That certainly takes work. But that’s what we faculty are here for. And the range of ways the faculty of a biology department can come at this thing in a pedagogically productive way are so numerous that it should actually be very easy to do this, if one is creative about it.

This is not textbook science, so, yes, it won’t be polished and perfect. But that’s precisely what makes it interesting! Making it clear that your knowledge as a professor, like everyone’s, is partial and evolving, and yet you have tools to tackle one piece of what’s happening — that is something that is eminently worth teaching, in my opinion. Not least because it is teaching our students how we think, inquire and learn, not just what we know. So, it's an opportunity worth seizing, and our students will thank us for seizing it — or that is my experience thus far.

Incidentally, one thing that this experience has convinced me of is that it is still possible to do the kind of teaching that I do (and love to do) online so long as people come together in genuine, collective conversation. How to achieve that in an asynchronous online course remains unclear to me. But perhaps one thing to learn from this experience is that it might be an important part of the online pedagogical repertoire to bring people together in conversation in a way that has long been done in person. Don’t get me wrong, I would never trade a seminar room for a Zoom room. But my experience so far is that one can make the latter achieve a version of the former. 

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