FOR, INSTEAD: KEEPING VIGIL WITH STUDENTS IN A CULTURE OF CONSENT, TRUST, AND MUTUAL AID
PRE-COVID: APRIL 2018
The rest of that thread meanders off into a Jean-Michel Folon-based extended metaphor …
I’ve been on Twitter passively, for reading and learning, since 2011. Actively, that is for writing too, since 2016. I think it was 2018 when I first wrote publicly there about exams.
Writing about exams and the (traditionally-associated) horrors of marking can be therapeutic. I’ve found it to be so in the past, anyway. If that helps others, at least in Schadenfreude, that’s good. If it doesn’t, you’re free to stop reading. The first such blog post here, “Throes,” was back in December 2011/January 2012. In May 2015 I nearly broke; but, for people who value data and the quantifiable, there was a milestone: I’d taught my 1000th student by then. I posted Music To Mark By too: December 2015’s soundtrack and more music and some images of exam horrors (whence the image at the start of this post), April 2016 and a time of loss, and that time of annual failsomeness again in April-May 2017. I’ve been better since then. What’s changed? A new department head since Fall 2017: thank you, JC-B. And also moving, in self-medicating writing therapy, from ranting and rambling on this blog to doing so on Twitter; that had already started to help in April-May 2018. I like Twitter as a medium for expression as, used carefully and thoughtfully, it can be a shorter more constrained form requiring more thought and care in composition. It can be laconic. It can be highly expressive. It can be poetic.
More recently, I’ve found a second reason to like Twitter and to find solace in thinking out loud there.
I dislike exams.
As a student, I was one of those odd people who actually quite like and rather enjoy exams. You’re in a distraction-free environment for a decent length of time where you get to both focus and wander—but both of them in your mind—and zone out, zoning in. What I always hated about exams was the before and after of the other people. Their dramatic last-minute revising and postmortemising, cramming and gossiping. Posturing and perfomance. I’d arrive at an exam just on time, sometimes late (yes I am late for everything, and for many reasons, some of them sound ones), to avoid other students there. I’d usually stay right up to the end, and then walk away fast.
But I also disliked the space: an uncomfortable chair, you can’t get up and walk around (I’m also one of these odd people who need to stretch and wriggle and pace), and stale airlessness. For various personal reasons of past history, I don’t like being in a large enclosed space with large numbers of people.
As faculty, I dislike(d) traditional exams for other reasons. I hate seeing other living beings suffering. Exam logistics have never given me stress-eczema and allergic hives, the usual handy way my skin tells me I’m under stress even if my mind is coping and/or pushing the stress away by working on the stressor itself; but invigilation and marking do. Exams stress me out. I bring emergency supplies of chocolate for students. I can’t bring that for all several hundred, and that’s a further cause of stress. My usual mechanism for coping with stress and worry and some kind of panic is to clown around. (I dislike clowns and puppets. This goes back to childhood Belgian carnival trauma. But I love the Muppets and Sesame Street, and anyone in a dinosaur costume. And like any sensible sentient human I love drag. Go figure.) I’m not allowed to do that in an exam. And then my mind goes into overload in imagining “what could we do to make exams more comfortable and less joyless?” and throw ideas around with fellow invigilators: we could juggle, do cabaret, sing together …
In future exams, we might actually do something like that: from this summer onwards we’re bringing oral exams in—previously logistically impossible for our numbers of students, and while respecting instructors’ working conditions and contracts—and, hey, why not have groups of students work together over the term and have a final performance as part of their final exam? It’s more supportive and congenial than traditional oral exams (solitary, in front of a jury who are some distance away behind a desk; yes, I dislike National Idol Got Talent shows. But I love Eurovision. Go figure.)
I’ve been very grateful for the existence of Twitter, because it allows me to express all these coping-mechanism random ideas during an exam but silently, so as not to disturb students and not to distress my fellow invigilators. Livetweeting from exams is a blessing.
And sometimes, rereading these tweets, you see some ideas that might be worthwhile, usable and useful, and maybe even valuable; even putting ideas from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights into applied practice (NOT the Hell panel).
APRIL 2020: PRE-COVIDIFIED-ONLINISED-EXAM LIMBO
SECOND, MIDDLE, INTERMISSION
Our April exams were not online: onlinised. Like the end of that term—for most people teaching here, that was at least a month and about 1/3 of the term and every course—this was the period called a “pivot,” on which those better versed than I in the aesthetics of dance have commented, duly acerbically. I like to call this period “onlinising” and refer to courses then and their exams as “onlinised” as distinct from “online”: not conceived and created that way but a move in medium and venue, turned from one thing into another part-way, partially transformed, roughly translated. A clunky translation, and as we’ve seen with too many exams and courses and the faculty behind them, often a lumpy literal translation like that of an interactive live one-hour class in person into a compulsorily-synchronous one-hour video lecture. The term officially used for our exams was “remote.”
Everything was changing at once very fast and very slowly, in organisational terms. It was a strange time for all of us; timeless, out of time, speeded up, slowed down. Like the way you see fairies depicted darting around in some fantasy films, a motion described much better in words by Terry Pratchett. There’d be a long pause and then missives from on high requiring immediate massive sudden changes. Preferably multiple missives. If you were lucky, this would be pronounced on a Friday afternoon for actualization on the Monday. There’s one memorable weekend in mid-March that faculty won’t forget. Meanwhile, students were worried and stressed and anxious and confused, and asking questions about the final exam. So I made some preemptive decisions; better that waiting and adding to worrying. Within two weeks in the courses that I coordinated and/or taught we consulted with students, revised the syllabus (we did this more than once over about a month; there were many changes), drafted an honour code (several versions, here’s the latest, for June exams), and made an exam that was similar enough to previous ones and to extant practice past papers to be relatively reassuring to students—it would be absurd to change an exam totally to one for which students were unprepared—while adding a few novel features like being anti-surveillance and anti-invigilation. And the exam was either optional (FREN 101, 102) or (FREN 123) could be substituted for an alternative final exercise.
FREN 101 & 102 exams were take-home, limited-open-book, honour-code-bound. They were open for 24 hours, to be done in around 2.5 hours, and students had access to “ask me anything, the worst I’ll do is give you a clue” online support from me and from some of our instructors. FREN 123 was closed-book, honour-code-bound, in two sittings, figured out to accommodate all students taking the exam, whatever their time zone. We kept the format simple as we knew that students were all over the place, in every possible way. We had students with limited and intermittent internet access, students traveling, students in quarantine, students who had to take breaks to attend to the needs of those they lived with. Exams were therefore a PDF and a .docx exam booklet, to be returned completes to the instructor by email or as a Canvas Inbox attachment or submitted a Canvas Assignment. In some sections, students had all three options; in some, just one; varying depending on the technological and human-habitat circumstances of instructors.
APRIL 2020 EXAMS
Unlike our Winter Term 2 courses (January-April 2020), which changed part-way, we designed and built our summer session courses (including planning their exams) as online courses. They’re not perfect, they’re nothing like existing online courses from universities who have been specialist experts for decades (I’m not thinking a MOOC or Phoenix, but the Open University); like anything else done by intelligent people they’ll improve as we learn on the job. Course coordinators are multi-taskers: designers, architects, sculptors, interior decorators, maintenance workers, restorers and renovators, cleaners, and also those who live in their courses teaching them every day. So we’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking. Including, but well beyond, any institution’s basic “how to survive online 101” guide; however good that guide might be, and those of our own university are excellent, it’s still a 101 guide.
Predictably, Authorities Higher Up started to show public interest in exams with impeccable timing. Week 4 of a 6-week term: 2/3 through, 2 weeks to go, too late to change an exam format dramatically because we do need to take into account students and expectations and learning objectives, course structure, Senate syllabus requirements (which are meant to protect students from random imperious changes) and, you know, all that meaningless stuff that faculty mysteriously do when magicking a course into existence. And then there was more interest in the last week of the teaching term, just before exams started. In both cases, accompanied by the eye-rolling foolishness about proctoring and surveillance as “integrity.” This is the sort of corporate thinking that confuses with risk management with standards, corporate shareholder reports with responsibility, and quality control with quality. And it is out of place in talking about knowledge and learning in a university. (In other education too, from infancy via public libraries to elder senior citizens.)
It would seem that some of the Authoritative Pronouncements were as much about PR and worrying about student enrollments next year, a.k.a. money. That’s actually understandable: we’re all living the same pandemic (more or less, and in better or worse circumstances), we’re all worried and maybe also worried about how we’re worrying, and it’s perfectly human to displace one’s worries about the unknowable and uncontrollable onto something that one can control. And then go over the top in over-controlling it. This is where we get all the “normal” and “business as usual” rhetoric, with uncertainty spun “creatively” as “smooth transition” and “opportunity” for “disruptive innovation.” I do hope that one day historians, literary critics, sociologists, and anthropologists will be reading all this stuff from in and around 2020 and learning weird and wonderful things about us humans of 2020, and that we’ll all—us here and now—contribute to human understanding of the future. Pro tip: if you’re looking for “leadership” “vision,” I recommend reading the work of the actual legit visionary Jesse Stommel. There’s a selection further down.
Dear current students, new students next year, parents, sponsors: I know you’re worried. I acknowledge, accept, and understand your worry. I would worry too, if I were you. I worry too; about many things, about still being alive this time next year, we probably share some worries. Know that university courses should be low on your list of things to worry about. (In our university, anyway. In our department, certainly.) Your faculty have been spending hours—days—reading thousands of pages and watching hours of video and listening to further hours of podcasts, so as to catch up fast with whole fields of knowledge. Most of us have doctorates in areas of language and literature, so we’re experienced and expert researchers and readers, and we’ve been putting our previous training and specialist work into practice in these new areas. We’re going to teach and learn in new ways and old, intelligently and imaginatively, differently, hopefully better; having been forced to think and rethink everything about teaching and learning is hard work, but stimulating.
Looking at university teaching afresh has meant thinking about some fundamental questions in higher education. This is a good thing. What is a course? What is a class? What is a classroom? What is a class hour? What is an exam? And what else could they be, how can we creative humans reimagine them? Most of our classrooms in UBC Arts are inadequate for teaching languages, and have been for at least 10 years. What could we do instead? How much of what we’ve done in the past could be done better in an online environment? How much of the time in a large whole class hour would be better spent in shorter segments of time, just the person teaching and a small group? Right now we’ve had a sense of changed time, timelessness, time out of joint; and we’ve been living in confinement, isolation, dislocation. These changes in our existence can feel terrifying. Thinking about them might help. (Reading can help too: I’ve met students who want to learn French so as to read Albert Camus in the original.) So it’s a timely moment for big questions about time and space: in our own everyday lives as human individuals, and in the context of a university and a university education.
We also have colleagues in other departments here, and in other universities around the world, so we’re part of a large network of expertise, all of us working together in mutual aid. If I meet a new problem or question, I have plenty of people to ask for help. That’s a big knowledge and support network for us, and also for you. You’re in good hands. What happened here in March means that even someone who would have been less likely to ask for help previously … will do so, and do so fast. Asking for help and helping others is the “new normal.” We hope that you’ll do this with us too, and we’ll also be asking you: we’re all peers in the COVID-19 situation, with the same level of specialist experience and expertise, as fellow humans in a pandemic. I hope that makes faculty more approachable! And we all have the support of our colleagues behind the UBC Keep Learning (for students) and UBC Keep Teaching (for faculty) sites, the UBC Learning Technology Support Hub. They, and their work, are some of the best in the world.
Our classes will be as interactive as before, indeed I hope more so; they’ll be far from faceless, they’ll be personal and interpersonal, they’ll help to provide you with a supportive community or peer network; and the overall learning objective for all of us will be to keep us all human. Use your classes to give shape and structure to your day, week, month, and year. Language classes especially, as they’re always good places to make friends. And friends can be support networks. We hope that friendships can blossom in your small groups, as well as work in groups being a way to give structure to your time. Group work is important, for social and personal reasons as much as for educational ones. The humanities remind us that we are living sentient sensitive beings. They keep us alive. They keep us thinking about what it means to live. This means thinking beyond the human too: as posthumans, as humanimals, as interactive inter-related fellow members of a biodiverse ecosystem. We are beings who feel, sense, wonder, question, and imagine. Learning is central to that: continuing education and lifelong learning, seeking understanding and making knowledge. As humans participating in the humanities we are the living incarnation of words like transformative, experiential, innovative, collaborative, and sustainable that are in UBC’s strategic plan; all that is critical (in the full sense of the word) and creative and curious.
The next part of this post is from after the April onlinised exams and shortly before the June more-or-less online exams last week.
JESSE STOMMEL: SELECTED READINGS
OTHER PEOPLE ON ACADEMIC TWITTER RECENTLY
RELATED POSTS: MARCH-APRIL 2020
Here are some posts from the UBC Blogs (WordPress) course site for FREN 101 and 102. That site has an area for students and an area for the teaching team. Each of these also sprouted further sub-areas specific to the COVID-19 emergency, as a central repository and future archive for information; the quantity of email communication was becoming unwieldy and unmanageable, and it was good to be able to keep it in one place, for reference amd searchability.
The “coin des profs” and its offshoot are password-protected. I’ve slightly edited some key communications, including thinking aloud planning, from the “pivot” weekend (Friday 13-Monday 16 March) and from the exam planning stage at the start of April: I removed their passwords and made them public, having first removed anything that should be confidential (I think that’s just anonymising graduate student TAs, there’s nothing else top secret here). What you’ll see is rough plans and correspondence with our FREN 101 and 102 teaching team and with fellow coordinators of large multi-section courses in French and Spanish, while figuring out what to do in March and April, day by day, thinking out loud and showing my working, in slow motion.
- Saturday 14 March 2020
- Tuesday 17 March, in which I refuse to use Proctorio for a test but leave free choice on using it, or not, open to colleagues
- Wednesday 18 March, updated 27th and 30th: exam planning;
questions for discussion (before team online meeting on the 30th), logistics, a first draft of our honour code, Faculty of Arts information, assorted UBC policies and rules, and stuck at the end a final appendix of older notes and ideas including this …
- Monday 30 March: revised exam plan, after team meeting;
amended 8 April (after students voted for the exam to be optional; yep, about 400 of them, in the last week of the teaching term: this is what I like to call “actual consultation”);
amended 15 April to make the logistics feasible
- Sunday 29 March (yes, this was the second 30-hour-overtime weekend that month): draft scripts for two videos that I never made (probably just as well) about how an honour-bound exam works and why you shouldn’t cheat. Ah, early isolation: at home writing video scripts. Those were the days.
- Saturday 4 April: exam contingency plans. 10 practical questions, 8 of them starting with “what if …”
The first draft of this was part of the same notes as materials from 13 March; I started making these notes the weekend of 6-7 March, when starting heavy intensive reading on what would become covidificafion. More in this post from 9 March, the first in a COVID-19 online teaching series.
(And no, I haven’t forgotten about the weasels and the trees. Continuing writing about them is going to be what keeps me going while course-designing next week, and as a change of scene / gear while teaching from the week after next onwards.)