Preparing for a Pandemic: Safety in Flexible Approaches

It was one of my students who notified me halfway through my last course of the day. It was March 12th, 2020, and the course was World Literature. Students and faculty had been on pins and needles throughout the week as news from Italy, Seattle, and New York grew increasingly dire. When my student raised his hand, I was expecting a question in relation to José Martí’s poetry, but, in retrospect, I should have been aware my students were tracking the news as furiously as I had been earlier that day. He noted that the University of Alabama was transitioning to online learning in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

It’s hard to believe that we are approaching the two-year anniversary of that moment. As we try to come to grips with this situation as individuals, educators, and community members, I sat down with First-Year Writing Program Director, Dr. Luke Niiler, to look back at the previous pandemic year. He detailed what transpired over the summer of 2020 and how the English Department prepared for a year in flux. He also discussed departmental approaches from both administrative and pedagogical viewpoints, and what he believes was learned over a year of fear and disruption.

It feels like a lifetime ago now, but how were you feeling in March 2020 when news came down, first that spring break would be lengthened and then that classes would move online because of the threat of Covid-19?

I was expecting some major changes. Like a lot of folks, I’d been following the news from the EU and UK. So, when we heard news of a longer break and moving online, I was relieved; these moves seemed in the best interests of public health. At the same time, I was worried about if and how we’d manage.

How did those feelings shift, crystallize, or expand on an administrative level as the Fall 2020 semester approached?

As an administrator, I spent much of the summer of 2020 huddled (virtually) with my team, trying to work out practical, actionable responses to the pandemic—I guess this is what a lot of people were doing at all levels, in the university, the city, the state, nationally, and internationally. It was challenging; Covid was and is a moving target, something we’re still learning about and discussing in real time. So, we didn’t have all the facts, but there weren’t many facts to have, at least at first.

Administratively, our main priority was and continues to be our people, the people who teach First-Year Writing. We wanted to say, hey, here’s a list of best practices to keep yourself and your students safe, and here’s another list of best practices to use when you Zoom, but we didn’t know much about either one of those things.

Obviously, there’s probably too much to say, but what were some of the main discussions the department was having as August 2020 approached?

Oh, geez. Where to begin? Class sizes; room capacities; social distancing in classrooms; how to craft a syllabus for a hybrid course that meets twice a week or three times a week; attendance policies, and even the definition of attendance; how Zoom works; Zoom etiquette and expectations; the Zoom camera. But that all paled in comparison to more existential questions concerning whether or not we should even be holding classes during a global pandemic that our state and national leadership was downplaying. And an attendant concern: How can we justify sending our most vulnerable faculty—those hardworking GTAs and instructors who teach our FWP courses—into the classroom in the first place, especially when they are paid so little?

Is there anyone you want to shout out regarding what felt like a monumental task of getting course materials and frameworks into a First-Year Writing course Blackboard shells? Were there other massive tasks that you want to recognize as well?

Dr. Natalie Loper, the FWP’s Coordinator of Online Instruction, and Associate Director Jessica Kidd took the lead on this monumental task. The entire FWP leadership team provided considerable and ongoing support and training, so we all owe huge debts of gratitude to Assistant Director Brian Oliu, Senior Office Administrator Melinda Fields, and Graduate Student Administrators Khay Billingsley and Kathleen Lewis. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention former FWP Director Dr. Karen Gardner. Karen and I discussed a possible move to course shells during summer 2020, and she reassured me that this was a good idea. Without her confidence and support, I’m not sure we’d have flicked the switch, so to speak. I also need to mention Chair Steve Trout, former Chair David Ainsworth, and Assistant Chair Steve Tedeschi; they worked tirelessly to respond and strategize as these unprecedented events unfolded.

But through it all, the most massive task was carried out by everyone who taught FWP during 2020-2021, all those GTAs and instructors who never signed on for this, but nonetheless showed up for their students. Their example—their grace under pressure, so to speak—was brilliant. I should give a special salute to anyone who taught for the first time in 2020-2021. If you could handle that, you can handle anything life throws at you.

What class format did you use during the Fall 2020/Spring 2021?

I Zoomed, mostly, with some outdoor face-to-face sessions.

How did you find yourself adapting your teaching, materials, and methods of dissemination, over that school year? Was there anything you struggled with (from the mundane—how do you do this on Zoom, to the more serious—am I benefitting these students right now, or, if you were in person, how ethical/safe does this feel)?

I’m a teacher who likes to work instinctively and build community. I work the room, engaging with students one to one and in small groups; and I like to flip the classroom as much as possible, and by that, I mean I try to create situations in which students are constantly being asked to engage, reflect, and present. On Zoom, I realized something approximating those conditions could only happen if I did more with prep work—Powerpoint slides, for example; audio-visuals; and accessible class notes and outlines. I did more deliberate structuring of things I might have taken for granted in the face-to-face classroom, such as discussions. I adopted a “three-tiered” approach to encourage more participation: I would ask a question; then someone would answer, and someone else would acknowledge their answer and add their own thoughts, and then a third person would do the same. I made a point of engaging each student individually during each class—the difference was, everyone else in the class could hear and see me doing that, which helped create the kind of community I was going for.

What pedagogy did you lean on during this time?

We always want teachers to remember that we are here for them. I think that’s the source from which all good pedagogy springs. I’ve heard it called rapport or intersubjectivity, but what it boils down to is care. If you know someone cares about you and wants to support you and has your back, you can approach the most challenging of tasks—like teaching during a pandemic—with some measure of confidence. I think this is the subtext of every “Sunday Bulletin” email I draft.

What adaptations, struggles, and resources did you see first-year writing (or the department) making/having/using?

Adaptations: the switch to online shells and hybrid courses.

Struggles: access to technologies, for both students and teachers; online shells and hybrid courses; Zoom protocols; physical and mental health.

Resources: as always, each other; and by that, I mean many teachers (not just FWP admins) shared strategies.

What successes did you see for yourself and across FWP (or the department)?

First and foremost, we managed to lower caps to 18 in 2020-2021, which resulted in a higher US News and World Report ranking (this matters to upper admin). The dean and provost have indicated they want to see our FWP caps remain, as much as possible, at 19. It’s a rare confluence of good pedagogy and positive optics.

With lower caps, we’ve had to create more sections, which means more hiring of FTIs, each of whom brings considerable experience and valuable ideas to our program.

We also created/curated Wavelength, a free, program-sourced set of teaching materials (including student writing samples); and we stopped requiring a standard, expensive textbook, which a lot of students and teachers never used.

Finally, that this program and department survived without any furloughs or layoffs was significant—sometimes I think that fact gets lost. But that is not my success or FWP’s success; it’s UA’s upper admin. So, some credit is due there.

What stuck from the year of pandemic teaching? Has your pedagogy or your syllabus itself changed? If so, how and why?

What stuck most of all was how much is asked from our most vulnerable faculty—our instructors and GTAs. These folks were asked to put themselves in harm’s way, and for peanuts. UA needs to do much better. Our instructors should be paid more, and, ideally, converted to tenure-track lines. Our GTAs need to be paid more and teach less. Many of us have been saying this for years, but if a pandemic can’t get people to listen, what will?

What has FWP and/or the department ingrained into its institutional memory in the wake of this past teaching year? What, if we were pushed back into a mostly online teaching format tomorrow, would we do differently from last year and why?

During 2020-2021, I met regularly with the labor-based grading task force, which was charged with researching, piloting, and sharing labor-based grading strategies with the rest of the program. Labor-based grading privileges a student’s labor practices (study, discussion, writing, workshopping, reflecting, researching—whatever form labor takes) in the assessment of student writing, and it helps students become better at self-assessment. At the same time, the FWP admin team and I were taking a very close look at our attendance policies during the pandemic, and realizing that we could value students’ labor more, given that attendance could not be taken for granted. We’re still working through the implications for the program but suffice it to say we’ve learned to show more flexibility regarding attendance and more interest in moving toward grading strategies that privilege students’ labor.

What was the most difficult aspect of the past teaching year, personally and as an administrator?

I’m not sure ‘difficult’ is the right word for what I’m going to say—perhaps ‘politically sensitive’ would be a better term. As we went into fall 2020, I repeatedly messaged that I would respect teachers’ decisions regarding their own health and safety, knowing that some teachers would read that as permission to migrate hybrid courses online. My feeling then, as now, is that health and safety of our faculty and students matters most. This messaging conflicted with the university’s official messaging, and I heard about it.

Personally, I tore the meniscus in my left knee, which meant I couldn’t run for several months…so my primary source of stress management was taken away from me. I racked up hundreds of miles on my spin bike, though.

What were you most proud of over the past teaching year (personally, as a professor, and as an administrator)?

As an administrator, I saw my leadership team at their very best: they listened, they adapted, they supported, they leaned into a crisis and did not falter. I cannot thank them enough.

As a professor, I got to work with some fantastic students whose intellectual curiosity and creative energy motivated me to do some of the best teaching of my career.

Personally, I was delighted to spend more time with my wife and to have both of my grown sons back home, if only for a short while. Sometimes it got tricky; we have a small house, and it’s hard to find good places to Zoom when several people must be online at the same time. But in the long run, that’s small potatoes.


–Brett Shaw