Monday, March 16, 2020

Dear students: We're all anxious and uncertain too

Dear students,

With only a few days' notice, all your in-person classes were cancelled, with promises of online content delivery instead. Your last week of term is in upheaval. All your plans, gone. And you have no idea what's going to happen, not this week, not during the break, not next term. Everything is uncertain, everything is anxiety-making.

Dear students, we're all anxious and uncertain, too. Many of us have never done online teaching before -- we don't know the software, we don't have the hardware, we never imagined we'd be doing this without months of preparation -- and those of us who were on strike last week have either had no time to think/prepare or had to break our strike to do so.

We're sitting in our offices today doing our best, trying our hardest to ensure your education is not disrupted more than it has to, learning new software, sourcing new hardware. We're constantly emailing colleagues, taking advantage of the offers of those who have done online teaching before to help us through Blackboard Collaborative Ultra, or Panopto, or even just simple things like "use a headset if you're able to" (one colleague even offered to come in and video my whiteboard if I need her to), we're chatting in WhatsApp groups designed to share best practices and provide moral support, we're passing tips on in googledocs and Facebook groups and Twitter.

I don't know how to teach logic without access to a whiteboard. I'm lucky enough that I (a) have a whiteboard in my office and (b) am (for the time being) still allowed into my office to access it. (If (b) changes before I can do my videos, I'll take my whiteboard home with me.) Over the weekend, I googled "how to take videos on linux", because so many of the options that are offered are for Windows computers only. I've found a programme that I'll test out this afternoon, figuring out where I can perch my laptop so that it's got a full view of the board but is still close enough to me that I don't accidentally topple it by being connected to it with a headset! If I can't do my videos in my office, I'm already mentally planning where there's space to set up at home...and how to keep random cat-butts out of the video. Whatever I end up with, it won't be pretty. It won't be flashy. It will not be optimal. But it will be as close to sitting in class with me as I can get, because I owe you that.

And then there's exams. We don't know what's going to happen with exams, any more than you do. Will we be given a chance to revise the exam questions, set way back in January? Is it possible to change the modes of assessment for a module -- to drop an exam or make it a take-home one instead of a timed one? If this were any country other than the UK, doing either of these would be easy -- of all the countries that I've worked in higher education in, only the UK is so bureaucratic about its exams and assessments. The lack of flexibility is stifling. I want to be able to examine my students on the material they have been taught, in a format that will best allow them to demonstrate to me what they have learned in my classes. Between the strikes and now Covid-19, I don't see how that is going to happen. No wonder I'm anxious.

The situation is so fast-changing, there's no way to say now what things will be like at the end of this week, much less at the start of next term. Which research deadlines will be postponed, and which ones won't be? When will schools and holiday camps and clubs be closed, and I have to start juggling all of this along with taking care of my child? How can I do my best by her in this difficult and uncertain time? How can I do my best by my students? I want to be able to give you all reassurances, but I can't. I can't say everything will be all right or that we'll figure it out or that in the long run it'll all work out.

Dear students, I wish we had more answers for you. I wish you weren't in this situation, especially those of you in your final year, who've had far more disruption to your education than any other cohort in at least a generation. We're doing our best, and will continue to do so. I know you're anxious and uncertain; we are too. We're all in this together.

Take care, and wash your hands!,
Doctor Logic

Dr. Sara L. Uckelman
Assistant professor of logic and philosophy of language
Durham University

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