Teaching in the fall was miserable—that recurring feeling of a student’s fingers slipping between me, pulling away, spiraling into nothingness. Weeks later, an email arrived: “Sorry, Dr. Sims, I’m trying to do a better job.” It’s easy to pinpoint the reasons I felt so bad last semester, but they are so myriad and distinct that it seems pointless to bother listing them at all.
The bone-deep weariness and care obligations piled on me by my foundation felt like a bullet jacket as I limped across the finish line in December. I know other faculty and staff felt the same way. Sure, we’ve been through it, but we can’t move forward like that. So what are we doing differently as a new semester begins?
I’ve spent the past few weeks recovering, thinking and looking for solutions. I cannot control the variants of Covid-19. I am not responsible for the emotional well-being of every person I work with or for. Government decisions and campus policy are made behind closed doors. But I am preaching to the chorus here: We all feel powerless. However, this is only part of the problem, and my deep thought has led me to another conclusion.
At the moment, meaninglessness is as much the root cause of our distress as it is weakness.
The core of our collective existential crisis rests on a lack of meaning. Everything we do feels pointless. Our actions, choices, and hard work often seem to pay off. What was private – even sacred – seemed to be worthless. Of course, this diminishing importance is a coping mechanism that a global pandemic has forced upon us. No graduation party, vacation, or wedding? That’s fine. We don’t need these things anyway. They don’t matter, or they don’t matter as much as we thought they did.
For most people, this line of thinking inevitably leads to a compromise for good health: If I abandon cherished traditions, customs, and social bonds with a little complaining, then at least I’ll stay safe from the virus. We are left with the conclusion that the one thing that matters – where everything else falls – is that we are united in protecting ourselves and our loved ones from harm. Health is still important. Not dying from Covid-19.
Of course, you can see where this is headed. Fear and division about vaccines and masks have left us on shaky ground, wondering if other people care about the same things we do, or about us.
Where does that leave us then? Where are the leaders heading from here? I am not a politician, a company CEO, or a campus manager, but I am a leader nonetheless. As a teacher, I am responsible for my class, and I lead my students through the course and their college experiences. After much thought, this is where I’ve come to: We need to make our experiences important again.
While this perspective can be widely applied in our personal and professional lives, my focus here is on teaching and on specific ways to activate meaning in the college classroom.
But first we should consider a widespread shift to the “pass/fail” rating policies that many institutions, including my university, are adopting, to reduce pressure on students and accommodate complications related to Covid. Our policy allows students to opt out of a letter grade for all courses—including high stakes and required—and make that decision until the end of the semester. (Although students have a choice, the faculty is in no way relieved of the weight of grades, which is stressful for an associate professor of writing.)
Let me be clear: Rethinking valuation practices is absolutely the right move at this historic moment. (In fact, elementary schools can take a cue from colleges and universities, and give away homework for young, overburdened fourth graders.) Giving students grading options is, in general, a good idea and an effective way to reduce their anxiety.
However, a major byproduct of the pass/no pass policy is that it amplifies the collective sense of meaninglessness. For performance-driven students who were raised in a culture where winning is paramount, removing grades removes importance. If getting a good grade in a class doesn’t matter, why does the class itself matter? Of course they can choose to evaluate by letters, but why take the risk? Why work overtime when your peers are not?
It seems safe to say that despite some critics, we collectively agree that education is important and that learning in the classroom has value. But she does not do that Feel As if it has value. Doesn’t feel valuable In the same way Like pre-pandemic education. Pass/non-success rating options, disguised disengagement, fluctuating attendance, technological intervention for personal classroom registration, and permissive late work policies have combined to produce a sense of inadequacy. Why are we here? What do we do?
As it turns out, these questions are a way back. They are the solution. While planning for the new semester, I asked myself these questions, and just as importantly, I plan to ask my students: Why are you here? Why is this important?
In an effort to bring meaning back into my students’ and classroom experiences, these are the changes I plan to make:
Focus on the big picture. Instead of building lessons that lead directly to the production of an essay or assignment, I’ll introduce students to course topics, and we’ll spend a lot of time thinking, reading, and discussing—without attaching the requested product.
For example, I teach an Advanced Writing course where one of the students’ main learning objectives is to explore the moral and civic responsibilities of their future professions. In the new semester, I am putting together a reader filled with diverse moral arguments. We will spend at least three weeks reflecting on our own and others’ views of right and wrong, what it means to build an ethical community, and articulating what we need, believe and can contribute as members of a profession and as citizens. There will be credit/no credit assignments and stand-alone lessons without a direct link to the graded paper.
After the first month of the semester, students will know the values of their peers, they will reflect on their individual morals, and they will have identified what is necessary to build an ethical community. I plan to verify this knowledge through conversation and observation during class time rather than a graded essay.
Emphasis on unity over individuality. It is essential to actively work against the feelings of separation caused by months of isolation and screen time. I hope to achieve this goal through two concrete actions:
- First, as a room leader, I will not allow the value of the course or our time together in class to be included. In other words, I will ask the students to decide that our class is important, to collectively define the meaning of what we do together, and to write about its importance. To make something meaningful, all we need is for people to collectively decide that it is important.
- Second, I pre-record some lectures for students to watch on their own, and instead of meeting the whole class, I’ll use this time to facilitate required peer meetings. As part of their participation in class, I will design a rotating schedule for pairs of students or small groups that will meet during class time in cafes on campus. These meetings will be for the purposes of reintegrating and consolidating a group of young people who have missed graduation ceremonies and science fairs, and who have spent their Socratic seminars and senior elective candidates in a muted state. I will provide students with general and course-related discussion topics, along with guidance for productive conversations and building social resilience. After each peer meeting, students will write their thoughts in journals (which I will review for credit). The social learning accomplished during this orderly and required time outside of the classroom will unite us – pair after pair, group after group – until we feel like an entire class working together.
lead by example. This isn’t an entirely mind-blowing new strategy, but it’s a core principle, and I mean applying it in new ways—specifically, in the realm of radical self-care.
I actually check in with my students regularly to chart not only their intellectual development but also their emotional and mental health: Do they need support? Do they use campus resources? Do they take care of their physical health? I coach them to identify what they need and order, talk to counselors, and advocate for themselves.
Who then will defend me? Like many aspects of faculty life, this is a job that no one will do for me. Let it be. This semester I pledge to routinely review myself: Do I need support? Do I use campus resources? Am I looking after my physical safety?
The goal: Show my students what adult accountability really looks like. Show that each of us is responsible, above all, for ourselves.
I can’t tell how these approaches will evolve over the course of the semester – what will fail and what will succeed. Ask me after 16 weeks. What I do know is that my class is important and that my students will have an important experience in my class. We’ll talk about why this time together is important, we’ll make meaning, and we’ll do important things. The rewards for our actions will be the actions themselves and the knowledge that we tried to build something meaningful together.