by Fr. Daniel Torson, C.PP.S.
Academia finds itself asking many questions that are similar to those of big business: Can people continue to operate and work just as efficiently from home? Should meetings and conferences continue online? How much personal interaction is necessary to build a team or a sense of unity? One thing is certain: even as covid mitigations continue to loosen, operations will not return completely to pre-pandemic modes. The complete shutdown of one year ago will have lasting effects.
Two aspects have become clear over the past year from nearly all surveys and research: Traditional age college students do not like or prefer a completely online learning format, and similarly, most professors do not prefer a completely online learning format either. Both groups have come to realize the value of human interaction and that the building of relationships are essential to the learning process. In essence, both groups have grown in appreciation for the in-person learning process. But are both groups willing to give up the convenience of not commuting (or for resident students, walking across campus), not needing to look presentable in public, and truly exerting the energy to engage peers and faculty? For students, it has become much easier to simply crawl out of bed, tune into the class on the computer, and while class is commencing, check social media and take care of personal needs. The hope is that the important material will be picked up, or the student will watch the video recording of the class later. Faculty have perfected methods for online interaction over the course of the last year, but the results of the new methods are not always positive.
So, where does academia go from here? Here, I will be addressing Lewis University specifically, but having said that, I have observed that Lewis has positioned itself clearly in the mainstream of learn-ing and mitigation processes throughout the past year. Thus, for Fall 2021, Lewis will be offering more options with varied formats for both faculty and students. The direction from the Provost’s Office was that clearly there needs to be more in-person interaction with students, but varied formats will be welcomed. Thus, I was asked two months ago, “How do I want to teach in the Fall?”
That is a loaded question! I had been teaching hybrid for the past two semesters, which means that I am in-person with all my students for 50 minutes each week with the remainder online. While I clearly acknowledge that 50 minutes per week is not enough, there have been many successes in this format. My students have been forced to take responsibility for their learning, read the assignments (which in theology means reading excerpts from notable theologians such as Aquinas and Schleiermacher), synthesize, and integrate the readings. This has been accomplished and assessed through weekly student submissions of answers to my specified questions, writing short essays, writing discussion boards with references to the theologians, and essay Mid-terms and Final Exams. For the two exams, students can consult the sources and take as much time as they need, in order to produce coherent essays incorporating content, assessment, and application. My top students have produced some excellent and amazing essays, while at the same time, the middle-of-the-academic-spectrum students have been pushed further than they could have imagined! None of my students are theology majors, but they have truly engaged the discipline of theology!
In order to facilitate this process, I check email a half a dozen times a day, and I offered my cell phone number to students for texting and phone calls. My students do not like to call people, so the only time that we have a phone conversation is when we arrange a specific day and time. But they like to text! So, I frequently get texts to which I can almost im-mediately respond!
Since my social life during the past year has been extremely limited, I am at home most evenings cooking and watching sports on TV). So, a text is kind of fun, and I don’t get so many that they be-come burdensome.
As a result, I have decided to teach each of my four classes two days a week in the fall, with Friday as a reading and writing day. I am trying to blend the positives of pre-covid and covid strategies. As you would expect, written assignments due for most weeks entail more grading than was the case during pre-covid times. This will also be the third time that I have re-written my classes (syllabi and online course shells) over the past year. I am looking forward to the challenge, if I can get the results of theological engagement as I have experienced during the past year.
I have found over the past year that college students in general are very “needy.” I look into their eyes and see “burden” for many of them. In addition to their own mental health in dealing with the pandemic, many have family issues that are very troubling, and many are still working to support themselves. This is simply not the college environment that I grew up in many years ago. All I had to worry about was getting my studies finished and taking care of myself. The world seemed so carefree with endless possibilities before us back then! It is not the same today.
Academia has gone through numerous challenges over the past year, but we have adapted “on the fly” and still maintained a level of excellence in teaching/learning. Some questions about processes for the fall will be sorted out this summer, but others will remain influx. For certain is the fact that Academia will not completely return to pre-covid days, but the cooperative efforts of administrators, faculty, staff, and students will create a “new normal.” Change is not to be feared but rather embraced!