Keeping Class Real This Semester (and Perhaps Next Fall): Lessons From My Visual Anthropology Class

Yesterday afternoon, during my last session for this semester’s Visual Anthropology class, we had a summary conversation about the students’ experiences in our fractured pandemic semester. The students shared some interesting reflections on time and life and our class that were clearly divided into a before and after. Some of these comments offer valuable ideas for a possible Fall semester that is increasingly looking like it might be spent at least partially online.

“Class Isn’t Real”
Students at my small liberal arts university have chosen our school for the same reason many choose small schools—access to professors, more personal attention, smaller class sizes, and face-to-face (F2F) instruction. Something I think that often isn’t explicitly stated, but most professors know, is that this combination keeps students focused, on track and accountable to their peers, and instructors. The accountability of F2F classes and professors that know them and care about them (and are willing to notice their absences or inadequate performance) are key advantages of smaller schools. They are advantages, of course, that are especially important for first generation students.

Over the years of teaching at Hamline University, I have come to realize that my job as a professor in many ways resembles that of a coach. I need to expect students to attend regular “practice,” give them assignments that build their skills and strengths, and then establish moments for them to perform those skills in a higher-stakes environment. An important contribution to student success in a given semester is that they feel connected to their classmates and me—that they feel like class is something of which they are an integral part.

Yesterday during my last-day-of-the-semester conversation with my class, many students described moving to remote/online learning halfway through the spring as a movement from reality to “unreality.” We recognized that part of this unreality is an aspect of the context in which we all find ourselves—pandemic life is bizarre and unreal. And yet there was more else, students spoke of displacements in space and time and structures and presence that are key aspects of the face-to-face instruction that fell away and were replaced by new and different ones. Their comments suggest that the pandemic classes that survived the transition were, in a concrete sense, entirely different ones, “unreal,” or at least real in a different sense than the the classes they started at the beginning of the semester.

Students in my class commented on the value of the space of the normal F2F classroom as a place to which they physically move as an important aspect of their courses. Moving from a home place, driving or walking from a dorm or apartment or other residence to a classroom where they meet the others with whom they share the class provides a transition to a place of learning. Students brought together with their professors in a classroom physically marks off the moment of the class from other activities. This is especially important for students who live at home, with roommates, or with heavy workloads at their jobs.

Many students remarked that it was very difficult in their shelter-bound COVID-lives to find space for class. For one student sheltering with their partner, the couch was the place they both watched Netflix and went to class. They tried using the dining table as a desk, but later needed that place for storage. Another student managed to locate a desk in a hallway at the foot of a stairway, but reported being in a household with many other people trying to work and go to school. Most, however, agreed that regardless of their specific physical situation, it was difficult to make the transition from home to school by simply opening a laptop and turning on Zoom. The space of class is physically important: being expected by classmates and the professor, accountable to the work of the class, and present (presumably in the seat in which they regularly sit).

Of course students’ movement to the place of class takes place in time, and the accountablity of the class cannot be peeled away from the synchronization of their classmates chronologically: Classtime is when everyone meets together regardless of what they are doing. This is an important aspect of F2F classes on campus that creates a structure of accountability to others.

Most of my students seemed to agree that after COVID arrived, even though we couldn’t meet together physically, they found meeting synchronously at a regular class time very important. Even if class was on the couch there were others waiting for them at a regular time each day. Of course even this had its limits. Whereas a student might be motivated to rush to the time/place of a 8:00 or 9:40 class that was face-to-face synchronized time alone was not always enough to get them there. (Add to this the generalized experience of timelessness and time-slippages that everyone as been dealing with while stuck in place during the pandemic.)

The contrast between synchronous and asynchronous classes was dramatic for many students who described the difficulty of getting anything done when there was no accountability to anything other than “tasks due by an arbitrary deadline.” Watch a video, take notes, write on a discussion board, write a paper, get comments, as one student described. They experienced the process as just transferring one media to another to yet another. It was a process that didn’t seem particularly meaningful during a pandemic. The class agreed that they experienced time sheltering in place during the pandemic as an uncomfortable encounter with a lack of structured time: “things melt together,” “days just pass,” “I don’t remember what I do from day-to-day.” In the environment they described, it takes effort to do tasks across the flow of unmarked time. If the tasks seem arbitrary and are not connected to anything other than a due date, they can be continually deferred to a “later” that never arrives.

“Structure of Presence”
Judging from the conversation my class had, the most important aspect of F2F instruction of a normal class is what might be called a “structure of presence” that the classroom establishes in time and space. This is arguably one of the most important things that students pay for when they fork over the cash for tuition at a small university. They need to be somewhere sometime to learn with others and they need the professor (and by extension the institution) as the guarantor of that structure. They need their coach. They need practice times. They need “teammates” with whom they can prepare for the game. This is surely why smaller schools like mine have much higher four year graduation rates than large universities—especially for first-generation students.

So if any of what I heard them saying is true, then a key aspect of F2F classes that is a challenge for online/remote learning is establishing a “structure of presence.” How can we create a space-time community for student success? In other words, how can we make class real for students who want F2F instruction but need to be online until the pandemic ends?

Classes that “Work Together”
The reason I decided to write up this post on our final class conversation of the semester is that some of the experiences in our Visual Anthropology class this semester might offer some part of one possible answer to the question of creating a structure online/remotely that can meaningfully substitute for the absence of F2F instruction for undergraduates. Yesterday students in my class reported that the combination of our continuing regular synchronous class times and the collaborative group assignments we did managed to keep them regularly engaged with class when compared with other classes they had this semester. And, I should add that my class had the same average attendance and turn-in rate for assignments that my F2F classes have on campus during regular non-COVID semesters. The class managed to create work together and this work suggests ways to partially recreate some of the structure and bonds of presence in a normal F2F classroom. So, a summary:

The Visual Anthropology class I have developed is built upon a basic structure: I ask students to read, watch and make together. They read academic articles about ethnographic film history. We watch films that illustrate that history (and, of course discuss them because this is college!) Then students make videos together that demonstrate the styles we are studying. They make these together with volunteer-collaborators recruited from our university neighborhood.

Throughout the first half of the semester this reading, watching and making is focused on basic approaches and structures and skills. During the last month of the semester students then decide on how they will expand beyond the foundations of the first half—by doing collaborative group projects with their neighborhood partners of various scales. Some years they do small group videos and some years they do larger group video projects. The very first year I taught the class we did a single video project as a whole class. In subsequent years larger classes chose smaller groups and shorter projects. The projects were then shared with the community at an end-of-the-semester screening party at a local venue. If you are interested in these projects they are archived on this blog by year: 2013/2014, 2015, 2016. After a hiatus for some years while I was away in China, this spring the class was back. I had been looking forward to teaching it again. This year’s screening party was scheduled for last night at the Turf Club. Cancelled, of course, by the Coronavirus.

When the Coronavirus hit the US this semester, it happened just as students in Visual Anthropology were preparing to do their first interviews with their neighborhood collaborators and two weeks before we were to switch to our group projects. In the past these interviews had always been in person, followed by in-person peer reviews of their work. Covid suddenly made all of these plans impossible and left us with a radical task—to complete the semester in an entirely new way. We responded by sticking to the foundation of reading, watching and doing—concluding that we just needed to figure out a new way of doing everything. To address this problem we began to have conversations—conversations where something was at stake—the future of our semester. People showed up and contributed and tried options. I was very pleased with the experimental results, which I hope to write about in some future post.

Then when I asked students how they wanted to structure the group projects at the end of the semester they chose to have a single class documentary project broken into four (and then later three) smaller sections each completed by a sub group of students. According to our plan the sections would be combined, with me providing the introduction and conclusion, into a single video documentary project of 30-45 minutes in length. For the three weeks that followed we spent our classes discussing, reviewing, brainstorming and then breaking into groups to check in, plan, create to-do lists and execute them. For doing this in an effective way, I landed on a very excellent group project application called Milanote which allowed student groups to work and plan in a live workspace in realtime. When combined with Zoom the students were able to do group work quite effectively. (I’ll share our experiences with Milanote in a future post.)

The students individual group projects are due in three days and we will then discuss them during the meeting time reserved for class finals before I stitch them together into the final completed documentary. We are all a little nervous how this will end up and I’ll be sure to report back on how it turns out.

For the purposes of this post, however, the point is the following: Students in my class yesterday reported to me that nature of our group project kept them engaged with the class to an exceptional degree, despite the pandemic. They felt connected to each other in groups, to the class and to me as the professor. Unpacking this a bit, I suggest the following: the synchronous class established a regularity to time, and the group projects established a connection to a smaller subset of students. These students were tasked with making something, however, that was integral to a project that involved the whole class. Furthermore the challenges of being online itself was a problem to overcome that the entire class needed to solve. In other words everyone needed to work together to make the project work, and by extension, the class. A diagram might look like this:

(Individual -> Small Group -> Class Project) Context of the Pandemic

Our experiences this semester suggest to me that significant and meaningful real collaborative work might help to ameliorate the deficiencies of presence in the switch from F2F to online/remote instruction for many students.

As I explained to the class more than a few times during the last half of the semester, the novel Coronavirus pushed many people into novel online situations to do their jobs. When our class went online in the middle of the semester it wasn’t becoming an online class—it was doing the same thing that everyone was doing: We were living through a pandemic and doing what we can to continue the things we were doing before it began. The pandemic was the problem and the skills to solve it were being made up by everyone on the fly—which is exactly what we were doing. The class became real in a different way than it had been when we began. In effect, part of our class became an internship.

As I think forward to the uncertain, but increasingly likely fact of online teaching in the fall. I’m thinking about what this semester’s Visual Anthropology class has taught me. And so far this is where I am:

  • I will redesign all of my classes in the fall with the problematic of learning in a pandemic at the core. I’m not saying we will be learning about the pandemic, but connecting coursework to it. The pandemic is the context of our lives right now, and teaching as if it isn’t can only make classes less relevant to all of us.
  • I will commit to regular synchronous meeting times for all of my classes. Clearly the structure of regular meeting times is important to our undergrads, especially in the slippery times of the coronavirus. But I will continue to accommodate, as professors always do, students who have financial, emotional, health or other challenges during the pandemic by being flexible and fair. By the fall these challenges may have grown exponentially.
  • I will design my assignments in ways that connect students to each other to me and to our shared class. In other words I want to foster the web of connections that a good class can have, not just connections to me as the professor—assigner-of-assignments and grader-of-grades.
  • I will rethink grading. I may need to entirely rework the way that I have thought about grading.
  • I will design assignments that have something at stake in them. To the extent I am able, assignments need to be real and not exercises, unless they are exercises preparing for the real. The worst thing they can be is a laundry list of tasks: hoops to jump though, things to check off of lists or, as a student said yesterday, exercises in transferring things from one media to another.

Basically what I suppose I have learned is that my classes need to be designed so that we are all working together to learn in the pandemic. This was the most important thing this semester taught me and if we are still living in it when classes begin in September, which looks increasingly likely, everyone is going to be exhausted. Getting folks engaged in class will be tough, so I don’t see any way that happens without completely rethinking how they work.

I’m still nervous how this semester’s Visual Anthropology class final project will turn out. I’ll know more in a few days and will be sure to share it sometime next week. Regardless of the quality of the finished project, however, we learned a lot. The process definitely was the important part. While I’d still rather have been meeting in person these past months, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there were innovations this semester that could only have happened in the state-of-emergency we have all found ourselves. Those innovations emerged, however, because the class stayed real.

One comment

  1. Andy Rundquist

    Thanks, David, this really gets my mind swirling with potential ideas for fall. Certainly it jibes with the way I’m looking at my “web app development with google apps script” summer course compared with the normal work done in a programming course.

    In my spring course that just ended we also did a group collaborative project that helped connect my students, but too much of it had students waiting for others to do their part. This waiting made them crabby and I had to find ways to work around it. My synchronous meeting times became team meetings with the various teams, but I wish I had done more whole class gatherings so that everyone would know where things stood.


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