Blog Post

Both a Grad Student and Instructor: Advocating for Compassionate Teaching During a Global Health Pandemic

Succulent, macbook, pile of Latinx studies books

The Spring 2020 semester is over and now it's time to to reflect on what teaching during this seemingly apocalyptic semester meant to me. For many teachers and instructors, Covid-19 transformed how we interacted with our students and approached our pedagogical methods because we could no longer see or engage with our students in person and could not assume students had access to remote learning. Some may say they continued their syllabus and teachings online using a webcam, and for them the virus did not force them to revise their approach, expectations, assignments, or commitments. Once school closures were enforced and remote teaching became the standard for what remained of the spring semester, I practiced an approach founded on compassion and asked myself: what do my students need right now and how can I help them get it?

Let me start by saying that at the time of the onset of the coronavirus and the panic that followed, I was a doctoral candidate at The Graduate School–Newark at Rutgers University where I was also an instructor. For me, I was a student first and a teacher second. Maybe, this is why I was able to reflexively frame my class to center students’ needs. I was also a student and desired empathy, compassion, and understanding from my advisors. I was raised in Newark, a predominantly Black and Latino city with an extremely high rate of Coronavirus cases. My dissertation committee didn’t expect me to adhere to standards and deadlines established earlier that Spring because those deadlines were set when we were living in normal times. None of this was normal anymore. Covid-19 upended the lives of many — and we know folks most disenfranchised and oppressed in our society were the most vulnerable and affected. Because Rutgers—–Newark is one of the most diverse universities in the nation, I know that many of my students were coming from families that depended on them for labor at home including childcare, meal preparation, and financial support. With a backdrop of systemic poverty in the city of Newark (Rutgers–Newark is committed to serving Greater Newark communities) I knew that I could no longer expect my students to commit to readings, assignments, and examinations assigned in January now that they have other commitments far larger than my class.[i] In response, I cancelled the final examination, reduced assigned readings, and posted teaching slides online while also making myself available for one-on-one advising via email, phone, and video calls every day. 

While many students did not call me, the ones that did expressed panic and anxiety about performing well academically and holding themselves to rigorous academic standards. Some students were balancing new tasks at home while sharing computers without reliable internet access or completing assignments on their phones. As I tried to mitigate individual student’s problems, many thanked me for being the “only professor who is understanding” and “really trying to help them succeed” – others expressed this to me in their course evaluations at the end of the semester. On a national scale, students were facing housing and food insecurity, lack of resources, like internet and technology, and stress that prevented them from performing their best this semester.[ii] Because of this, it was important for me to shift to asynchronous learning and forego any expectation that students would be available at a time agreed upon in January twice a week. To achieve this, I posted slides and assigned texts on Blackboard and also sent them via email for students who were accessing via mobile devices. Moreover, I developed a creative project (below) that allowed students to showcase what they learned in my “Intro to Latinx Studies Course” by creating a digital space to explore and showcase their intellectual work in artistic ways. The goal was for students to produce a social media account (which could be done using mobile devices and at any time of the day) that answered their research question. For instance, some students posed “How can Latinos challenge racism?” and “Are Puerto Ricans Free?” This project enabled students to be the agents in “what” and “how” they utilized a digital activist framework to showcase their research in a project that asked them to inform their public on an issue. A few of my students expressed their intention in continuing their accounts even after the semester was over because they were genuinely interested in continuing addressing issues and concerns in their communities. 

Furthermore, I advocate for an emergency transition to asynchronous learning because, I believe the synchronous teaching via webcam is a violation of the private space of students and their families. In an emergency, we must practice compassion, including divesting from the expectation that every student has a dedicated workspace at home and to be diligently present for classes that meet multiple times a week. I wanted my class to not be another source of worry or anxiety at a time when an ordinary supermarket run could now last hours with lines and additional safety measures. I, too, was in those lines and making sure my family was was safe and had what they needed. I needed a break. My students needed a break. Throughout these tough weeks, I asked myself “what do my students need right now” because I, too, was a student.[iii]

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My “Intro to Latinx Studies Digital Project” Assignment:

The goal of this research project is for you to have fun expanding your knowledge on a given theme from the semester as it pertains to Latino/a/x Studies. For example, you can choose one of the themes from the subheadings of the syllabus, including culture, latinidad, borders, borderlands etc. The goal in this project is to explore an idea and how writers, artists, theorists, musicians have discussed this idea or event (like Hurricane Maria or the current border crisis). There are two elements to this project: the project itself and a response paper. This project is meant to be fun and creative but must be well-researched and organized. Both the presentation and response paper must be submitted on Blackboard by the due date in one document.

Requirements:

  • The digital project: website or social media account
  • Response Paper: 2 pages, 12-point font, double spaced
  • Works Cited Page: 1 page, minimum 7-10 sources (including 4 sources from the course)

The project: 20 points

Given the online-only format of the semester, your goal is to create a website, including pictures, relevant information, clippings, audio etc. that will instruct a passerby on your given theme or idea. You can create either an Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Wordpress, or another website and creatively explore your topic. Remember this is research based, so you must have a ‘guiding question’ for your digital project – what do you seek to answer or inform your public about? Think about the platform you are using, and which methods are best to communicate your ideas and information. Be unique and creative.

The Response Paper: 10 points

In two pages you will provide context, summary, and analysis of your project. In your project there is not much space for you to explain how your focus relates to your research or what you learned. The purpose of this paper is for you to further explain and contextualize the book and the main idea you chose to focus on. Here, you can clear up any loose ends and provide a comprehensive explanation of your entire project. You must include your guiding question or motivation in this paper and how you attempted to answer it along with the website link. Your bibliography must be attached to the response paper. Remember this paper is short, so you must be concise and clear.

 

Dr. Keishla Rivera-Lopez is an assistant professor of English and Latinx Literatures and Cultures in The Department of English at Millersville University. She is also a poet, essayist, and fiction writer from Newark, NJ. For more updates: keishlariveralopez.com; Twitter: @ohh_kei 

 

[i] For more information on Rutgers–Newark’s commitment to partnerships with the Greater Newark community, visit here: https://oucp.newark.rutgers.edu/about-oucp/our-mission/

[ii] This is also a crisis for students in primary and secondary education as seen in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/coronavirus-schools-attendance-absent.html

[iii] Some articles showcased how race and class disparities were exposed during the Coronavirus outbreak: 

“‘I Can’t Find Them’: Pandemic Creates a New Barriers to School Attendance in Newark”

https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/04/i-cant-find-them-coronavirus-creates-new-barriers-to-school-attendance-in-newark/

“Coronavirus Impact on Students and Education Systems”

https://naacp.org/coronavirus/coronavirus-impact-on-students-and-education-systems/

“Distance Learning During Coronavirus Worsens Race, Class Inequality in Education”

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/distance-learning-low-income-students?fbclid=IwAR00QdXX85LKpJlfV8gTIDEMxmanRS48biH6Ky_COWe1ACdPe1DGRcvFFj4

“College Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are”

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/04/us/politics/coronavirus-zoom-college-classes.html

“The Disparities in Remote Learning Under Coronavirus (In Charts)” https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/10/the-disparities-in-remote-learning-under-coronavirus.html

 

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