Adapting to Disaster, Episode 2: Teaching in Transition (Guest Post by Dr. Aisha Ahmad)

Dr. Aisha Ahmad is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, the Director of the Islam and Global Affairs Initiative at the Munk School, and the Chair of the Board of the Women in International Security-Canada. Her book, Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power, was awarded the 2017 Edgar Furniss Book Award and the 2018 Best Book in Comparative Politics Award by the Canadian Political Science Association. She is also the 2018 winner of the distinguished Northrop Frye Award of Excellence for outstanding undergraduate teaching at the University of Toronto.

By Aisha Ahmad

Last week, I outlined the core security issues that everyone should prioritize in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Establishing this basic security infrastructure is the essential prerequisite to adapting to life under sustained disaster conditions. Every week, I will refer back to these foundations, before moving into substantive discussions of academic productivity under disaster conditions. If at any point you find that your basic security metrics are faltering, take a day off and reinforce them before returning to your scholarly work. 

Now, as the Spring semester comes to an end, it is most urgent to address the problem of teaching and learning under rapidly evolving disaster conditions. I am currently on research leave, and so I have a great deal of empathy for my colleagues who are trying to salvage their courses right now. That said, I would like to offer some observations about teaching and learning in a disaster, both as someone who has been a student while dealing with extreme system-wide crises, and also as a professor who has won multiple distinguished teaching awards. The first section is for professors who are trying to deliver courses and hold exams remotely. The second section is for students who are struggling to finish their coursework under extreme duress.

Counsel for Faculty

If you are a professor, I will be very candid here about your ethical duties. To be clear, your duty at this time is to minimize harm to your students. For the majority of your students, your assignments and exams are NOT a welcome distraction from this global pandemic. They are a source of added stress and hardship, which may also be undermining their ability to prioritize the wellbeing and safety of their families. The ethical and responsible way to proceed is to dramatically reduce, simplify, and eliminate your students’ workload at this critical juncture.

While many instructors have tried to transition their classes into a fancy online course, the results have been underwhelming. Unsurprisingly, most students have not seamlessly transitioned to online classes, and many are not even showing up. These students are rightly preoccupied with serious security and financial concerns, as well as primary care responsibilities. It is irresponsible to expect your students to prioritize your course at this time.

Reframe your teaching approach to meet the needs of students under acute pressure. Don’t ask your students if they “feel” like doing to your assignment, and don’t make assignments “optional”. Just take control and flush as much of their burden as humanly possible. It is ridiculous to design a teaching approach that works for the most privileged, and then go back and make exceptions for the less privileged. Just cut, cut, cut. Get everyone to the other side of your course with minimal work and maximum generosity. 

Forget your ideas about grade fairness right now. If a couple of lazy students are waved through in the middle of a global pandemic, who cares. Now is not the time. Unless you teach teeny tiny courses and know everyone personally, you simply do not have enough situational awareness to protect and accommodate your students. If you must, bend every rule within your administration to get all of your students through. They will appreciate it, and you will have more time to learn how to teach a proper, professional online course in the fall semester. Yes, start preparing for the possibility that you will be teaching online in the fall semester.

Counsel for Students

If you are a student and your professor is doing anything other than making your life easier right now, then I am truly sorry. That said, it is entirely possible to manage these high stress conditions. I can say from experience that it is possible to complete coursework amid extreme crises, and under the tutelage of privileged, oblivious people. To start, if there is a formal accommodations option and you need it, request it immediately. Also check to see if there is a new pass/fail option, and evaluate if that is the right choice for you. Now, if you have an outstanding project, aim for completion rather than perfection. In my classes, a non-submission is graded as a zero, but a failed submission is a 48%. That means that if someone submits a steaming pile of horse dung as an essay, I’ll still award 48 points out of 100. Check to see how your professors or TAs are handling this, and then make a strategic choice. 

If you have been absolutely forced to complete an assignment and your pandemic-stressed brain is simply not cooperating, I have learned some ways to push my brain through acute trauma and stay afloat. I have found an “intervals technique” to be particularly useful in periods of extreme stress, loss, and grief. With this method, I push hard to write for 10 minutes, and then give myself 5 minutes off for my anger, sadness, and distraction. Then I forcibly put those feelings aside for another 10 minutes and push into the next cycle. If you can skip your 5-minute break, dive back for another 10 minutes, with the promise of a break as your reward for the extra push. For me, this works like revving an engine. I then worked my way up to 20, 30, and 40 minutes on, and 5 minutes off. Once I hit a 40-minute cycle, I am pretty close to normal levels of productivity, but my outputs are not quite as magical as they are during peacetime. I will be honest and say that this felt a bit sickening, but it did get me through under conditions of duress. For a crisis, it’s good enough.

No one should have to do this. However, the world can be cruel and this approach has kept me afloat when my suffering was invisible. If this works for you, great. If not, set it aside and try when you are able. And if you are a professor and reading this, you have the power to prevent anyone from having to resort to this awful, last resort technique. Stop it immediately and flush your assignments.

Final Thoughts

This week’s episode focused exclusively on teaching because students are under immediate pressure to complete courses. For the professors, I sincerely hope that this episode encourages you to reduce, simplify, and eliminate your coursework, so that your students can focus on their immediate security and survival. Just flush it. If you are a student, I hope that you at least know that you are not alone, and that you can stay afloat, even in a crisis situation.

Next week, I will shift to research and present some general principles and practical strategies that can help academics prioritize tasks and maintain scholarly productivity under disaster conditions. I’ll share concrete techniques that I’ve developed from other disaster conditions, which I have found to be beneficial in this time of pandemic. But before we indulge ourselves in research, it is essential that we first save our students.

Looking ahead, I am happy to address other practical issues associated with working under sustained disaster conditions, such as managing workspaces and scheduling projects. However, if there are specific issues that students or faculty would like to discuss, I am happy to share my thoughts, and also listen to others who have their own experiences of and strategies for managing disasters. We must all find our own way in this new world, but we will fare better if we share our strength with each other. Stay safe and hold fast to your hope.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


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