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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Field Notes Vol. 1, no. 6: A few thoughts as the semester comes to a close

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Oh my: the last few months have been quite something, haven’t they? It’s hard for me to believe that the last edition of these Field Notes that I published was back in February! But of course, there have been one or two things going on…

I’ve been thinking a lot about entrepreneurial principles in the midst of this pandemic, about what it means to pivot, adapt to rapid change, maintain empathy, and spot opportunities. I’ll be writing about those in the coming days and weeks, but for now I just wanted to share a few things that I’ve learned over the past two months.

1. When forced to, we can accomplish things we thought were impossible

I’ve never considered myself to be very tech-savvy. I’m not a luddite, but I learn only as much about a piece of technology as I need to minimally operate it. I learn what I need to know and nothing more. As such, transitioning to online learning was something I not only resisted on pedagogical grounds (more on this below), but also because I was unfamiliar with the technology – and therefore leery of it.

Then suddenly circumstances kicked us into the deep end of the remote learning swimming pool. In the space of a few days campus directives progressed from “Be prepared to be fully remote by April 1,” to “Be prepared to be fully remote by Spring Break,” to, finally, on Friday March 13 (of all days), “Be prepared to be fully remote by Monday.” We didn’t have time to do any background research, launch a beta version first, or proceed at a comfortable pace. We had to go all-in, right away – and it was all of us doing it at the same time, to boot!

The only saving grace to this timeline was the fact that March 16-20 was the last week before Spring Break. I emailed my class, asked them to submit their next assignment on the 19th as planned, and told them we’d reconvene after the Break. There was simply no way I was anywhere near ready to continue classes with a weekend’s notice. It was probably just as well that our planned Spring Break in Cancún was cancelled, because I needed that week to gather my wits!

This was where we were supposed to go for Spring Break, so I made this my Zoom background

The question of how to handle the rest of the semester wasn’t just one of technology, of course. There were major pedagogical questions surrounding the best way to deliver the remaining content of the course entirely online. Should we have “live” classes (“synchronous”) or pre-made lectures students can view at a time of their choosing (“a-synchronous”)? Was there more than one answer to that question, depending on the content of a given class, and if so, which one was best for a given topic? How should I handle the two outside guests scheduled to present to the class? There are experts in the field of online education, research on best practices for delivering content, giving feedback, and fostering community online. I’d never explored any of it, because I didn’t think I’d ever have to. And suddenly me and all my colleagues were needing to be an expert in a field for which most of us possessed little or no expertise.

And lastly, there was the issue of how to find the right balance between proceeding with as much normalcy as possible on the one hand, and recognizing the fact that there is nothing normal about the situation. Students and faculty alike were extremely stressed. Students had been abruptly sent home – sometimes to less-than-ideal circumstances with parents and/or siblings. Uncertainty about the future added to the anxiety: summer festivals had shuttered, job opportunities had evaporated, concerts and degree recitals cancelled. And for those of us on the faculty, anxiety for our students and for the future of our school added its own set of stresses. Given all that, was it appropriate to retain the same expectations of our students that we had when the course began? Was it humane? Psychologists report that when we are in situations of extreme stress and disruption, our brain goes into preservation mode. If the stress is extreme enough, learning in the sense that we want to accomplish in a school setting may not even be possible.

Thank goodness I had Spring Break to mull all of this over. I’ll talk a little more about my decisions below, but for this first point I just want to say: As stressful and challenging as it was, I managed to get it done. And so did my colleagues. We did it with grit and determination driven by love for our students and commitment to our mission. And we did it in an environment of mutual support and encouragement. Crises have a way to doing that. Each of us somehow managed to plow through all our uncertainties and anxiety and not let down our students. For me I put myself in the shoes of my students and asked, “If I were them, what would I want from my professor right now?” And then I tried my best to live up that.

It was the most challenging experience of my career as a college professor – and I can’t tell you how glad I am that it’s over! But it’s a great illustration of how the worst of times can bring out the best in ourselves and our communities. Worth remembering in times of such division and strife.

2. Remote teaching isn’t the evil I thought it was

For as long as “online learning” has been around, I’ve been a skeptic. How can you replicate the experience of being in a classroom, with everyone all together? How can you ‘read the room’ the same way (especially those students you might need to keep a caring eye on)? How can you create a sense of community, of shared experience and belonging? It’s simply impossible, I told myself.

But this whole situation has forced me to re-examine my assumptions. And in so doing I discovered two things. The first is that my resistance to online learning wasn’t solely about the concerns voiced above; it also was grounded in the fact that I’m very good in a traditional classroom setting (at least I’d like to think I am); one my chief joys in life is going into the classroom and delivering a great experience for my students. So changing my mode of approach was scary: what if I’m suddenly not as good? What if I don’t like it as much? What if students don’t respond as they do in real life? (And I had it relatively easy in this regard: my studio and ensemble colleagues faced much more fundamental and disruptive changes as they moved to online teaching of music lessons and ensembles became impossible.) Fear of loss is a powerful force when it stares us in the face, and it felt threatening to be forced to change something that I would otherwise never wish to replace.

A shot from my Keynote Address to the Center for Teaching & Learning conference in January.

The other thing I discovered was that my effectiveness as a teacher has less to do with the mode of delivery and more to do with the care I bring to both the material and my students. As long as I’m engaged with them and with the content we’re exploring together, then I will find a way for that to be a positive and rewarding experience – for my students and for me.

In the end I even found some things that were better! One was how break-out groups work. Previously, when I broke the class up into groups of 3 or 4 to give each other feedback or work a problem, everyone was talking at the same time: the room would get VERY noisy. That’s not always conducive to nuanced conversation. But with Zoom I could put each group into their own private “breakout room,” and I could pop into each one as we go along, answer questions, and get a much more accurate read on what was going on. It worked beautifully; far better, in fact.

The other very cool thing was during my full-class sessions. Students can use a “raise hand” function to signal to me that they have a question, but they can also post questions or comments in a group chat window. When they chose the latter, other students would often chime in with their own answers: suddenly, students were teaching each other in a way that would never happen during a traditional class format. This was incredibly exciting and completely unexpected. I began to see that, as with all things, there are pros and cons to this platform – and that the key was using the platform to its advantages instead of fighting against its disadvantages. As is often said in entrepreneurial circles, “Turn the bug into a feature.”

3. We can – and should – be vulnerable with our students

One of the things that also occupied my thinking over Spring Break is what I wanted to model for my students. Perseverance? Calm and stability? Hope and optimism? It might seem at first glance that these were no-brainers. But I quickly realized that I had to reconcile those things with my own personal anxiety, uncertainty, lack of motivation and difficulty focusing. How could I pretend I wasn’t feeling any of those things? I had to ask myself if forging ahead as if I’ve been untouched by all this was actually a healthy thing to model? I came to realize that just as I needed to give myself permission to be “not alright,” I needed to give that same permission to my students. And so I decided to be honest with them. I shared with them my own concerns. I empathized when they shared their fears and struggles. I revealed that I have struggled with my own mental health issues, and that if they were having any of their own they could trust me to listen. I was vulnerable and authentic. What resulted was a kind of bonding with the class as a whole: we were all in this boat together, we were all here to help and support each other as best we could, and that we have a collective care for each other’s well-being. It really was quite an extraordinary – and beautiful – thing. I’m glad I risked opening up to them, and I think they were glad, too.

This pandemic has been unlike anything any of us have ever experienced. As I’m sure many of you have experienced, there are days when hope and motivation are in extremely short supply. Time seems to have slowed down to a remarkable extent (I was convinced that March was simply never going to end). And there remains a lot of struggle and hardship to face, along with very large existential issues – especially for those of us in the performing arts. How are we to move forward? Will large, in-person gatherings ever be the same? And in the near-term, how are we as music educators to serve our mission when so much of it relies on the group experience of ensembles of all types and shapes (not to mention the gathering of audiences)? Big questions, and right now there are few answers. But if these last few months have taught me anything, it’s that human beings are resourceful, inventive, and that we all have a deep capacity to care and work together. As we face the coming challenges, I hope we never forget that.

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