Moving online a bigger shock than COVID-19

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on

I’m a bit ashamed say it, but as an online educator, I’ve been feeling a little smug this week.

I’m not scrambling to convert classes or learn new software, and I’m not worried about the future of higher education as I know it–well, at least not because of  coronavirus pandemic shifts. I’m not faced with high attrition rates because my students don’t know how to use new software, or don’t have data or space in which to use it.

I’m smug because although people I know are still poo-pooing online education as a “real” means of education, these same people are being forced to give it a shot. Ideally, they’d have a much smoother, more welcoming introduction to teaching online, like I did, eight years ago. It would certainly make them bigger proponents of the method. There will a lot of cracks for them and their students to fall through with this instant setup.

But all that aside, instead of basking too much in my “ease” of academic life, I’ve been trying to learn from this disruption. My newsfeeds are full of articles, tips sheets and suggestions.

This article, from Inside Higher Ed offers “practical advice” for temporarily teaching online. There are good points in it, by my favorite, as a seasoned online instructor, are:

Create a class communication plan so students know where to go and what to expect; address questions like:

  • Where to send questions
  • How quickly will you respond to emails; how quickly will you respond to discussion posts
  • How to reach you with any urgent needs or questions
  • What sort of regular communications you will send out to the class (e.g. weekly reviews and/or updates)

I like these points because students need some stability amid this shift, and telling them what they can expect from their instructor is ALWAYS a good policy. It’s even more important online, where they don’t get to connect physically.

Another piece, this one from The Chronicle of Higher Education, points out that

Shock doctrines make emergencies the new normal — they turn temporary exertions into permanent expectations. American higher education has already endured several slow-moving disasters over the past 40 years: the radical defunding of public institutions, the casualization of academic labor, the militarization of campus security, and the erosion of faculty governance. As a result, the very instructors now tasked with the herculean transition are already working in extreme conditions: Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of college and university teaching is performed by non-tenure-track faculty members or by graduate students, many of whom conduct heavy course loads without health insurance and with suppressed wages, housing insecurity, and stifling debt.

In essence, the problem is that instructors are being asked to turn their classes into virtual classes in a split second (compared to how long it takes to truly prep a class), and they are already overburdened. When asked to do this, and then doing it becomes acceptable, what else will universities ask of these folks?

The answer, in part, lies in this third piece, from Rebecca Barrett-Fox. As a writing coach, teacher and researcher, Barrett-Fox seems to have a lot of irons in the fire. We all do, I get it. I just appreciate that she’s not just in academe.

Her points 2, 3 and 14 are the best balancing act I’ve seen thus far:

2. Do not require synchronous work. Students should not need to show up at a specific time for anything. REFUSE to do any synchronous work.

3. Do not record lectures unless you need to. (This is fundamentally different from designing an online course, where recorded information is, I think, really important.) They will be a low priority for students, and they take up a lot of resources on your end and on theirs. You have already built a rapport with them, and they don’t need to hear your voice to remember that.

14. Don’t do too much. Right now, your students don’t need it. They need time to do the other things they need to do.

Barrett-Fox offer practical advice that is geared toward sanely navigating this moment/semester as an instructor, but she’s put some thought into how that will spill over and help students, too.

After all, anyone who teaches, who puts in the hours, the research and the organization–virtually or in-person–does so because it’s something they enjoy, and they want their students to get something out of it too. This is a key thing to remember as universities fret over what this might mean for their bottom lines. Now is not the time to worry about that. Students, staff and faculty should come first.

I’m continuing to learn from my peers as they/we muddle through what it means to teach in 2020, but right now, I’m also feeling extremely lucky that my creative writing students and I can just hang out and do our thing. This week they’re working on scene and setting, and they’ve read “High in Hell,” which does such a great job of bringing the African country Djibouti to life though scene and setting. I’d like to say everyone should read this piece of literary journalism to understand just how lucky we here in the US are, lucky to have tech disruptions and tech and any resources at all.


Each morning this week I’ve peered out the window to see a world pricked white with ice and wrapped in heavy fog. Frozen shards of moisture cover the trees, the buildings, the tractors and everything else in my view. Suspended in air, not-quite-frozen moisture thickens the spaces between things.

It’s beautiful, this tinsel and wrap, but I can tell it is heavy.


Yesterday, I went snowshoeing through the orchard,  following the small confetti trail of rabbit tracks. I often head out into the world randomly, so having this path to follow is a way to stay grounded. This farm does that for me, sometimes; it provides an anchor, a true north. Lately thought, I’ve been questioning this particular compass.


On my way back through the trees, I noticed a few of them had begin to splinter, limbs bending off from body. The weight of all this beauty, the fine, natural form of all those wet molecules has become too much for them after a week — or a lifetime of such weeks. This splitting open of wood and membrane is beautiful in its own way, but painful to observe. This kind of split grows with weight and time and pressure, and soon the limb will pull from the trunk, be torn in two.


Life on the farm, for its beauties and wonders, is heavy this time of year. The rabbits are slow and skinny; sometimes ripped apart by predators more assertive than them.

There are apple trees standing dead and brown from last year’s hard winter. The whole world seems to reflect a frozen pond reality of earthy and sky, high and low, beauty and horror.


I’ve been thinking about separation a lot lately, and what it means to be close, to share a bond. Two years ago I grafted some of the trees in our nursery with my partner. After a second winter, many are dead. The graft was too weak, or the force of nature too strong. In some cases, the root stock lived, firmly planted in its new home. All grafts have this potential; all transfers run the risk of not taking to their new home.


Trampling through the snow,  through powder and across drifts hard with midnight cold, I am a my own world of paradox. I am molecules and atoms swirling in a void of separation and disconnect. And I sometimes want to pull apart, freely, away from this center of gravity and drift on. This is as natural as existence, as harsh and beautiful and cold.

The creative process

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is sitting down to do the work. These days, it seems like I need a reason to write, a reason that goes beyond just scribbling some ideas to play around with. I think this is because having a kid and a farm and a husband means my time for just “playing around” with words feels harder to come by and maybe more selfish than it used to.

But I can get going if I have a reason to write and a deadline. And this month, because South Dakota Poet Laureate Christine Stewart has put forth a call for submissions for a new collection of poetry, I have both.

Stewart’s anthology seeks to highlight life in South Dakota, and I’ve decided to cobble together three poems prior to the March 1 deadline. I’m hoping to highlight life in what South Dakotans call West River, or the area of the state that’s west of the Missouri River. I grew up just south of the South Dakota border out in West River, spent a lot of time fishing on the Missouri River around Pierre, and then moved to Sioux Falls for college. So although I know both ends of the state, and I love Sioux Falls, I’m working on material that highlights the quieter side of the state.

Notes, and a rough poem

I’ve been playing around with some ideas in a Word doc, and others in a notebook. The handwritten stuff is better and more focused. But I’m leading a workshop in revision in a couple of weeks, so today I’m also thinking about what it means to be able to write and revise and save a record of it.  Below, a record of my ideas:

There’s lots going on there. Ideas from an essay I wrote in grad school about dust, and how it differs in rural areas and the city; a quote about rain and maybe physics; the idea that we return to dust; a jotting of words and images. I like this idea of returning to dust not just because its something many are familiar with but because I’ve come back to the country, from the city. I’ve returned to the dust…and if you’ve ever been in my house you know I mean this in a real way.

Despite the vision and the ideas that are sort of swirling around here, I haven’t quite figured out what I want to say in the poem I’m trying to put together. Usually my poetry is driven by social justice issues, and writing about the dust isn’t that.

So for now, I put the idea away. I’ll come back to it tomorrow or the next day, or both. I’ve got that deadline, after all, and now that I’ve adopted it, I’ll have to come up with something.