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Slouching toward HyFlex

In my part of the Coronavirus world, one of the biggest questions is how we are going to teach in the fall. Our Chancellor has assured us that we will have a fall semester. But what that semester is going to look like is still being hashed out by various committees. The ambiguity is not just hard on students but on faculty who teach (faculty research is already a mess but that’s a whole ‘nother post). We know we’re not going to be teaching Fall 2020 the way we started Spring 2020, but we also know that we have to be more prepared and put together more coherent instruction than most of us managed in the week and a half we had to pivot to emergency remote learning.

The Cal State system just announced that it would be fully online in the fall. But most colleges and universities, especially elite residential institutions, fear losing a substantial number of their fee-paying students if they do the same. The on-campus experience is a major part of the attraction they charge such high prices for, and the comprehensive undergraduate and professional experience depends on face-to-face interaction. This interaction is not just about classroom- and lab-based learning, but all kinds of extra-curricular and extended learning activities, from clubs to internships to clinical placements. And, though no one really wants to talk about it, housing and fees are lucrative for most institutions now. If it turns out that the health situation makes bringing students back to campus too risky, then we’ll have to go fully online. But as of now the administration is looking for ways to have something resembling campus life.

We have been told what is not happening. We are unlikely to begin earlier than usual; we aren’t going to shift to block scheduling; and the overall duration of the semesters is going to remain close to the same. What’s left is starting at the same time or later, but if it’s later then we’re essentially time-shifting and that’s it in terms of the schedule. I wondered about this, but then I realized that it would be very difficult to reschedule all the classes. You’d essentially have to make up the new timetable with course times and days, go back to the departments and have them reschedule all of their classes, then have the registrar assign classrooms on this new basis, and then run student registration all over again. It’s possible but becomes increasingly more difficult the larger your student enrollment is.

What will teaching look like (everything else is above my pay grade, thankfully)? Students and instructors in classrooms will have to practice social distancing, which means the number of students per room has to shrink considerably. Small seminars have to be moved into bigger rooms, medium-sized lectures into larger lecture halls (of which we only have a few), and so on. It’s probably not logistically possible to have everyone physically in class even if they’re in residence.

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Weeknote 9

Grading is done! Well, except for one laggard case and I’ll have that in later today. I still have commencement and a couple of reports to go, but then the semester will really be over. I’ll believe it when I see it, though, given everything.

We had not one, not two, but three Zoom Happy Hours this past week. It was a lot of fun to catch up with people. Two of the meetings are semi-regular and the other is one we promised each other we’d do again.

WORK

The university is having a series of events to substitute for commencement, and our department is of course participating. We are in the process of putting together the real-time session and accompanying materials. I am glad we’re doing something, but I am the worst at Big Events (I avoid them as much as possible) so it’s a mixed bag for me. I know it’s a good thing but I hate the process! But it will be over soon.

I have two undergraduate students who want to work with me on research projects this summer. The drying up of internships and the general inability to find ways to fill their summer productively has made them even more interested in working with faculty than they usually are.

I also plan to sit down and map out the next few weeks workwise. I know I need a bit of a break but I also need to make sure I don’t just sit around and do nothing, or the equivalent of nothing.

Like everyone else in academics, I’ve been thinking a lot about what teaching is going to look like in the fall. I’ve seen lots of advice from people who teach online regularly, and some of it is really helpful. But some of it is not applicable. What residential colleges and universities have to do (and all face-to-face institutions to some extent) is devise a way to integrate the online or non-physical instruction with the pedagogical goals we have to retain. A lot of online instruction assumes that students are operating as discrete, atomized learners, whereas traditional residential instruction is predicated not just on teacher-student interaction, but interactions among students. At least that’s the case in my classes. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the curriculum. Labs are different from seminars are different from lecture/discussion-section hybrids. And we still have to tackle the residential part of this.

There are a bunch of different options out there, from locked down, shorter but more intense semesters to two half-semesters to starting later. I know our committees are discussing all of these. Some schools have decided already. Those of us who are teaching in the fall can’t really plan our courses until we know what the overall format is going to be. So it will be interesting to see what the outcomes and recommendations of our various committees are.

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Reading Notes: Genre edition

I read a bunch of books! I’m not sure how I managed that, since I’ve been grading and DUS-ing. But I discovered I’d finished three books in about a week: two mysteries and a romance/WF.

First up was The Janus Stone, the second installment in the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. Ruth and Nelson go to Norwich, where bones have been discovered in the foundation of a large Victorian house that was most recently a children’s home. The property is now being turned into tiny but luxurious and expensive flats. The novel is set shortly after the previous one, and Ruth is experiencing the joys of first-trimester pregnancy, complete with morning sickness. Her born-again Christian parents are very upset that she is pregnant and refuses to name the father. At first she can hide her pregnancy but as the story progresses and time elapses that becomes more difficult.

I had mixed feelings about the pregnancy storyline at the end of the last book, but it is a good way of keeping Ruth and Nelson connected without turning them into an insta-couple. Nelson loves his wife and has no intention of breaking up his family, and Ruth doesn’t want him to. Nelson’s wife Michelle is an appealing character, and I’m not sure how this triangle is going to be resolved (by which I mean, Michelle is going to have to know at some point and what’s that going to do to their marriage and family?) but so far Griffiths has written it in a way that earns my trust.

As for the mystery itself, the bones turn out to be that of a child from decades ago rather than centuries. Are they those of the little girl who vanished from the home, or are they someone else’s? The story widens to include the former priest and nuns who ran the home, the past owners of the house, and others. Cathbad returns, and Ruth is in jeopardy once again. I didn’t see many of the twists although by the end the villain was fairly obvious. It took a while, though. And the Norfolk countryside was as well portrayed as before.

Next up was Death in Devon, the second installment of Ian Sansom’s County Guides mysteries. These are only nominally mysteries and mostly about Morley, Sefton, Miriam, and the people they encounter as they travel around England for Morley’s project. I found Miriam just as annoying as in the first book and unfortunately she’s around more, but Morley is definitely growing on me. The story is set at a minor public boys’ school in Devon, where Morley’s old friend is headmaster and has asked him to come and give a keynote address. A smashed car is found on the beach below the cliffs and solving this mystery (suicide or not) leads them to other weird happenings. There are plenty of characters and at times there is an air of real menace. And there are caves.

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Weeknote 8

It’s time to stop titling posts LFH and go back to writing Weeknotes. Living from home is what I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future, so I may as well accept it. Parts of my state, including neighboring counties, are opening up this week. This does not make me happy but at least as of now STL city and county are continuing their stay-at-home orders until mid-May.

WORK

Last week was reading period and the beginning of finals week, or what used to be finals week. I gave both classes until this week to turn in all their post-spring-break writing assignments, so I’m watching them trickle in as the deadline approaches. I have some work to do but it’s not too bad, thanks to my teaching assistants. Which is good, because the undergrad admin stuff has ramped up again. We are doing a virtual commencement ceremony for our majors, which requires coordination and coming up with something Zoom-focused. Nothing is going to replace the usual ceremonies, and students have said as much. But not doing anything is worse than doing something that we all agree isn’t what we wanted. I’m emailing with my counterparts in other departments to try and figure out what will work and what makes sense. I’ll keep you posted.

I have three pieces out for review. Who knows when they will come back from the editors. But we’ve done our part. On to the next paper on the list.

READING/WATCHING/LISTENING

It was such a pleasure to write a blog post on reading, because it signified that I’d done enough to warrant a post! TheH and I had a chat about Angela Thirkell over dinner. It occurred to me that since Thirkell published a book a year about everyday village life, the books she wrote during the war might have a special resonance for us right now. So much of what is written about past events is retrospective. The best novels integrate the past and the present (Swift’s Journal of the Plague Year draws on both the actual plague and the contemporaneous fears about a cholera epidemic, for example). But works that chronicle what is happening at the moment are rarer. TheH has never read Thirkell but enjoys midcentury UK fiction, so I’ve suggested some places to start (her oeuvre is large) and I’m going to reread some of the war years books with a new lens.

We’ve continued watching Vera and Maigret, but we’ve also been seeking out feel-good movies. To that end we watched The First Wives Club this past weekend. It is a total Hollywood vehicle and it doesn’t have a great IMDB rating, but we hadn’t seen it for a while and got a kick out of it. Part of the fun was watching extremely talented people deliver a highly competent, polished product. And it has three middle-aged women at its center, women who achieve their goals. How often does that happen? Yes it’s Hollywood schlock, but it’s extremely well executed schlock. Not just the star turns but the supporting roles are well done, as are the set decoration, the costumes, and the cinematography. And it’s still true, more than two decades later, that as Goldie Hawn proclaims, ”There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy.” No wonder I like revenge comedies.

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Reading Notes

I know, I can’t believe it either. It’s not a virus post! But as we talked about last post, the days are merging into weeks and I’m managing to read a bit, so let’s talk about that for a change.

I finished The Fellowship of the Ring, which I enjoyed immensely even though I kept seeing the movie actors instead of my own imagined characters. This was fine in some cases (Viggo as Aragorn, Ian McKellen as Gandalf) and not so fine in others (I’ve had enough Sean Astin as Sam to last me several trilogies, and ditto for Elijah Wood as Frodo). But that’s a small complaint. Finally I get to see why TheH always remembers and references Tom Bombadil and I can join him in lamenting Tom’s absence from the films. So far, I find the film’s changes to the books to be not horrible and even understandable, and I’m usually a curmudgeon when it comes to adaptations. Overall I prefer the book characters to the movie characters; they’re less pretty, more complex, and in the case of Merry and Pippin, less ditzy-annoying. But I can understand the changes and they’re not nearly as bad as they could have been.

fellowship 2011 cover

I’ve also been struck by the extent to which the film tracks with the books scenes and language. There are so many verbatim sections of dialogue and Jackson and his team did an amazing job of recreating some of the physical settings. New Zealand feels (and is) much bigger than Tolkien’s world, but it’s like looking at New England mountains and valleys and then the Rockies; they’re different in scale but somehow still part of the same continent.

But what about the book, you’re probably asking? What about my actual read of the actual novel? It was great. Just what I needed. In fact, it was so much more satisfying than I expected it to be. Maybe that’s why it’s a classic and beloved by millions? Heh. But yeah, I was totally swept up into it. I really appreciated that even in this, the more adult story (compared to The Hobbit), the violence is present but the worst bits are played down or fully off-page. It makes me realize how much of the films were devoted to grisly scenes, which when you read the source material you can see were pretty unnecessary from a storytelling point of view. Tolkien’s approach is a reminder that graphic and explicit aren’t necessary to communicate emotional and intellectual material.

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