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Commentary - The Best Laid Plans

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

The onset of a new semester generally greets me with a combination of excitement and dread.  This semester however, has been a bit different, in that despite my decades of teaching and my dutiful mastery of online instruction, I find myself in full on panic mode.  And while the adrenalin that courses through my veins is a welcome relief from the chronic anxiety that has not relinquished its hold over me since March, I remind myself that I know how to teach and my students know how to learn, despite all of the obstacles that 2020 may throw our way. 

As my girls enter their third week as college freshmen, albeit remotely from their bedrooms, I am reminded of my freshman English class at Denison University with the late Dr. Dominick Consolo.  He was John Keating, before Robin Williams brought the role to life in The Dead Poets Society. Dr. Consolo introduced me to the to the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who in 1785 wrote about the uncertainty of life in his poem To a Mouse. The most famous stanza seems especially relevant now for both teachers and students. 

“…you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew…”

Robert Burns asks us to show compassion and reflect on the unpredictability and pain of life.  When I think about how this translates to teaching, there are three lessons that I think are worth mentioning. 

Lesson #1 – Be present  I am notoriously bad at being patient and listening.  Just ask my husband.  I find this difficult in person and even more challenging in an online environment.  Thus, I have a miniature sand hourglass on my desk to remind me to be mindful and wait for students to contribute to class.  As in the physical classroom, not everyone is comfortable contributing verbally.  So, I have given students lots of different options – synchronous and asynchronous lessons, discussion boards, and a standing offer to help whenever they need it.  My hope is that students will find the modality that works best for them and run with it. 

Lesson #2 – Learn to adapt  While I would love to have all of my students have their web cams on during class, I don’t require it.  I know that not everyone has a space they feel comfortable sharing with others.  The physical classroom is a neutral space,  but online learning can heighten the disparities our students already face.  Some don’t have a quiet space to learn from and have to access the internet from hotspots wherever they can find them – like parking lots of fast food restaurants. 

Rather than potentially causing harm, I applaud them for their adaptability and ingenuity.  Anthropology is, after all the study of biological and cultural adaptation over time.  Biology and culture seem particularly relevant to me while teaching in the time of a global pandemic.  At first, I thought I would meet with my intro students synchronously online every week for the exact same time that I would have had them in the physical classroom.  But after sitting in front of my computer for 75 minutes straight, the thought of doing so multiple times a day hurt not only my back, but my brain.  Human bodies are meant to move, and forcing people, regardless of age to sit for too long is bad for us.  So, I adapted my teaching strategy.  I plan on checking in with my students throughout the semester to what is and isn’t working. 

Lesson #3 – Practice Compassion  Most teachers I know have spent countless, unpaid hours over the summer researching and planning the best ways in which to engage their students this fall.  We’ve read up on the latest trends, attended webinars, and spent our own money on equipment and software that our institutions can’t afford  — and you know what?  As some point it will be useless.  Take the first week of classes for example, when there was an almost nationwide outage of Zoom, a platform adopted by many institutions of higher education.  Or the when the internet went down the first day of online day of classes for the Macomb School District.  There are so many variables that are out of our control.  Despite the best laid plans, uncertainty is something that we have to accept as given. 

When I remember my favorite teachers, I realize that they taught me more than poetry, or anthropology, or farming systems, or 6th grade math.  Through their love of teaching and their compassion, they taught me how to make the most out of life. 

To all you teachers and students out there, “Carpe, carpe.  Carpe diem.  Seize the day...  Make your lives extraordinary.” 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.