Back to Class, But Not Back to Normal

Even though I had a relatively “easy” pandemic, my body is feeling the effects of the past year. While I stayed intentional about exercise, I also found myself sitting far more than I did in my pre-pandemic life, when I might have stood and paced about a classroom, walked across campus for a meeting, or even stood at my desk. While I fashioned a standing desk in my home office, I quickly discovered that it didn’t work well for Zoom teaching, which required me to stay put a little more than I like to while standing.

So I sat. And that sitting has taken a toll, and my right hip, especially, requires attention. Daily home PT and a monthly massage are now on my required maintenance schedule (and, yes, I am over 60, thanks for asking!).

But as I was on the massage table the other day, I realized that therapeutic massage is a good metaphor for the kind of pedagogy we may need to practice on our return. Because—much as some of us might wish it[1]—this will not be a return to normal. We will all have sore spots. Some will have injuries, both visible and hidden. And attending to one spot may trigger an unexpected response in another, just as sometimes my massage therapist simply holds my head and my shoulders and even hips respond.

Some painful areas will require work—and here, too, the massage therapy metaphor seems apt. Not every injury can be addressed by direct attention or deep tissue massage. Some require a lighter touch. Sometimes just acknowledging the pain and the fact that it may affect performance will go a long way toward healing. Ignoring and denying the pain, and trying to use the muscles as we always have, will cause greater damage—rest, hydration, and gentle attention are far more likely to lead to healing. [Note: I am neither a doctor nor a trained massage therapist. Deploy metaphors literally at your own risk.]

What might this mean for the classroom, and for our own return, though?

I think there are two sets of responses. First are the things that are sort of like home PT: the things we can do ourselves, though they do require attention. Second are the ones that are more like therapeutic massage or PT on-site (take your pick of metaphor): things that require the attention of an expert, but that we can learn to do with some help.

So, for the first, we need to start just by paying attention: to our bodies, our feelings, and the feelings of our students. Some of our students have never been on campus before. Some finished out high school remotely. Some got sick—I had more than one Covid-19 case among my own students, and at least one is still struggling with long Covid symptoms. What accommodations might those students need? What might we?

Paying attention, checking in mindfully with ourselves and our students, will give us a baseline to work from. Perhaps the syllabus accommodations that we made last year should continue going forward, for example. I learned in one class that reducing the number of texts we read did not reduce learning outcomes, because the students had more time to read, reflect, and write. Maybe we need to check in more frequently with students, whether that’s simply through low-stakes assignments that keep them engaged with the material between classes, or actual emails and invitations to office hours. I know, too, that I’ll be keeping my Zoom office hours to supplement in-person ones, as they offer a low bar to entry for many students who are nervous about entering my office. But we may especially benefit from attending to trauma-informed pedagogy strategies, including transparency (talking about what we’ve all been through), mindfulness (remembering why we’re here, and taking time to focus and breathe), and inclusiveness (incorporating strategies that center student learning needs).

So that brings us to the second kind of response—the massage, as it were. At the Faculty Hub, we’ve spent the summer talking about our return. We’ve got a lovely new space to share with you, and we are eager to support faculty in the return to whatever the new normal looks like. We can consult with you on anything I’ve mentioned above, of course (except massage—though we do have campus resources for that!). We will also have some specific programs that may be of particular interest as we negotiate our return:

    • Syllabus Workshop, August 17, 1:00 – 2:15 (in person); repeated August 18, 10:30 – 11:45 am (over Zoom). Bring a syllabus you want to work on and come to discuss strategies for revising/updating your syllabus for inclusion and accessibility.
    • Teaching Squares, ongoing program during fall 2021. An opportunity for groups of faculty to engage in mutual peer observation, to examine their own teaching in the context of new approaches observed, and to reflect on how the teaching positively affects student engagement.
    • Facilitated Course Assessment, ongoing. This is a new service that we are offering, in which Faculty Hub staff will survey your students and facilitate small group discussions with them to assess how particular pedagogical strategies are going, or to obtain mid-course feedback. The discussions will be confidential and formative, to assess student perceptions of their learning motivation, sense of belonging, or other topics relevant to your own pedagogy.
    • Faculty Hub Conversations, ongoing. This year we will continue our practice of co-facilitating discussions of topics of concern to faculty, including providing feedback on written work, facilitating class discussions, working with this year’s first-year students, etc. Let us know if there’s a topic you’d like us to host.

Please also make sure to stop by the open houses we’ll be holding during August (weekdays at 10 and 2:30, August 19-27)—during that week, we’ll hold informal conversations about the return after our morning open houses on August 20, 23, 25, and 27, so come for the open house and stick around for the conversation. Please also plan to come to our grand opening on August 26 to meet, greet, and explore the new space. I’m also listing a few articles below, including those linked in this piece, as potential resources. We look forward to working with you, to getting those knots out, and to defining a new normal that is accessible to all.

[1] As scholars of color and disability advocates too numerous to mention (but here are details from a few) have pointed out, “normal” was not necessarily equitable or accessible. We need to do better than normal.


(Note that a number of these articles came out before the pandemic, which in some cases merely highlighted existing issues and inequities in our practices. Not every article is applicable to every situation, but this list offers a range of suggestions for our return that may spark some interest for you.)

One Way to Show Students You Care—And Why You Might Want to Try It (Becky Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Ed, August 29, 2018)

Students Struggling with Mental Health Often Confide in Professors. They Want More Guidance on How to Help. (Audrey Williams June, Chronicle of Higher Ed, May 17, 2021)

A Pedagogy of Kindness (Catherine Denial, Hybrid Pedagogy, August 15, 2019)

Pedagogy of Healing: Bearing Witness to Trauma and Resilience (Mays Imad, Inside Higher Ed, July 8, 2021)

Dead Ideas: Reflections for Post-Pandemic Learning (Soulaymane Kachani, Catherine Ross, and Amanda Irvin, Inside Higher Ed, June 16, 2021)

More Pandemic Consequences for Underrepresented Students (Greta Anderson, Inside Higher Ed, September 16, 2020)

Back to ‘Normal’ Isn’t Good Enough (Daniel E. Dawes and Brian C. Castrucci, STAT, February 10, 2021)

As Colleges Strive for a Return to Normal, Students with Disabilities Say, ‘No, Thanks’ (Serena Puang, Chronicle of Higher Ed, May 11, 2021)

Returning to ‘Normal’ is Really a Return to Ignorance (Torrey Trust, Times Higher Education, June 20, 2021)