Five Moments from Spring 2020

Ryan Roderick


We hope to “represent the multifarious identities of teachers, administrators, and researchers involved in writing and rhetoric,” and to address “the cultural, social, political, and material realities that define their work.” –Julie, Bump, and Bree

Signs of change before the break

I didn’t know it at the time, but I started seeing the changes emerge back in late February, with the spring semester a few weeks underway.

An example of the shared "flatten the curve" graph. The title argues, “Collective action can limit the rise of COVID-19." A line graph models the virus spread in two scenarios: "No intervention" and "With Intervention" Assertion-evidence (Alley et al.) is in full use. Source: CDC

On Facebook, a few graduate school friends, now scattered across the country, posted word of their own transition from a face-to-face to an online classroom format. They talked about the potential for shelter-in-place (stay-at-home) and the goals of social distancing. They pondered the affordances of synchronous and asynchronous formats. Some shared images that explained what it meant to flatten the curve. 

I saved some of the line graphs that modeled infection rates, and the heat maps that represented cases by state as potential examples, and wondered if I might analyze the visual rhetoric with my professional writing class. I felt a big change coming. 

On the Friday before our spring vacation, I sat in my office on campus and watched a crowd of students head to their 9:00 am. 

At school, I collected my 9:00am course plans and materials and headed out to class. By now my students and I developed our own habits of working together. During class we took the first steps toward the project we would dive into after the break. These steps included familiar rituals like breakout discussions and collaborative planning.  

As usual we chatted a bit at the end of class before wrapping up. Some had friends in the National Guard who talked about being activated. Another student reconsidered travel plans. At the end of the hour we wished each other “a good break,” said, “see you again after next week,” someone adding, “I hope.”

My dog Saint: A black terrier mix standing in a snow-covered clearing, wearing his cherry red vest, and looking off camera with his distinguished snout pointed left.

I opened up the message and paraphrased its contents to my hiking partners, Lisa (my wife) and our dog, Saint. I said, “The University extended the break by an extra week. And the office of distance and online learning shared a Canvas page for emergency remote instruction. I am to stand by for further instructions about transitioning courses online.” 

On the drive home, Lisa suggested I convert our basement guest room into a home office. Part of me was reluctant. I had always done most of my work in my office at school, and that basement guest room was currently set up with a kennel for Saint, though he rarely used it. I did not mind sharing space with the dog, but I worried more about disrupting what had become a comfortable routine.  

Lisa, Saint, and I stopped at the grocery store. There were not yet masks nor a limit on other protective measures in place. However, there were a few empty spaces on the shelves and a few shoppers with carts half full of canned items.    

That evening, I converted the room from a dog space to a writing space. I moved a desk and chair in place by the window, and put an old outdoor love seat along the wall so Saint would have a place to rest while I worked. As I did all this, I realized that converting the basement office would mean my office would no longer be a space where students and colleagues could “pop in” for discussions. Instead, we initiated conversations through pre-scheduled Zoom invites. 

It would only be a few more days before the university announced our shift to remote instruction. I sat down at my desk, opened up the laptop, and looked over pages of upcoming Canvas assignments. I started asking myself, how should I modify these to work for an online classroom?

Going remote: Coping with change

The week before classes resumed online, our Department of Distance and Online Education sprang into action (Fig. 3). Anticipating the challenging conditions students would face, the director led workshops via Zoom to support hundreds of instructors with adjusting their courses. We were advised to avoid synchronous classroom meetings if possible, and opt instead for asynchronous instruction. We could no longer assume a stable work environment, uninterrupted access to the internet, computer labs, or library reserves. 

Snapshot of a Canvas homepage set up by my institution's Dept. of Distance and Online Learning as part of our shift to remote education.

For my own courses, I set up a habit of sending out twice-weekly Canvas announcements to narrate the curriculum and offer instructional support. I also reduced demands of some assignments, adjusted the interactive elements of others, and lifted late penalties. I set up weekly, virtual office hours, and sent out weekly emails to struggling or disappearing students. I wrestled with what seemed like a balance between structure and flexibility.      

Some students’ responses began to confirm the challenges of remote learning, including messages like, “This new way of learning can be overwhelming. I've been distracted and putting off my work. It is now building up and more frustrating than ever,” and, “At school, I felt comfortable and it was easier for me to focus…I just can’t focus if I’m not in a school environment.” Some lost jobs while others took on more hours; a few received orders from the National Guard; a few found themselves without internet access; some moved back into challenging family situations; others fell into old habits and struggled with feeling overwhelmed, distracted, and frustrated. Some reported that other instructors added onto their existing workload. 

Throughout the remaining seven weeks of the Spring semester, I never really felt like my classes established a “new normal.” Instead, each week I began to learn more about the physical, mental, emotional, and material conditions in which my students now worked. 

Toward the end of the semester, my colleagues and I compared notes on work submitted before and after the shift. In a few courses, the proportion of students with missing or late assignments seemed to double from pre-online. Soon, we will learn more about where we ended up when grades are in.

Learning from a virtual conference: Where do we go from here?

It is a warm, early summer evening in Maine, and I have migrated my work from my office in the basement to the shade and protection of a screen tent on the porch just outside our front door. Leaves rustle in a welcome breeze. Birds occasionally chirp. Everywhere black flies dance across the sunlight. 

Sometime before the semester ended, in between keeping up with classes, I had uploaded my conference materials to the CCCC platform. While there, I had also peaked in at the other presenters and wondered what conversations might have taken place. I made a goal to come back to these materials once the semester ended and priorities shifted away from teaching. Now is that time.

I am waiting to know more about what will happen in the fall, and still thinking about what it means to “reopen” our institutions. What will the CDC advise? What will governments allow? In what situations will students, faculty, and staff thrive?  

Sometimes it seems we must choose between preserving our health and safety and preserving our institutions. But, I wonder if this choice faultily assumes that our institutions will remain unchanged through all of this. These disruptions to our old habits may be hard to shake. 

Instead, I would like to approach the fall with new ways to help students plan for and adapt to potential disruptions. And I hope to reconsider how my students access courses assignments, instructional tools, my support, and the support of their fellow classmates. How can I offer students choices in how they engage with the class, and how can I ensure that these choices enhance rather than detract from learning?     

I also wonder what would happen if we lean even further into an asynchronous format as an option for participating in the conference and sharing research. There has been welcome momentum from CCCC toward increasing conference access, including sharing materials online, an embrace of Twitter, and new roles for participation, including the Research Network Forum and Documentarians. However, these institutions assume conditions that are no longer guaranteed (and for some were never guaranteed). When the conditions we rely on are disrupted, how can we ensure that our work continues and our health and safety are protected? 

I feel I have time to consider these questions now that the semester has settled down. From my perch on the deck, I watch the sun set behind the trees. The environment changes quickly this time of year, and it seems like every time I look up, the leaves have doubled in size. Perhaps tomorrow there will be more news.