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Bright Spots: USciences Professor Shares Her Experience Teaching During COVID-19

By Christine Flanagan
Professor of English, Department of Humanities

Published on May 7, 2020

Christine FlanagnAfter the COVID-19 pandemic launched students and faculty into virtual classrooms, one USciences professor learned how distance can forge deeper connections.

March 12: I cancel our quiz and distribute a revised syllabus. From home, students will complete the remaining text readings, take quizzes, join discussion boards, and complete a final project. I outline the university’s plan for the next month and promise my students: We can do this.

Four weeks later, the COVID-19 statistics worldwide are grim. We will not be back in the classroom this spring. I can’t teach online, I think. There’s no human interaction.

I teach an upper-level Humanities course called “Creativity.” We identify and re-frame problems, generate and test ideas, tell compelling stories, and communicate ideas. We read from domains of fine arts, neuroscience, psychology, and business. We experiment with creative assessments, logic problems, and goofy games. Once, we played 1:1 rounds of Rock/Paper/Scissors until a single person defeated everyone in the room. We were breathless from laughter and cheering. “Why are you smiling,” I asked, “when all of us lost the game?” We talk about failure.  

*

April 6: Week four teaching online. I am not smiling. My husband, sick with COVID-19 symptoms, can’t get a test. Two of my students test positive. Two other students report parents who are critically ill, on ventilators. At home, I am a third-grade teacher to my son. This is not fair to kids, he says. I can’t visit my parents. News reports catapult me into a startling zone of panic.

We have a final project in “Creativity.” We can do this. Students must choose two problems to analyze and present creative approaches to problem-solving. In addition to course texts, they will include data from one final class activity: Each student must send a survey to 20 people who know them well. Friends. Mentors. Family. After all the surveys are completed, I will return the results to the students to use in the final projects. 

The survey is one question: Tell me a story about this person when they were at their best.

Here is the background: In the realm of creativity--which is, essentially, problem-solving--some find it useful to identify blind spots: areas where we least understand ourselves, particularly our deficiencies. Once revealed, we can adjust or minimize these traits as we face various challenges.

We also have blind spots about our strengths, says bestselling author and Wharton professor Adam Grant. Grant calls these “bright spots.” I am gathering data on bright spots: the strengths each student has that elude their awareness.

*

April 15: I haven’t seen my students in five weeks. I am depressed. I feel disconnected from everything. When my students struggle, I see their discomfort as temporary. I know their Future Self will appreciate, even celebrate, these tough times. It seems as if I can’t do this for myself.

The survey deadline is here; time to collate the responses and hand them off to the students. I open up the survey website. Each student has received at least twenty responses to my question, many of them lengthy and detailed stories. When his mother had chemotherapy this year…She gave a eulogy… She listened to me

Eight hundred and sixty-eight people have responded. After his father died… He brought me ice cream

I export the survey responses into separate documents, one for each student. Story after extraordinary story.

In an email to my students, I explain how they must analyze the survey responses to discover patterns and trends. Find your bright spots and understand how they may be used in problem-solving.

I feel an unfamiliar pressure in my chest--not panic, not anxiety. I think of students, all dispersed, safe or unsafe, disconnected from school routines, overwhelmed, and worried about the future. I’m just about ready to send the email and survey results. In a moment, each PDF will travel across a network to Texas or New Jersey or Montgomery County, where my students will click open a file, where black lines and letters will appear on a white screen, and people who know them will say, I saw you when you were at your best. 

I quickly add a line to my email: If it’s easy, would you record a video as you read your surveys?

*

May 1: Final projects are complete. My students write thoughtfully about problem-solving and failure. They write a lot about listening, paying attention, and how discomfort looks different in the rear-view mirror. Their insights are specific, subtle, and intelligent.

Many attach videos of them reading their survey results. He helped change my flat tire. I watch their faces: a small smile, a shifting brow, eyes blinking with emotion. She always answers the phone. I lean toward my laptop and listen carefully. He always remembers to bring me a banana split.

I think a good teacher helps students learn to look beyond the superficial and into the scarier, more complex arena of uncertainty. Problems surround us. I don’t talk about how I face my overwhelming fears. These weeks have felt like I am unsuccessfully balancing a huge and heavy tray full of fragile items. Behind my smile and my revised syllabus, I, like you, am afraid and uncertain.

I’ve learned a few things these past months, found a bright spot or two of my own. I can’t teach online. Really? The online classroom made me a stronger, more thoughtful teacher. There’s no human interaction. Ridiculous. I saw endless facets of my students’ personal and intellectual character. I already knew that classroom walls were artificial. Why else would I have invited eight hundred and sixty-eight other voices into my classroom? How did I know what you needed to learn--and that it was something that I could never teach you?  

My fears about online teaching have wholly subsided. What I learn about you, and how I continue to learn from you, exists no matter what our classroom looks like. 

Now, I think, you just might see me when I’m at my best.

Categories: News, Faculty, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Humanities, Coronavirus