Uncertainty, Exhaustion, and Disbelief, by Jennifer Quinn

Teaching in spring 2020 was like nothing I have ever experienced in my twenty-seven years in higher education. A coronavirus unknown prior to December 2019 swept the globe, spreading the infectious disease COVID-19 in its wake. First detected in the United States in February 2020, by mid-March it had spread to all fifty states.

On March 9, the University of Washington’s three campuses transitioned to emergency remote teaching to close out the winter quarter: a final week of remote classes; a week for remote finals; and a week of “break” to grade everything, assign final grades and prepare for a remote start to spring quarter.  As more data was collected and the impact of the global health crisis was exposed, the remote teaching expectation for spring was extended through the end of the academic year. My ten-week quarter was divided into three distinct parts, each governed by different emotions.

Part I. Uncertainty and Anxiety

With no time for training or intentional curriculum redevelopment as an online course, I tried my best to recreate what I do in the classroom in a virtual environment. My goal was to build mathematical community and maintain active engagement.  I had lots of ideas on how this goal could be achieved but had no clue whether the ideas would be successful until I got to try them with my students. The uncertainty about what would work made it hard to plan. The inability to plan increased my anxiety. And anxiety spiraled to create more uncertainty. I spent too much time reading infographics from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations and Financial Times looking for trends, trying to understand the risks to my family and students, and praying for signs of hope. I spent even more time in online discussion groups trying to sort out the teaching transition and learn new skills.

I approached the situation with a growth mindset. I learned from my mistakes, I asked for help, and I kept trying until I made things better. I was vulnerable and allowed my students to see that I was not always an expert. Each day felt like a mad race to prepare for class—not because of the content but because of the novel method of delivery.

Part II. Exhaustion and Power Drain

After three full weeks of spring teaching, the urgency and uncertainty abated. All the decisions that needed to be made about “how” to transition to remote teaching had been made and new information only made me doubt my choices. I heard a lot of certainty about the “right way” to approach remote teaching during the crisis. Opinions were being presented as facts, and I started to worry that I was doing it all wrong. The recommendations, guidelines, and best practices reached the level of information overload, and there was no more space in my brain to engage.

Every day, as I took a seat in front of my computer, I would feel a huge weight descend and my energy immediately waned. Remote teaching was draining both physically and emotionally. In a face-to-face classroom, I am recharged by the interactions with the students. Virtually, the energy that I invested dissipated into the ether and I felt little return. In addition, with no physical distinction between work and the rest of life, there were no cues to say, “you can turn off now.” So my batteries continued to slowly discharge all day.

In our all-remote-all-the-time isolation, nothing felt different. Special events, the ones that feed your soul, were hours in front of a computer screen. Rather than providing a change of pace, these events became additions to the standard day and just led to feeling exhausted even faster.

It wasn’t until Memorial Day weekend that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and felt like I could breathe.

Part III. Disbelief

As we were entering the homestretch of the spring pandemic quarter, there arose another crisis to confront. On Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, catalyzed a nationwide call for justice and dismantling of the racist practices embedded in our systems and society. And just as with the pandemic, I heard a lot of certainty about the “right way” to proceed, this time to promote antiracist practices and reaffirm #BlackLivesMatter.

Supporting my black and brown students to successfully complete this unprecedented quarter came first. My initial attempts were clumsy and not sufficient. But like my transition to remote teaching, I asked for help and I kept trying until I made things better.

When the final grades were officially submitted for spring 2020, my emotions were all over the place. I felt elated. I was in denial. I felt numb. There is more uncertainty heading towards fall, but I can approach it with less anxiety and greater purpose. What practical lessons will I bring forward to make the next quarter less extreme?

  1. Know that setting up and facilitating virtual interaction takes more time than in a face-to-face classroom. To prioritize student engagement, begin by pre-emptively reducing content to what is absolutely required.
  2. Reduce the grading burden. This might mean requiring less teacher-graded assessments or assigning more self- and peer-assessment.
  3. Take time to introduce important features of every tool that you expect your students to use whether in your course management system, your conferencing platform, or a downloaded app. Low stakes “getting to know you assignments” are a great way to build community and technological competencies. If it is not worth your time to ensure every student can access and use the technology, then it is not worth using in the first place.
  4. Do not ignore self-care. (As I told a student, “Remember a time when you helped someone in this class. Now be that person for yourself.”)

During this time of isolation, much was learned and much was lost. Still much remains to be accomplished.

Jennifer Quinn is a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. She earned her BA, MS, and PhD from Williams College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin, respectively. She has held many positions of national leadership in mathematics including Executive Director of the Association for Women in Mathematics, co-editor of Math Horizons, and currently President-Elect of the MAA.   Jenny will serve as MAA President in 2021 and 2022. She has been “staying home and staying safe”  in Tacoma, WA with her husband Mark Martin and two sons, a rising St. Olaf junior and rising high school senior. She chronicled her experiences with emergency remote teaching in her blog Math in the Time of Corona. Relive it from the beginning starting with the first post on March 7, 2020  (Day -1).

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