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Teaching as a craft has to be seriously reconceptualized

University of Missouri's Associate Professor of Sociology, Srirupa Prasad, weighs in how the pandemic is forcing academics to prioritize the mental health of students like never before.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   23-09-2020

Srirupa Prasad
Srirupa Prasad

Creating new academic courses to better suit the ‘new normal’ may be a best practice that teaching faculty can undertake to provide students with relevant insights into current times. But what about the role of education itself? What is its purpose in the 21st century “when the world is wracked by a pandemic, severe economic decline, and political pessimism?”

Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Srirupa Prasad discusses how she sees college education changing in the coming years, why securing students’ wellbeing has become a top priority and how thinking out-of-the box will become mainstream.  

Q: How has the pandemic impacted your teaching and your students’ learning?

COVID-19 has dealt a hard blow to education, be it for students or faculty members. Universities have been plagued by severe budget cuts as state governments are allocating funds elsewhere and as political priorities are shifting, resources normally allocated to state universities are being conveniently siphoned off elsewhere. These are some of the broader trends across US colleges and campuses.

"The first thing that hit us all was the sudden requirement that we all shift to fully virtual teaching within a span of 10 days. It is as if someone just set up a roadblock on the street that you have taken on your way to work for more than half your life!"

But on the ground, students, faculty, and staff are facing real hardships. Let me elaborate. The first thing that hit us all was the sudden requirement that we all shift to fully virtual teaching within a span of 10 days. It is as if someone just set up a roadblock on the street that you have taken on your way to work for more than half your life! We had to take a completely new road to walk to work where we did not even entertain the possibility that another road could be there.

I personally have experience teaching online as in the spring of 2020 I was teaching online but my colleagues who were teaching face-to-face classes had a real tough time having to transform their courses to the online format. There was chaos, naturally, as professors and students struggled to adjust to the new mode of instruction.

For faculty members the lockdown hit hard, especially for my women colleagues who had to suddenly balance childcare, household work with full time teaching and advising. Not to mention the anxieties surrounding the pandemic and what it had in store for all of us. I personally had a hard time focusing and was too distracted obsessively checking COVID-19 death numbers as the US continued to be ravaged March onward. In April most of my colleagues and ended up completely re-orienting our syllabi. We slashed readings, became lenient with our grading, and extended submission deadlines for students. 

"What does teaching/mentoring mean in the 21st century when the world is wracked by a pandemic, severe economic decline, political pessimism?"

For students, life was radically transformed in a fortnight. One issue that faculty members’ have been frequently dealing with since COVID-19 hit the US is students' mental health issues. This is true globally as well. But I remember having weekly faculty meetings to strategize on how to help students cope with the situation. Students were feeling, anxious, scared, helpless. But what took a toll on their emotional well-being was the uncertainty of their future.

Within two months, the economy plummeted and many students who graduated in May 2020 felt hopeless. Many decided to just go back home after graduation and take a break. For some this was also hard because graduation is a big part of college life and families gather to celebrate a student's accomplishment and several students were sad I remember because they could not have an official graduation. 

Fast forward to fall 2020, many of us realize that in class, teaching might not be fully possible for two more semesters and we have to spend the summer months completely renovating and redesigning our courses. As campuses have reopened over the last one month and case numbers have surged, students are not comfortable coming to classrooms. My class this semester was originally scheduled as a hybrid-mode class (partly online, partly face-to-face) but three weeks into the semester and I have been to the physical classroom only once. Several students have written to me that they do not feel comfortable coming into the classroom. Several students are depressed, struggling to remain focused and complete readings. I am again planning to reduce the number of readings, extend deadlines and be more flexible with grading. The emotional health of students is going to be a real challenge in the near future. Flexibility is going to be the new mantra as far as teaching students is concerned. 

Q. Have there been any welcome outcomes that the shift out of a reliance on teaching in person has resulted in? What have these been?

"I think we (teachers) need to let go of any sense of complacency that we fully know what we are doing and why we are doing it. Teaching as a craft has to be seriously reconceptualized."

If I put aside the difficulties, I think personally for me what has been of value is the realization that teaching, and instruction is a lot about timing. Education must adapt itself to changing times. And not only in a narrow way as to what the topic of a course is. For example, over the summer I decided to teach two courses. One called COVID-19/Biology, Culture, and Society and the other Gender and Public Health. But I also mean in the broader sense of the term. What does teaching/mentoring mean in the 21st century when the world is wracked by a pandemic, severe economic decline, political pessimism? So, for me one of the welcome outcomes of this crisis has been the need for me to reevaluate what teaching for me signifies and how should I reach out to students both as intellectual and political beings? 

The other positive outcome to my mind is the fact that many of us will try to be more innovative in our teaching methods. Or at least we would need to be. 

Q. How do you think the changes that have taken place now will affect how higher education will be imagined/structured in the future?

It is another thing how much will be done. But those who take higher education seriously will (at least I hope) rethink the goals and objectives of higher education. As unemployment is soaring, the value of a college education is going down, and as students are struggling to make ends meet, it is my sincere hope that universities and colleges will reflect on the larger meanings of education. 

Q. What changes would you like to see to the thinking/tools currently being deployed to enable online/remote learning?

For me personally, I would really like the idea that universities and teaching authorities critically think about what kinds of class assignments we design for college going students. Especially courses which have student enrolments from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, we really need to be innovative about teaching them better analytical and writing skills, which can be genuinely valuable for them as they navigate non-academic career options. 

Q. Assuming that we may never really go back to life as it was before the pandemic, what do you wish for yourself as a teacher/university faculty member and for your students in the coming years? 

I think we (teachers) need to let go of any sense of complacency that we fully know what we are doing and why we are doing it. Teaching as a craft has to be seriously reconceptualized. This is the need of the hour.

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