Bear-ing the Summer

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For all the stories during the pandemic of animals “taking over” spaces that had been largely abandoned during our collective self-isolation, I have to say that I wasn’t expecting to wake up today to news of a bear roaming on our parent campus. Our semester ended a couple of weeks ago, so there would have been a skeleton crew there even without the pandemic going on, but stories like this have a way of sticking with me. Platteville is over an hour’s drive from here, but I can’t deny that I’ve been looking out my apartment windows more than usual lately, wondering just what I might see here. (I’ve seen deer outside of my bedroom a couple of times since I moved here, and that’s always a nice sight to behold, but I miss seeing all the squirrels and raccoons and opossums of my old Toledo home.)

This comes on the heels of last week’s announcement that our campuses will at least be trying to hold in-person classes when the fall semester starts up. That news came on the heels of another record high of daily COVID-19 cases and deaths here in Wisconsin, and as I’ve written here before, I don’t envy the people who are trying to make these decisions about when to open our campuses back up. With this announcement, though, we instructors are now tasked with trying to figure out how to operate our classes in September, even though there is still a very real possibility that we’ll all be forced back to online-only instruction during — or even before — the semester, if the pandemic here gets even worse than it already is. We’re not being forced to come up with plans right away, but this isn’t the kind of problem I want to put off thinking about for any length of time.

I’ve always tried to be conscious of my students as human beings first, people trying to negotiate a wide range of problems at a difficult time of their lives (even in the best of times, which these clearly aren’t right now). I may be paid to be one of their instructors, but there are some things that are clearly more important than the learning objectives I try to pass to my students every semester. As important as my class is, it isn’t the most important thing in their lives, and even though I have a great many responsibilities to fulfill in my professional role, I also have some responsibilities to them that transcend what most people think of as the traditional instructor-student dynamic, and I don’t think that I’ve ever felt those responsibilities more opposed to each other than they are right now.

On the one hand, I’d be lying if I said that online instruction is my most natural environment. Especially this past semester, when several of my students relocated half a world away to be in their home countries during the pandemic, I was forced into asynchronous delivery for my classes, which meant no opportunities for voice discussion of the topics we were looking at. That discussion is at the core of every class I teach, and not getting to experience that for the second half of last semester — especially when a lot of my students who started here when I did two years ago were in their last semesters before transferring out — was deeply disappointing, even if it was absolutely the right thing to do under the circumstances. Even though it should be easier to schedule synchronous online classes this coming semester, I’ve been in enough Zoom meetings the last three months to know that they just don’t work as well as sitting together in a classroom to learn from each other.

Right now, though, expecting my students to come to a physical classroom, even if it’s only for one class a week, feels like a request that I have no right to make. If there ever is a vaccine for COVID-19, and all my students are able to get it free of charge (regardless of factors like ability to pay and documentation status), then I can see some justification in deciding to go back to the way I taught my classes up until a few months ago. The skills I teach my students have a lot of worth when they’re used correctly (and when I teach them properly), but they’re not so important that I feel I have a right to ask my students to literally risk their lives to learn them. As much as I prefer teaching my classes in-person, I’ve spent every day these past three months coming to terms with the fact that I may have to change my teaching here for a long time to come, possibly permanently.

I work on the smallest of all the University of Wisconsin campuses, and the lack of large classrooms in our buildings may mean that this decision has basically already been made for me. Like I mentioned earlier, we’re not being forced to make hard decisions on how we’ll teach fall semester classes right away, but I was already thinking about this decision on a daily basis long before the announcement came last week that we’ll be trying to teach classes in-person this autumn. As things stand right now, I may end up being an online-only instructor for the coming semester, just to help my students stay as safe as possible. If nothing else, not having to go to campus for my class will probably reduce the chances of them running into stray bears.

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