(Attempts at) Planning for the New Normal

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The worst end to a semester I ever had was the fall semester of 2017. My last day on campus was just four days before I flew to Colorado to begin so much of my life anew, and as I sat in the teachers’ lounge late that night, after everyone else had gone home, I started bawling my eyes out. Parts of me were definitely looking forward to that plane ride and the opportunities waiting for me at its end, but I was also frightened out of my mind at the huge risks I was taking , doing so many things I’d never done before in my life with little, if any, of a safety net to fall back on. Finishing my last day at that community college really drove home just how close I was getting to that flight from Detroit to Denver, and how I was about to separate from so many of the things that had just always been there for me all my life.

This past semester may be the second-worst when it comes to how it ended, and that is absolutely and completely because of the pandemic. I had a lighter schedule this semester, and I was hoping that would help me devote more time to researching my next book. Not only were the students here as wonderful as ever, but I had a lot of really small classes, which afforded me the opportunity to work one-on-one with my students more than I ever had before. I had a lot of students who’d taken classes with me previously, but I also had a good number of students I’d never taught before, and my dorky jokes seemed to click with most of them. This semester felt like it was really starting out well, but then everything changed.

I’ve taught online before, so making the transition from in-person to online classes wasn’t as difficult as it could have been, but I’d never been forced to make that transition in the middle of a semester before. Since we have a lot of international students here, and many of them returned to their home countries after the campus closed, I was forced to use asynchronous delivery for my classes, which meant an end to the class discussions that had made the first half of the semester such a joy. (That might have been a blessing in disguise, though, since I may have a permanent headache now from having to wear my headset for so many Zoom conferences with my colleagues.) We all, students and instructors and administrators alike, did the best we could under the circumstances, but with the world around us changing so radically on a daily basis, and nearly all of us lacking any kind of gameplan for what to do in these conditions, avoiding big problems was all but impossible.

If there’s any bright spot to this over the next few months, it’s that the creativity workshop I was originally slated to teach on campus this summer has been moved online. For those of you who have always wondered what it’s like to have me as an instructor, or for my former students from Ohio and Michigan who want one more go-around with me, this may be the best chance you ever get. This thirteen-week workshop meets for an hour on Saturdays via Zoom, and it only costs $150 to register (but budget an extra $40 or so for supplies). It starts on the 20th of June, and of course no cheap plug would be complete without a link, so click over to go.uwplatt.edu/TheArtistsWay to register today.

After this summer, though, things are up in the air for what we’ll be doing here in Wisconsin. Although other colleges and universities across the country have already announced their plans for course delivery in the fall, we haven’t committed to anything yet, and I support that decision as the most prudent thing we can do now. How this pandemic is going to look come August is a question that no reasonable person would claim to have an answer to at this point, and although a decision needs to be made here soon, it doesn’t have to be made right away.

I’ll be busy grading papers and calculating final grades this next week, but I’ve already been thinking out possibilities for how I’ll teach in the fall. We’ve been told to prepare for a multitude of possibilities — including maybe starting out online, then moving to in-person classes if circumstances allow — and as solid as my pedagogical principles are, how those principles manifest in the venues through which I teach feels almost limitless. After I finish this past semester’s business over the next few days, I’ll have a lot of hard work to do when it comes to planning out just what my classes will look like in September (or possibly even August, depending on the choices that the university makes over the next few weeks).

At the same time, though, it’s hard not to be conscious of the fact that so many people have lost their jobs (or worse) as a result of the pandemic, and I don’t have to worry about things like keeping a roof over my head or knowing where my next meal is coming from. As difficult of a time as I’m going to have when I start planning for fall semester, too many people are going through far worse than I will be. I’m hardly an expert on pandemics, but I have a strong suspicion that this pandemic, at least here in America, is going to make things a whole lot worse before they start to get better here.

I may be just as afraid of the future right now as I was after that last day of teaching in Toledo, but at least I’m not having to take the same kinds of risks that billions of people across the world are having to take right now. I can only hope that I get to teach some of those people in a good way this next semester, and help them learn the skills they’ll need to cope with the crazy world we’re going to be stuck with for a long, long time.

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