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English and Cultural Studies faculty finding creative approaches to remote learning

Just like all academics and teachers across the country, the department of English and Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Humanities has had to rise to the challenge of online learning. We spoke with the chair of the Department, Professor Susie O’Brien, to hear what she has to say about how her faculty are preparing for a fully online fall.

What have the past four months been like for the Department of English and Cultural Studies faculty and staff?

Both interesting and challenging. We’ve been working hard to prepare for the Fall term, while also trying to figure things out on the go in spring and summer courses. Instructors have been trying different platforms and learning their advantages and drawbacks. Rather than determining a single right approach, we’re learning that you have to determine your goals for your course and then find the platform that will make that happen.

We’re also learning that it’s not just about content, it’s about engagement. It’s learning little things like the importance of staying available a little before and after class so students can ask questions or have a discussion. We’re also learning a lot about accessibility. It’s something that we were engaging with before, but online learning has challenged us all to make our teaching content, style and platforms as accessible as possible for different learning styles, as well as the particular challenges that COVID-19 has brought, that affect students in different ways and to different degrees.

COVID-19 has coincided with growing awareness of systemic racism and we know COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted our BIPOC students. While this is part of a longer conversation, we’re engaging in an active process of self-examination, and trying to incorporate anti-racism and anti-oppression into our curriculum and teaching methods. We’re hoping that, when COVID-19 ends, we will have enacted some permanent changes to the way we do things that will result in a more positive, productive learning experiences for our students. This doesn’t mean that all of our courses will be online; we recognize that in-person classes have benefits that can’t be replicated in a digital environment. However, the move to online learning has prompted us to think about learning objectives, course material, student engagement and forms of assessment in ways that will improve our teaching overall.

What has surprised you about the past few months?

We’ve realized we’re more adaptable than we thought. This experience has really pushed us to re-examine and be more creative with everything we do, from the content of our courses to how we deliver them.

What courses are you particularly excited about for the fall term?

Professor Melinda Gough is working really hard on a fully online and interactive Shakespeare course that I think it is going to be really amazing. While most of the courses we’re developing at this time are adaptations of our typical in-person classes, which will revert to their old form once restrictions are lifted, this course is being designed to meet the needs of students who are looking specifically for online learning experiences. It will continue to be offered in an online format, parallel to an in-person version, in 2021 and beyond.

Another course, Creating Writing in/for/with Communities, taught by Professor Daniel Coleman, is also going to be exciting, and will foster the kinds of connections that many have been missing in COVID times. Students in the course partner with a community of their choice to develop a creating writing project. While we weren’t sure how this course was going to proceed initially, we realized that students can talk to community-partners online and, really, have the same experiential learning opportunity they would have had otherwise.

What’s your message to students?

I’m looking forward to working with them to make the fall as engaging, exciting and productive as it can be. While we know that it won’t be the same, we’re mindful of creating an environment that’s inclusive, stimulating and thought-provoking.