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  • John Constantine Tobin

Confronting and Adapting to Contextual Factors during a Pandemic at the End of a Condensed Term

This was not an ordinary semester: personally, externally, politically, institutionally, virtually.


But let’s start with personal context, because I think it’s the most easily identifiable on my part and I reflect: this semester marks my return to teaching after a 2-year hiatus; my move back to the US after two years running a video game company in Shanghai; my first semester as a PhD student; first time in the Deep South. The context of my life alone is enough to affect my classroom, even if this weren’t a year of change. As a pedagogical move, I spoke to my students on behalf of my experiences when they were relevant. At times, I tried to humanize the pandemic by discussing how half my possessions remain in China due to travel complications, or mentioning how my employee from Wuhan still hasn’t been allowed to see her family since this began.


The point is that I am inseparable from the class I teach, and with me as the instructor, I think it’s key to humanize myself in front of my students. It's key to explain my own context. I bring my background with me: the fine arts, my home in Maryland, and everything else. My students do, too, and need opportunities to share this information with me. Sensitivity to context was especially important this semester. It’s a part of these critical pedagogies that I've worked to employ, so that I can mutually welcome and relate to my students each session.


But what of the external factors? If this semester has taught me anything, it’s that it is nigh impossible to separate these from the teaching environment: a global pandemic, a presidential election year, a reckoning on civil rights, separated families at the border, a trade war, family financial shifts. The classroom might perhaps mitigate some effects, or potentially magnify them, but it does not shield students or teachers from them. In my class, I had some students come down with COVID, some working extra jobs, others joined in the protests, all had to adapt to learning virtually, they went out to vote. We were all virtual, but they were living in dorms, while I still reside in Maryland.


Considering these contextual factors, this year required an ever-changing flexibility: the acceptance of late assignments, multiple chances, and also just maintaining the perspective that my students are doing their best, just as I am. I felt a pressing need to invite them into my classroom design, to weave them into the fabric of the course, because I simply could not do it alone. This was a semester of collaborative work: co-constructing rubrics, altering assignments, moving deadlines, and just intentionally working together - something that I think must persist in my style from here on out.


Some of these changes were institutional, where the university itself affected the classroom: the semester removed all semester breaks to discourage travel during the pandemic; the complete transition to virtual classroom for the humanities courses. Microsoft Teams every day, every class. File sharing, screen sharing, chats, emojis, discussion boards, YouTube videos, synchronous and asynchronous sessions, and truly diving into some of the more obscure Canvas features.


How much this virtual context redesigned my classroom. I found myself thinking about my students’ eye strain and posture, asking if we needed some time to look away and stretch. Figuring out how to build community. Wondering if my students were able to meet and make friends. Some moved home from campus mid-semester, because it wasn’t worth the money. Some lived farther off campus than I would’ve expected in an ordinary year. How many had changes to their financial aid? How many could engage in campus social groups, if any at all? Has anyone made friends?


What a wild institutional change for the year. I found myself considering how to add extra empathy on so many levels and figuring out how to make the classroom personal when no one can physically be together. I read some of my poetry to them; I asked about the good things in their lives that are happening; I tailored assignments that engage in contemporary issues relevant to them; I tried to encourage my students' own voices and dialects. I did anything I could to humanize the virtual landscape. Did it work? Well, the answer is on a sliding scale. I made a number of meaningful connections with my students this semester, but for the ones who were quieter, there’s no body language to read to find out. Other than assignments and reflections, there’s no way to know.


I think teaching revolves around reading contextual information. There is no set structure that will ever prepare me for what awaits in a classroom. There is no set pedagogy that will meet all my needs. What I’ve found this semester is that the dynamism of teaching brings a certain beauty to my life. There is wonder in how I’ll always be expanding and carefully choosing the tools from toolkit. Stagnation simply isn’t an option. I have learned that the more strategies I have within reach and the more knowledge I have at my disposal, the more acutely I must read contextual information to employ what I know. I want to be an instructor that takes meeting students’ needs to heart. I don’t mean to say that a pandemic has beautiful consequences. It simply doesn’t. Rather, the effort I’ve put forth to build a meaningful class is where I’ve felt the most value. It’s something I should have been doing all along, every semester, every class, with every student.


I must always read the varying contexts of life. This year had many. I wanted to acknowledge that in this post at the end of a rapid, intense, contextually varied semester. There would be a void in my teaching if I believed that contextual information didn’t influence my teaching. My point is this: there is a privilege in assuming classes will return to some conceptual version of normal that doesn't really exist. It would be the same assuming they ever were normal. To do so would ignore the complexity of the contextual factors that change the classroom each semester, each week, each day and with each student. What a wonderful profession this is, to have me confront the complexities of life.


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