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Keep Calm and PWR On: Moving PWR Online

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Above: Participants in a March 19 PWR Zoom Conversation on Converting your Favorite Activity

By Christine Alfano

To say that the last few weeks have been a whirlwind would be an understatement.  With the increasingly alarming spread of COVID-19 into the U.S., our small PWR community, like so many others, has had to make on-the-fly adjustments to our home and work practices.  We quickly moved from a normal Winter Quarter week 9 schedule (tutoring in Hume, teaching in Wallenberg, holding meetings and conferences in Sweet Hall) to remote work, where Zoom has become our de facto space for meeting professionally and personally.

As might be expected, our community has responded to the challenges with enormous collaborative spirit. Who would have thought that over 35 PWR lecturers would ever congregate on Zoom at 10am on a Saturday?  But they did on March 7th, just about 12 hours after the Provost’s announcement that the rest of winter quarter would be online -- ready to work together to think through what the move to remote teaching would mean for an active learning pedagogy like PWR’s.

Since that time, nearly 3/4 of our lecturers have jumped into Zoom Conversations to work on adapting their pedagogy to be online for spring quarter.  They’ve brainstormed about optimizing Canvas use for remote teaching, building class community, adapting class activities, using breakout rooms effectively, and creating accessible and equitable learning spaces for students.  “Frequent zoom meetings with students and the PWR community have been a really nice way to help each other grapple with all that is rapidly unfolding around us as well as to develop best practices for an online quarter,” Sangeeta Mediratta noted. “It has been lovely to see everyone on a regular basis so that our community can continue to thrive together and have a successful Spring quarter.”

The program has particularly benefited from the expertise of the indefatigable Jenae Cohn, whose reach has expanded to more than simply supporting our instructors (1-to-1s, updating Canvas modules, working with Christine to build out Teaching Writing Online Teaching section) to supporting the university through leading workshops for CTL and also supporting academics beyond Stanford: the impressive Teaching in Times of Disruption resource guide that she and Beth Seltzer), the SIS ATS, authored has been shared across institutions and has been featured in many venues, including Chronicle Vitae, a service of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A major thread running through most of the PWR Zoom conversations over the last couple weeks is the recognition of, and planning for, the fact that students will have variable resources (in terms of technology, space, time, emotional bandwidth, etc.) in meeting the demands of an online course (and whatever other demands they are facing).  As always, our PWR instructors continue also to express concern about our students’ well-being. “Although I’m sad we won’t be meeting our students face-to-face,” Harriett Jernigan commented, “I’m glad  I can help support them during this challenging time.” 

Another pedagogical wrinkle is the University’s recent announcement that all spring classes (including PWR) will be graded on an S/NC basis, PWR instructors find themselves adjusting once again. What does it mean to teach a writing class without grades? How does this change our modes of assessment and student engagement.  As the Program quickly works to develop policies around best practices in this situation, many lecturers see this as a unique opportunity.  As one PWR lecturer said during a recent Zoom Conversation, “Maybe we can actually take this time to encourage students to focus on the learning, not on the grades.” 

Even given the supportive nature of our collaboration over the past few weeks, our instructors still struggle with very real questions and anxieties about this shift to remote teaching and learning.  In addition to natural concerns about our students’ -- and our instructors’ -- physical health, there are many other stressors layered onto this situation. Students and teachers alike will struggle with technology issues (for instance, broadband access and strength, computer access and capability), space issues (many will not have a dedicated workspace during this time), and family responsibilities (many of our students will be walking into situations where they’re expected to care for younger siblings or elderly relatives).  That latter concern is particularly pressing for the teacher-parents in PWR, whose own children are home as well with current Bay Area school closures. These PWR instructors face the daunting task of carrying at least two “jobs”: their jobs as PWR instructors and also as full-time parents, helping to homeschool and care for their children. The stress on both students and teachers, therefore could be extreme this quarter; mental health, too, will be an issue as we all Shelter in Place while trying to meet our obligations. CAPS and the Faculty-Staff Help Center (who offer Zoom appointments) will both be important resources in the coming months.

However, PWR has the benefit of an additional resource: each other.  With PWR Zoom Conversations continuing through the upcoming weeks; opportunities of 1-to-1 and small gorup consultations with Jenae, Christine, and other instructors; asynchronous conversations on our Canvas “Watercooler Forum” and “Online Teaching Support Forum”; and the accumulation of resources, wisdom, and best practice through TeachingWriting and our PWR Canvas Modules (which offer a supplement to the University's extremely detailed by less specialized TeachAnywhere site -- we will continue to help each other navigate this very unusual quarter.

So we can only do what we can in these circumstances and try to "Keep Calm and PWR On."  In the words of PWR Director, Marvin Diogenes, “We know that you’re not only going to be able to do this.  We know that you will all do this well.”

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