Day 4: Balance

US cases of COVID 19

There are 94 confirmed cases in Virginia — nearly double the number on Monday. The VA Department of Health is including death and hospitalization statistics in its daily report for the first time. Nationwide, there are over 11,000 active cases, with 4,000 in New York alone.

COVID-19 In Virginia
COVID-19 Cases in Virginia on March 19, 2020. From the Virginia Department of Health:

Find balance. Breathe.

Remember that “social isolation” really means “physical isolation.” We are profoundly social creatures, and our ability cultivate connection despite physical distance will be key to getting through this thing.

Today was mainly spent working on my class. Doing so made me miss being in the physical classroom, but also reminded me that I’ve been doing the hybrid-asynchronous thing for a long time, and that this particular class is extremely capable of making this shift and thriving. Here’s what I came up with in terms of an introduction to the syllabus for 20th-Century Russia, Pandemic Edition:

Greetings all! So much has changed since we parted two weeks ago. I hope this finds you all well and safely hunkered down. We will be resuming our exploration of Soviet history next week, but obviously circumstances are fluid, and no one can predict exactly how this pandemic will unfold. As your instructor, I am committed to helping you get as much out of the course in its new format as possible. At the same time, my primary concern is your well-being and safety in these challenging times.  We will proceed accordingly. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have questions or concerns at any time. I will send out an announcement soon outlining more details of my provisional plan and soliciting input on where we go from here. Meanwhile, please read through this revised syllabus so you will be ready for the resumption of coursework next Tuesday.

Day Three: Fearful

Graph and map of COVID-19

Active cases of COVID-19 in Virginia jumped to 77 today. We also have a confirmed case in a care facility near Richmond. Confirmed cases in the US number 7,660. But you can’t help but wonder how many undocumented (!!) cases are out there due to the shortage of tests. The administration is sending a hospital ship to the New York harbor in anticipation of hospitals exceeding capacity.  During a call-in show with physicians from the Mayo Clinic it became clear that public health officials anticipate needing to keep people isolated for many weeks, if not months. The stock market had another very bad day, with trading temporarily suspended early this afternoon. A federal relief package to provide sick leave, unemployment benefits, food, and free virus testing to people most affected by the pandemic is in the works, as is another stabilization package for the airlines and other particularly hard-hit industries.

Everything suggests this will be a long, stressful haul.

COVID-19 cases in Virginia 3-18-20
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Virginia as of March 18, 2020 from the Virginia Department of Health:

We are focusing on staying safe, but also want to be in (remote) touch with our neighbors and support our local businesses and community.  Even if you can’t physically visit, you can order shoes from your favorite running store  and accessories from the local bike shop. They are happy to deliver these items or work out a drop-off  / pick-up that keeps everyone appropriately distanced from each other.

Now is a great time to support local farmers by buying  a CSA share. We are getting vegetables (lots of vegetables!) and flowers this year. With so many spring wedding celebrations now on hold, this is a great time to check in with your favorite flower farmer to see what delightful blooms they have that might liven up your home full of anxious, stir-crazy people. It’s also a good time to think about how you might help people who are incarcerated and face incredible challenges where the virus is concerned. I know where our extra soap and toiletries are going.

Today was also the day when perfection did not become the enemy of making progress in re-vamping my course. I realized there was significant daylight between what is theoretically possible in terms of maximizing the learning experience and what is appropriate and realistic given how much flux is out there and how stressed out we all are.  I made a plan. Pared it down by 20%. Ate lunch. Trimmed a bit more. Called it good.

I’ve been in hybrid / asynchronous mode for many years, so the shift for me is not as wrenching as for some folks. But it’s still a big ask. I dialed back what we “cover” but tried to maintain quality interaction by recognizing that our class on Soviet History also needs to support us humans living through a major disaster.

So, not fearful after all. Everything will be just fine.

Day Two: Flexible

Global Cases of COVID-19 3/17/20

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US increased from 4,661 yesterday, to 5,853 today. At least 100 people have died from the virus in the US, with nearly 8,000 deaths reported globally. The Virginia Department of Health reports 67 confirmed cases today – up from 51 yesterday, and 45 on Monday.

Virginia COVID-19 Cases 3/17/20
Confirmed Cases of COVID-19 rise to 67 (3/17/20):

It’s been a quiet day here. Nairo went to daycare — partly to get him out of the house and keep him entertained (so glad dogs don’t get this particular virus), and partly to support a local business that depends (as do so many) on the regular work schedules of the university and its employees.

Even without the pup it’s been hard to concentrate, though. My mom’s care facility called to say they were cutting back on having outside companion care workers come in. I’m sure she’s fine and getting lots of attention, but the call reminded me — again — how vulnerable and isolated some populations are.

So, teaching….

I’ve been doing asynchronous and hybrid work for several years, so making this adjustment shouldn’t be that difficult. I design all of my courses around content students create on their blogs or collaborative activities we do on Google Docs. The logistics of jettisoning IRL F2F meetings and setting up spaces where we can all still have some interaction with each other aren’t that hard: Slack (for topical discussions, email control, and a back channel for all of us); Zoom (for short updates from me and small group collaboration / discussions); Update course website and flag changes on the LMS – check.

But my difficulties concentrating today made me realize that my students and I will probably need these communication tools for more than learning about Soviet History.  On a conference call with a student-led climate justice group this afternoon, you could really hear how disconcerting and anxiety-inducing COVID-19 is AND how hard and important it is to keep community ties strong in the days/weeks/months of self-isolation. While the easiest way to “put courses on line” involves minimizing peer-to-peer interaction, I am committed to keeping as much of it as I can — not just because humans are social learners (they are), but because the class had a solid sense of community before we parted for Spring Break, and I think we’ll all benefit from cultivating that community going forward. Even if we can’t physically be in the same space, we’re all going through something difficult and unknown.  The disruption of shifting one’s college experience into pandemic mode will be traumatic for many people.  I want our course to be a refuge from the flux and a creative space where we can still learn with and from each other.

Day One: Happy Birthday Nairo

Global COVID-19 Cases 3-16-20

Calling today “Day One” is an arbitrary designation of course. The respiratory infection called COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019. By the end of February, cases of COVID-19 had been identified in thirty-six other countries and territories, including the United States. Five days ago, when the virus had spread to 114 countries and over 4,000 people had died from it,  the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, acknowledging the potentially devastating consequences of the disease and prompting global leaders to implement measures to mitigate them whenever possible.

COVID-19 cases in Virginia 3/16/20
COVID-19 Cases in Virginia, March 16, 2020 from:


Global COVID-19 Cases March 16, 2020
Global COVID-19 Cases, March 16, 2020 from Johns Hopkins University:


On March 10, the day before the WHO’s declaration, my mother, who has faced some serious (non-respiratory) health challenges recently, moved from an assisted living community several hours away to a facility nearby where she can get more support and I can see her more often. Her move, accomplished just as official efforts to contain COVID-19 began to roll out, dominated my attention and the energies of my siblings and husband this last week.

It felt like the early minutes of a horror movie.  Nothing terrible had happened yet — everyone was doing their normal thing, and no one we knew was sick — but the creepy music and sense of impending doom was becoming harder to ignore. People began teleworking or preparing to telework. They stocked up on food and medicine, and started hoarding toilet paper. We heard more about social distancing, isolation and quarantine. The stock market stumbled, then nosedived, then recovered a bit, and now has nosedived some more. Governors declared states of emergency. They shut down rest stops on the interstate. Schools closed. Millions of parents wondered how they would manage. Colleges and universities shifted to on-line instruction.  My university extended spring break for a week to keep students from returning to campus and give faculty time to re-format their courses. My mom’s new care facility restricted visiting hours the day her furniture arrived, and cut off visitation completely the next morning. Yesterday, my brother was able to take a bus back to the urban area he calls home, and my sister negotiated her way through one of the nation’s airports clogged with travelers returning from Europe who had to be screened for signs of COVID-19. They will both be teleworking for the foreseeable future too.

I fell asleep on Saturday feeling incredibly relieved that we had dodged so many bullets during “operation move Mom.” But yesterday, as I took stock of how COVID-19 had already altered our daily lives, I realized I wanted to try to make sense of the pandemic by writing about it. I have journalled my way through some of life’s more memorable experiences: the collapse of Soviet communism when I was doing my dissertation research in Moscow,  the aftermaths of 9/11, and of the April 16 shootings in 2007. But I’ve never written in a public format about the intersection between the personal and the historical, and it seems like a global pandemic might offer an appropriate occasion to do so. As a historian, I have students read diaries, poems, and reflections of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times to help them understand how subjective and personal history is.  Maybe what I write here will be useful to others down the road, and maybe it will just help me keep track of how the pandemic intersected with and inflected my personal journey.

In any case, I’m calling today “Day One”  because it’s the first day of teleworking, of practicing self-isolation and social distancing as much as possible, and of focusing on living through COVID-19. In the days ahead I imagine I will write about the process of shifting my teaching away from F2F interaction, the challenges of sustaining community, staying healthy, and re-supplying provisions, and who knows what else that might become relevant or interesting. Today, “Day One,” is for gratitude and reflection on the first year in the life of Nairo, our German Shepherd pup.

german shepherd puppy chewing on a stick
The chosen puppy before his ears came up!
Black German Shepherd sitting on grassy hill
Grown up Nairo

Nairo, (pronounced with a long “I” like “Cairo”) comes from farm dog stock, where temperament and ability are the most prized attributes. Since joining our pack, he has grown into a regal but goofy companion — smart, sweet, stubborn, and quirky in a way that can be challenging as well as entertaining. He loves his kitty, a thirteen-year-old dilute tortoiseshell, who seems to enjoy being pawed over and slobbered on. He is also extremely attached to a fifteen pound boulder-cum-rock that he barks at while kicking it between his back legs. He does not know about Sisyphus, but the latter might appreciate the way Nairo has effectively plowed the entire backyard — creating a muddy hillside where there once was grass. On a more useful note, he is part of a citizen science project examining the suitability of pet dogs for scent detection work against agricultural pests such as the spotted lanternfly. He is my first German Shepherd since my great grad school dogs, Alyosha and Mattie passed nearly twenty-five years ago. Tom and I waited a long time for him, but it was completely worth it.

Nairo’s birth last spring coincided with the meltdown of my personal health that kept me mostly in bed, going to doctors, and trying to reclaim my life for several months. I am beginning the “Living With COVID-19” project enjoying renewed health thanks to my husband’s incredible support, lots of yoga and meditation, and the help of medical practitioners from the fields of Traditional Chinese Medicine, functional medicine, and allopathic medicine.  I have learned that it helps to be catholic in one’s approach to the healing arts, especially when your immune system goes on strike but doesn’t join the union. As an immune compromised individual who is now considered an “older” person,  I do have some trepidation about contracting the virus, but I know I am in good shape, all things considered, and am still imagining that there’s another half marathon in my future. (Ok, maybe not this year…)

More Nairo gratitude:  Nairo is named after my favorite pro-cyclist, the great Nairo Quintana. For human Nairo, 2019 had more than its share of troubles: his Spanish team seemed to undermine rather than support him, the chauvinism of European pro-cycling, which often seems whiter than white, was unsparing in its criticism of a Colombian indigenous person who had managed to do everything BUT win the Tour de France, and everyone was ready to write him off as a “has been” when he left the World Tour for a pro Continental Team based in Brittany.

But when the UCI officially put the pro cycling calendar on hold for COVID-19 this weekend, Nairo had already proven the naysayers wrong. With three stage wins, three record-breaking climbs and two overall victories in just sixteen days of racing, he has performed at or above the breathtaking level that made him a sensation when he first rocked the cycling world in 2013 by coming in second at the Tour de France and winning the polka-dot jersey and the best young rider’s jersey. His last win on Saturday, where he put nearly a minute into the leaders over the final four kilometers of the sixteen kilometer ascent to La Colmaine suggested that the old Nairo is back and provided a tantalizing hint of what he might do in France this July. Thank you, Nairo!

Nairo Quintana winning Stage 7 of Paris-Nice
14/03/2020 – Paris-Nice – Etape 7 – Nice / Valdeblore La Colmiane (166,5 km) – Nairo QUINTANA (TEAM ARKEA – SAMSIC) – Vainqueur de la derniere etape a La Colmiane Colmiane



Collaborative Syllabus Design – Students at the Center

Update March 19, 2019: This post is now part of the Open Pedagogy Notebook.

Together We Create!
“My Life Through A Lens”

“Democratically co-creating learning outcomes with students, based on their goals for the class, situates them at the center of your pedagogy.” – Christina Katapodis

I have been meaning to write about collaborative syllabus design for ages. This week’s workshop on learner-centered syllabi in GEDI / Grad 5114 combined with a very cool article by Christina Katopodis on Writing Learning Outcomes with Your Students finally got me going. (Thanks to Meg Mulrooney for sending Christina’s article across the Twitterverse a couple days ago.)

We are used to thinking about the syllabus as a kind of “contract” that explains what the course is about, specifies what the requirements are, lists what kind of assessments will be used, and sets out a schedule of activities, lectures and assignments. While these documents serve a purpose, they are often formidable and make for dry reading. And they can marginalize students from courses they should be co-creating rather than taking.

In keeping with a broader shift that I made several years ago to build more collaboration and interaction into the classes I teach, I now think about syllabi as “invitations” to join a learning community. I use the first person plural to indicate that we are all in this together. I set “priorities” for the semester but indicate that the group will have a say in determining how we achieve those goals and that we may identify other topics or issues that warrant exploration along the way. Continue reading “Collaborative Syllabus Design – Students at the Center”

The Overstory – A cMOOC Un-Introduction

Trees in fog on grassy ridge

I was so excited to stumble upon Equity Unbound, a cMOOC facilitated by Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin, and Mia Zamora this weekend. Inclusion, diversity, paradigm busting, and openness are at the heart of Contemporary Pedagogy (aka “GEDI”), a professional development course for future faculty I teach every semester.  When I saw that Equity Unbound would use an “emergent collaborative curriculum” to help create “equity-focused, open, connected, intercultural learning experiences across classes, countries and contexts,” I knew there could be wonderful synergy between it and the intentional, multi-disiciplinary, and diverse learning community that is #GediVT (our Twitter hashtag).

So, if you’re reading this and have any connection to #GediVT or are following along on the hashtag, please think about joining me. Don’t worry about how much time this will take (I know you don’t have any — I don’t either), or how we’ll coordinate the logistics (loosely, of course!), or any of the other reasons you might not want to do this. Just head on over to the Equity Unbound website and see if there isn’t something that works for you.  One of the great things about cMOOCs is that they are somewhat self-paced, and you can engage as deeply (or intermittently) as you like. Of course regular sustained engagement is best, but really anything you  contribute you won’t regret — because these are wonderfully social, supportive, networked learning opportunities that will give you a ton of serendipitous learning experiences and the chance to get to know wonderful people, even though you might not ever meet them F2F. Also, if we get enough folks interested, we might be able to contribute to the emergent curriculum Maha, Catherine, and Mia have in mind.

I’m going to keep this short because I have class in a couple of hours, but one of the suggested introductory activities is an “Un-Introduction, which gives me the opportunity to share some important information about “Where I am Local” and what makes me tick, that doesn’t appear on my “regular” professional bio or CV. So, here goes:

At the recommendation of a veteran of the resistance to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, I started listening to Richard Power’s “The Overstory” on my run this morning.  An epic re-imagining of how humans relate to the natural world and to the lives of trees in particular, The Overstory begins with the story of the demise of the American Chestnut, the magnificent tree that once dominated the forests of the Eastern United States.  A lone “sentinal” tree on the plains of Iowa, planted in the mid-nineteenth century by the ancestor of Nicholas Hoel, one of the book’s human characters, stands poised to help its species survive. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hoel is leaving his farmland roots in Iowa and heading to art school.

Chestnut Fall
Fallen Chestnut, Montgomery County, VA

Continue reading “The Overstory – A cMOOC Un-Introduction”

Difficult Conversations: Report from CHEP

Members of the Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence partnered with the Academy of Teaching Excellence to host a packed session on facilitating difficult conversations in the classroom at last week’s Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy. The write-up below is a (very) partially-processed transcription of the session. For the key takeaways re: strategies, scroll down or click here :

After brief introductions we did a quick round robin: What is ONE word you associate with difficult conversations in the classroom? The answer:

Asked what brought us to the session produced an array of responses from a wide range of disciplines and fields:

In the Social Sciences we avoid these conversations but don’t acknowledge that we are avoiding them; We have them but not enough; need to reinvigorate commitment to having them. Social work is all about difficult conversations; Continue reading “Difficult Conversations: Report from CHEP”