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Collaboration and Listening: Lifelines for Teaching Writing in a Pandemic

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By: Sarah Hart Micke and Angela Sowa, Teaching Associate Professors, University Writing Program

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We chose to write this reflection collaboratively because collaboration, dialogue, and listening were the most meaningful aspects of the CCESL Faculty Fellows experience for both of us–albeit in different ways, and for different reasons. We both teach first-year writing in DU’s Writing Program, and while we both prioritize listening as a cornerstone of our pedagogy, we do so in quite different ways. Throughout our experience in the CCESL Faculty Fellows group, we found ourselves pondering a key question: What role does community engagement play in our respective pedagogies?In Sarah’s WRIT 1122 course especially, her community partnership with a local elementary school is her key method for teaching students about engaging rhetorically and ethically with audiences, through writing and listening. But COVID brought an abrupt pause to this partnership, requiring her to completely redesign her WRIT 1122 course after suddenly adapting her WRIT 1133 course online in Spring 2020. For Angie, who partners with a first responder agency in a Writing Minor course, the unknowability of COVID made her rethink her goals, positionality, and pedagogy in significant ways.  

At the beginning of Fall 2020, I, Sarah, found myself launching not only an asynchronous online section of my WRIT 1133 course on Mindfulness, but also helping coordinate some new departmental projects remotely–while trading childcare responsibilities with my partner. Our 1-year-old daughter stayed home with us for the first 5 months of the pandemic, and when we tried to send her back to daycare in August, she brought home a series of colds, the first of which left my partner in isolation for days before we received his negative COVID test. Although we technically had full-time childcare, the reality was a rollercoaster of a few full work days followed by a week or more of caring for a sick kid at home. With my class specifically, I’d been expecting students to be a bit more accustomed to remote learning. They’d known from the beginning that my class was online, and they’d had the option to register for a hybrid class instead if they’d wanted an in-person component. But no. This class struggled more than any other I’ve taught during the pandemic. I tried my best to reach out to students online, offering meetings and support in whatever way I could. Altogether, balancing students, projects, meetings, and childcare felt like a lot. As I told one colleague, “I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired at the beginning of fall quarter.”    

But the CCESL Faculty Fellows group was a lifeline when I felt the chaos closing in. Our meetings were informative, but also profoundly reflective, and therefore grounding. Having time to just talk with colleagues about what we were observing with our students and community partners, and about imagining better futures with our collaborators, was sustaining. It was a much-needed dialogic space focused not simply on accomplishing more, but on learning, reflecting, and being now so we could recharge and do better later. Some of the most meaningful moments in this dialogue for me were hearing about Nadia’s graduate course on writing for nonprofits and about Ben’s FSEM on Buddhism. It was inspiring to hear from colleagues teaching ideas similar to my own class on Mindfulness and the nonprofit writing course I co-taught with Angela a few years ago. Perhaps most of all, hearing about other faculty’s classes and creating a shared log of what we were all learning during these trying times helped me think through challenges with my own students as well as prepare for future community-engaged courses. In this setting, listening was an invaluable avenue for learning and restoring.    

In similar ways to Sarah, I, Angela, found myself in a challenging situation in Fall 2020, not only grappling with the challenges of teaching an in-person FSEM amid pandemic restrictions, but also managing the chaotic world of my 3rd grader’s school, which went from in-person learning to remote learning back to in-person learning, complete with unpredictable quarantines that affected our whole family. To say this was stressful is an understatement, and we additionally chose to keep our younger daughter out of daycare, which added to the chaos. I’ll echo Sarah’s above statement that by the time fall quarter began, I was already dealing with a deep feeling of fatigue; while much of the country seemed to be ready to “move on” from the COVID lockdown, I looked at my professional and personal life and felt I was still in survival mode.    

My FSEM students were also struggling mightily in the fall quarter, and I struggled to know how to help them navigate their first quarter at DU; all the normal supports and engagements I’d relied on in the past were off the table – we couldn’t meet for dinner, they couldn’t just stop by to chat in my office, I couldn’t bring coffee and donuts to our 8am section and circle us all up for chit chatting. Both my students and I desperately wanted normalcy and a sense of safety, well-being, and growth, but we felt like we were in a holding pattern, just waiting till we could have these things again.    

It’s in this time of stress and dissonance that I found myself in the CCESL Faculty Fellows group. I had Zoom fatigue and was dubious about the benefits of more time on screen, but I quickly found the time was worthwhile. The informal and reflective focus of the meetings was refreshing; in a time where all my other meetings were hyper-focused on efficiency and deliverables and, it often felt, the creation of busywork to offset physical distance, it was beneficial to spend time on reflection, mindfulness, and community. I particularly valued the activities led by Dan Singer and others that focused on futures; what will my future self remember from this moment? How will my future self have adapted? And what important aspects of my pedagogy will my future self use that were seeded in this chaotic pandemic time? For me, considering the value and benefit of “the now” helped me see that I wasn’t just in a holding pattern, waiting for things to “go back to normal.” These difficult times have taught me lessons about how I want to be in the future, as a colleague, as an educator, and as a member of my community. And the Faculty Fellows program allowed me space to process, reflect, and understand this future.    

I also found profound value in the CCESL Faculty Fellows meetings because they allowed time to connect and share with faculty members across campus, many of whom I’d never met before, and to see not only how others were succeeding (which was inspiring) but also how they were struggling (which was affirming and comforting). Without in-person interaction within my department, which I’ve realized I rely heavily on for professional and pedagogical development, I felt I was out at sea alone, listing in the wind and unsure about my direction. These meetings allowed for faculty to just touch base with one another, and that gave me an important sense of grounding and connection I was sorely missing.     

In a year when so much was strange, and when we, Sarah and Angela, struggled to find space for meaningful connections, both with colleagues and with students, we greatly valued the opportunities afforded by CCESL through the Faculty Fellows program. The synchronicity, reflective emphasis, and ability to connect with other faculty across campus made this an invaluable experience.  

This reflection was completed during the 2020-2021 “Faculty Fellows: Community-Engaged Teaching in COVID Times” program. To learn about this year’s Community of Practice, please visit our website here. The program was a collaborative effort organized by the Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning, the University Writing Program, and the Office of Teaching and Learning and was generously supported by DU Academic Affairs.