By Mona Oraby
Amherst College, where I teach, announced on 9 March 2020 that it would move to remote teaching and learning after spring break. Some colleges in the United States made remote pedagogy arrangements earlier, but Amherst was among the first to shift completely for the entire spring semester and require that students leave campus. In the days leading up to that announcement, college-sponsored domestic and international travel was banned. A compulsory travel registry was instituted. Faculty were urged to prepare for the possibility of teaching remotely. Sporting events were closed to non-Amherst affiliated spectators. Facilities were closed to anyone that did not have a college ID. Restrictions on group gatherings were imposed. Guidelines for social distancing were announced and posted around on campus. Tissue boxes, bottles of hand sanitizer, and disinfectants were placed on nearly every surface.
On the last day of our in-person class, what could I say to my students? Their distraught faces were bloated and crumpled from crying and not sleeping the night before. “No one—no one—who comes to Amherst to teach or learn expected this.”
This fall universities and colleges across the country are in contingency mode—putting out fires everywhere. Student noncompliance with Covid-19 honor codes is only part of the story. Administrators’ best efforts to ensure the safety of staff, faculty, and students has not resolved broader structural precarities that can only be partly attributed to the pandemic. Circumstances foreseen and unexpected—from lack of childcare to job loss to risk of personal illness—have interrupted months of course planning and renewed questions that emerged this past spring about the future of higher education. Yet those teaching this year are still thinking about pedagogy in more creatively than at any other time in recent memory. Many are retooling tried and true pedagogical techniques for synchronous, asynchronous, or hyflex online teaching in a way that forges more explicit connections between critical inquiry and political praxis.
Last winter, pre-pandemic, I participated in a pilot program hosted by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at Amherst called the Students as Partners Faculty Learning Community. This program is modeled after the Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT) program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. I was looking for new ways to foster student engagement in Islamic Constitutionalism, the class I teach that for most students is the furthest from what is familiar to them culturally and politically. The novelty (to them) of certain concepts, languages, and histories sometimes undercuts their initial enthusiasm about the course. But it is not always clear what balance to strike between and among the course components. Traditional methods for collecting student feedback, like end-of-semester evaluations, are inadequate for this purpose because they solicit feedback retrospectively. Self-administered mid-semester evaluations can help shape the direction of a course in real time, but I was looking for a mechanism that could provide feedback weekly. This mechanism would not equate achievement on assessments with overall engagement. I wanted to find a way to encourage all students, even those who perform well on written assessments, to participate in discussion.
Discussion is the primary method I use in my teaching to meet a full range of course objectives, from skill acquisition and development to self-reflection. I know from the first day of class that the material is not only unfamiliar to students, but also that much of what they know is based in misconceptions about people and cultures they understand little about. The work of learning together requires that they feel comfortable early and often to communicate uncertainty—in the classroom and during office hours. By giving them ample space to speak and engage one another, they find their voice. They come to see discussion as a central part of the learning process. They learn to value one another’s perspectives and build community outside of class. They work together to engage scholarly debates and consider how these debates challenge prevailing assumptions about Muslim-majority societies or societies where sizable Muslim populations live, and how the constitutional experiences of those societies relate to broader understandings of law in the modern and contemporary world. This process of interaction and exchange invites them to think more critically about their perceptions not only of legal traditions beyond their milieu, but also the context in which those traditions are practiced. When students do not participate in discussion, or don’t do so actively, their learning experience is stunted.
The pilot program was convened by the CTL to enhance course design and pedagogical choices following recent literature on this topic. Students chosen for the program collaborated with faculty as they taught a course primarily by providing feedback on the professor’s teaching. The faculty participants selected their student partners. And CTL staff helped faculty choose a partnership model based on the pedagogical goals for the class we were teaching. I chose to collaborate with Sophia Friedman, one of my departmental advisees who has taken two of my courses, though not Islamic Constitutionalism. It was by working with her that I realized more fully the importance of soliciting and incorporating student feedback on how we teach, not just what we teach—as we teach. By mid-semester Sophia and I had a shared understanding of the classroom environment and the learning styles of students enrolled in the course. We developed a range of strategies for different students that would encourage each one to contribute more actively and substantively to classroom discussion. I tested these strategies iteratively and adjusted as needed, often in conversation with Sophia about how well my pedagogy reinforced the course objectives.
What happened to this collaboration in March 2020? No doubt the sudden campus closure and switch to remote teaching raised questions about the sustainability of the program and my partnership with Sophia. But Sophia and I were motivated to continue our work. We were fortunate that our circumstances allowed us to continue. By then there was a renewed urgency to stay the course: As was the case nationwide, the closing of our campus had an adverse effect on student motivation. When students scattered across the country and across the world, their capacity for continued learning was affected by where and around whom that learning would take place. Professors and students who typically teach and learn in small college settings—where nearly all students live and study on campus—confronted for the first time and on screen the extent of structural disparities in their home environments. Access to privacy and technology varied dramatically from student to student. Student engagement mattered more than ever before but was also more difficult to foster and sustain.
Post-spring break, when all classes started online, Sophia continued to observe my class once a week over Zoom and we held our weekly debriefing sessions—also over Zoom. We were motivated to experiment with different pedagogical techniques like discussion maps that we hadn’t used in prior weeks. The virtual context of teaching and learning allowed Sophia to map our discussions in a way that was not possible before March, since doing so in a physical classroom would likely have distracted the enrolled students. I also inserted Sophia into different Zoom breakout rooms to get her perspective on what participation looked like in my absence, so to speak. By the end of the semester, the discussion maps that she drew indicated more active student participation. I benefited from the added perspective Sophia offered on how best to encourage students to translate vibrant small-group discussions within the breakout rooms into the bigger class-wide conversation.
Everyone in higher education today—students, staff, faculty, and administrators—has to adapt to the uncertainties wrought and exacerbated by the pandemic. But the meaning of adaptability has since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 taken on a specific urgency. The political upheaval of this past summer and increasing momentum around equity and inclusion demands dismantling institutional racism. What adaptability means in the pedagogues’ lexicon now, if it was latent before, requires vigilance against inequities of various kinds. Disparities in work opportunities and failures of public health that make certain demographics in the United States more likely than others to face job loss and infection has no shortage of analogues in higher education. There is no doubt that digital infrastructures for teaching and learning, not to mention for health and safety, are more available to some students and to some professors at some institutions and not others. This disparity needs its own reckoning. The conversation has started. Faculty-student collaboration is a model for the antiracist pedagogies being called for now: it builds intergenerational alliance, acknowledges teaching and learning as co-creative processes, and reimagines the nature of work in the university.
Thank you to Sophia Friedman for insightful comments on earlier drafts of this series of essays.