– Jeanne M. Slattery
I have been missing my colleagues and students while we have been online during COVID. Zoom, which has only been available since 2013, helps significantly; we would have needed to email lectures, assignments, etc. if there had been a pandemic 15 years ago. Still, many of the normal opportunities for informal engagement are missing: students dropping by before class, interactions at the water cooler, walks to get coffee, and conversations before and after a meeting. I suspect that these outside of class activities are less frequent than they used to be.
These informal meetings are not just adjuncts to teaching but central to the teaching and learning process itself. These interactions help engage students and create a sense of faculty as real people who care about our students (as we do). Together, we consider problems and alternate ways of responding to them, foster our students’ self-efficacy by recognizing their successes, and model what it means to be a professional in our discipline. Some of these tasks can be accomplished during synchronous class discussions, but we must ntentionally build a Community of Inquiry (Garrison et al., 1999; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010) and consciously build one throughout our interactions. See Figure 1. We are less likely to meet these tasks when our students (synchronous or asynchronous) are online.
Community matters. We remember information better when we believe others are also learning it (Shteynberg, 2010). We also feel more strongly when we are in group contexts: scary things are scarier, happy things happier, and sad things sadder (Shteynberg et al., 2014). We can create the cognitive and affective advantages that community offers us when we are teaching online, but it does not come naturally.
My capstone students, for example, had to complete a semester-long research project in Fall 2020. We met synchronously as often and as long as we would normally have done – and I required outside meetings with me – but they didn’t stop by my office before class, and I didn’t see them as they were working together in the lounge outside my office, as I typically would have done. Some projects were very good, but others were weaker than I think they would have been in a F2F semester.
I also have fewer students applying to graduate school this year than typical – although the ones who have applied are doing very well. This change in applications can be explained in several ways, but I wonder whether it is at least partly due to me not seeing them regularly and poking them before class about where they have applied. I have never had an online student ask me for a letter, which is likely a related issue (and that I have taught fewer online courses). One of my students broke my heart today when she said that she doesn’t believe that anyone other than her sister believes in her. I responded to her discussion post telling her that I believe in her, but how much more powerful would my response have been if we had been in the same physical space?
I was talking recently about these ideas with a former student and a long-term colleague. She responded,
I think the thing that made the difference for me at CSC/CUP was knowing my professors, and my professors knowing me. A number of faculty at Clarion recognized me, they encouraged me, they plucked me out of the crowd. Clearly I did something to lead to that recognition but still, if they hadn’t, I would probably be a divorced school teacher in Brookville. I don’t want to offend divorced school teachers in Brookville, though! I just mean, for me, it would have been such a small life. I would have been unhappy, I think, felt so constrained without maybe even knowing why. And so I am sure staying married would have been a big challenge.
Could I have gotten [the encouragement] I needed with an online program? Maybe??? All of the interactions are so different online.
Online is not an equivalent education. It is more convenient and accessible for some, but I fear that some students may choose the convenience of taking classes online and, reach lower than they can achieve without the intentional mentorship that happens more easily face-to-face.
Missing My Colleagues
When I first came here, most of my 10-person department lived in Clarion. All but one lived within ten miles of Clarion. Now, 50% of the tenured and tenure-track members of my department live in Clarion. Other departments have no one living in our county. How does this change affect our departments, programs, and university?
I suspect, even disregarding the proposed changes in the New U, that post-COVID, faculty, courses, and programs will increasingly go online – in PASSHE and the rest of the US. I also suspect that there will be more students choosing to take courses online. What will be the impact of these changes? I expect some students and some faculty and staff will be lost as a result of this change.
There will be many positive consequences from an increasingly virtual college experience (e.g., college in your PJs, flexible schedules, the ability to live nearer family), but there are also negative ones that we should consider. I am not politically conservative, but this is Senator Sasse’s (2018) view on the cultural shift that has taken place over the last thirty years:
Most of us reading (or listening to) this book are mobile. We’re free from the constraints of place—its annoyances and inconveniences, its potentially burdensome obligations—and we’re free to see more of the world, with its extraordinary richness and color. But what have we lost in the process? Increasingly, we’re shackled to the feeling that we don’t belong anywhere, and we’re not bound to people who can anchor us in a place we can call home. (p. 70)
I think about Granovetter’s (1973) classic research on the importance of weak social ties – those interactions at the water cooler, while walking across campus, before and after a meeting. Granovetter argues, “weak ties, often denounced as generative of alienation… are seen here as indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and their integration into communities” (p. 1378).
I think about all of the ideas generated during passing comments in the hall. This article, for example, has been influenced by passing comments from at least four different people. I also think about how I feel more connected to and more willing to contribute to a group with whom I have both strong and weak ties.
What happens to a university when we don’t feel that we belong to it or to a larger university community? What happens to the students, faculty, staff, and administrators if they don’t feel they belong? Will students graduate in a timely fashion or will they move among online programs without a sense of commitment to any single one? How will faculty, staff, and administrators relate to each other and to the university if there isn’t a larger sense of belongingness? What about our alumni and supporters? Will they contribute their work, ideas, and money if the university is only a vague online presence? These are questions we should consider.
Building Online Communities
We may not have a choice about whether there will be a New U, but we do have an opportunity to consider how we will create and build community among all members of our university – within the individual campuses and the larger New U.
What can we do to create a feeling of belongingness among all of the disparate members of our larger university? A former colleague has begun a “watercooler” movement at her university, sending emails with subject lines like this: “Watercooler until 11:15am” (Frantz, 2021). Morling (2021) suggests using polls and chat in Zoom to create this sense of community in the classroom. At the very least, the next time you’re on a New U call, post your name and school. It matters.
Frantz, S. (2021). Watercooler conversations: Weak-ties matter. Macmillan Learning. https://community.macmillanlearning.com/t5/psychology-blog/watercooler-conversations-weak-ties-matter/ba-p/13702#
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105.
Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380.
Morling, B. (2021). Shared attention, please! NOBA. http://noba.to/k5h4ryxf
Sasse, B. (2018). Them: Why we hate each other – and how to heal. St. Martin’s Griffin.
Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education 55(4), 1721-1731.
Shteynberg, G. (2010). A silent emergence of culture: The social tuning effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 683–689.
Shteynberg, G., Hirsh, J. B., Apfelbaum, E. P., Larsen, J. T., Galinsky, A. D., & Roese, N. J. (2014). Feeling more together: group attention intensifies emotion. Emotion, 14(6), 1102–1114.
Jeanne M. Slattery is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org