Faculty voice:

Dan McCole: Teaching during a crisis

March 30, 2020

Dan McCole is an associate professor of tourism and sustainability in the Department of Community Sustainability in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

About fifteen years ago, a few friends and I planned a winter camping trip in the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. We prepared for weeks — gathering the right gear, creating a detailed menu, discussing our routes and potential campsites, etc.  

Eventually, the day came and, after parking our car about an hour’s drive from the nearest small town, we headed out; our cross-country skis and gear-filled sleds gliding across the frozen lakes.

About four hours later, we were nearing the place we planned to camp for our first night, when my buddy John fell through the ice and was completely submerged for almost a minute. It was nearly dusk; the temperature was zero Fahrenheit and dropping. 

What could have been tragic, resulted in the best possible scenario. We had worked quickly to pull John from the water and get him into dry clothing. His gear had been soaked and was now frozen solid, rendering it useless (things that freeze are virtually impossible to unfreeze while winter camping).

It wasn’t long before we acknowledged what we knew to be true. Our trip was over. While we could have continued, it no longer made sense to do so. Besides, the ordeal was frightening and we wanted to be with our families. That tends to happen in a crisis. Goals change. Priorities change. Planning goes out the window. And we want to be with those who bring us comfort. 

The last couple weeks have been like that for me. Although we knew it was heading our way, the reality of COVID-19 snuck up on most of us. A little over two weeks ago, I told my students we might end up moving to online classes for a couple weeks. Even then, I had no idea that less than 24 hours later, students would be sent home for what turned out to be the rest of the semester, and I would teach online for the first time. 

Even though the transition to technology was fairly seamless for me, I still struggled. Suddenly my course didn’t seem so important. The topics I’d carefully selected to cover seemed trivial. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the students. Roughly 75% of the students in my class are graduating seniors, who are grieving the loss of their final semester on campus. 

One student shared with me that she was the first in her family to go to college and was devastated that she might lose her chance to walk across the stage with her family cheering with pride. Several students informed me they’d lost their jobs and weren’t sure how they’d pay their bills. Others mentioned that their parents had lost their jobs or had to close their businesses. Just last night a student informed me that his mom — a nurse — had been exposed to the virus by several people, and he might miss some online classes if he gets sick. Or he might take his younger siblings to his family’s cabin (with no internet service). He wasn’t sure what he should do, but it was clearly weighing on him.  

Hearing from students, I couldn’t help but feel torn. Proceeding with the course content as I typically would is near impossible. But the sense of obligation is there too. They’ve paid tuition to get an education. I had to find a balance between providing a quality education and recognizing the reality of our collective situations. 

And so, I've landed on a few guiding mantras:

  • Be empathic. Whether its students, colleagues, administrators or family, we are all going through a tough time and even if I don’t know the details, someone’s situation is worse than mine.
  • Do not add to students’ stress levels. Whatever changes I make to my course during the transition to distance learning must not add extra stress.
  • Don’t abandon students and their educations. Making life less stressful doesn’t mean eliminating all assignments, lectures and activities. Students and their families sacrifice a lot for them to get a good education. The new coronoavirus doesn’t change that. Besides, many students seem to crave the human interaction of class to talk about things. They also need to know I’m a resource for them.
  • For now, focus only on the basics. I’ve always been pretty good at focusing on the main takeaways for each lesson I teach, but I’ve kicked that skill into overdrive since transitioning to online classes. I’ve dropped a few topics from the remaining syllabus, and I cover less about the topics that made the cut. The extra time is spent checking in with students at the beginning of each class period, and staying on Zoom after class to chat about anything.
  • Don’t take life too seriously. Anyone who knows me, knows that this has always been my mantra. And my students know that humor (or attempted humor) has always been an important part of my teaching style. A worldwide medical crisis must be taken seriously, but it’s no reason to abandon laughter. In a recent online class, I lectured while wearing a tuxedo and changed my background on Zoom so it looked like I was in front of a large colony of penguins in Antarctica. I told my students that I had gone there to social distance and was trying to blend in with my new neighbors. They seemed to get a kick out of it.

Someday (hopefully soon) normalcy will return to our lives, and I’ll go back to my previously established course goals and priorities. The winter after John fell through the ice, my friends and I went back to the same place and had a wonderfully uneventful trip; after all, we weren’t in crisis mode

As for teaching in a tuxedo again?  Time will tell…