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A Year Since Lockdown: From Pedagogical Solitude to Community Conversations

Co-authors: Eva Dobler, Jennie Ferris, Carolyn Samuel

 We are three colleagues who do educational development work at McGill University’s Teaching and Learning Services. When on-campus, we share an office where we frequently interact with one another: we collaborate on projects; provide each other with feedback on our work; and appreciate the collegiality afforded by the proximity of our desks and the ability to periodically swivel around in our chairs to share anecdotes about our work day. March 13, 2021 marked a year since the “lockdown” and thus a year since we’ve been physically distanced from our shared workspace and each other. We decided to co-author this blog post as a way to capture, in some measure, that on-campus feeling we appreciate of working together. 

The negative social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been far-reaching. Through our educational development work with instructors, which involves providing resources, support, recognition, and development opportunities, we have seen and continue to see that many instructors are exhausted. They are exhausted, and overwhelmed, from spending hours adapting their course content for remote teaching, learning to implement new technologies, seeking strategies to support student well-being, all the while dealing with their own emotional labour and managing their lives outside work. Their efforts have been unrelenting for a year. It is not surprising that pandemic-induced instructor burnout, a frequently-addressed topic in recent publications (e.g., The Pandemic Is Dragging On. Professors Are Burning Out; Regroup and Refocus: Strategies to Avoid Professor Burn Out; Faculty Members Are Suffering Burnout. These Strategies Could Help), is a concern. Yet, not to dismiss these concerns, in this blog post, we are focusing on something positive that we have noticed emerging over the past year: more instructor-inspired conversations about teaching are happening at our research-intensive university and beyond, and these conversations have the potential for leading to lasting positive changes around teaching and learning in higher education.  

Instructors are talking more about teaching than they used to with educational developers. Throughout the pandemic, instructors have engaged us in conversations, far more frequently than they usually do, about how they can support their students’ learning. They have been asking us about ways to engage students in learning, promote interaction with and among students, use technology tools to help students achieve learning outcomes, and design assessments to allow students to demonstrate their learning in ways other than with the traditional time-bound, on-site invigilated exam. Indeed, the pandemic has nudged instructors to adopt a lexicon of pedagogy that now, a year into the pandemic, rolls off the tongues of many. 

Instructors are talking more about teaching than they used to with each other. University teaching is quite often a lonely act. In fact, a term has been coined for it in higher education: pedagogical solitude (Shulman, 1993). It refers to the observation that university instructors typically don’t talk with each other about their teaching. In other words, what happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom. Indeed, instructors have often told us they don’t talk to one another about their teaching. This solitude is unfortunate because the benefits of sharing teaching experiences and strategies can be substantial. For example, sharing can build confidence and inspire change. So, when the immediate shift to remote instruction compelled instructors to quickly learn new skills and create resources, they started to call on colleagues in ways they hadn’t previously. Over the past months, we have witnessed many instructors at various stages of their careers join small discussion groups to learn about the implementation of a new strategy or participate in peer-led training sessions to familiarize themselves with features in Zoom, evidence that instructors have broken with the tradition of pedagogical solitude.

People in higher education are sharing more – instructors and educational developers alike – and so are institutions and professional networks. Despite the increased geographic distance between offices as many continue to work from home, we’ve been struck by how in this time of physical distancing, people are coming together (virtually) across units, disciplines and institutions to share strategies, resources, ideas, and to acknowledge the challenges that persist. These sharing opportunities take many forms – town halls, webinars, virtual coffee chats, article exchanges, conference links, or noting committee structures or initiatives that have been meaningful and useful in supporting teaching and learning in disruptive times, to name but a few. In the face of continually evolving circumstances and a sometimes-overwhelming deluge of information, colleagues across the university and beyond have been reaching out to one another, offering and requesting support, disrupting long-existing silos, and pulling together amidst challenges.  

These conversations are not trivial: from a socio-cultural/constructivist perspective, dialogue with others is a way to build knowledge (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). As instructors’ knowledge grows about various ways to engage students in learning and assess that learning, so does their capacity to implement changes—improvements—to their practice. We thus believe the changes instructors have made in response to the pandemic will prove to be a boon to higher education. With a view to finding the most contextually appropriate ways to support their students’ learning, instructors have been compelled to scrutinize their teaching practice. They have thus engaged in dialogue with educational developers, peers, and other networks to get ideas for broadening their instructional strategy repertoires.

While the connections and conversations began perhaps by necessity, in the frantic early weeks of the pandemic, we truly hope they will continue intentionally post-pandemic, by design. We see the increase in the number of colleagues reaching out as a positive sign for the months to come. We can imagine that instructors’ efforts applied to course design and their intentional decisions about teaching strategies will continue to lead to improvements in teaching and learning, as many instructors prepare for a return to on-campus teaching in upcoming months. Recognizing that many challenges of the pandemic teaching context remain, we are nonetheless cautiously optimistic that this increased attention to and communication about teaching within and among universities will be sustained. 

References 

Shulman, L. S. (1993). Teaching as community property. Change, 25(6), 6-7. http://depts.washington.edu/comgrnd/ccli/papers/shulman1993TeachingAsCommunityProperty.pdf

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Photo credit: Compare Fibre on Unsplash 

Senior Academic Associate at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services.; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning; will work for chocolate (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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