Teaching in a Time of Crisis: “This week’s readings weren’t dry:” Reading, Listening, and Virtual Seminar Engagement

Published on May 18, 2021

From January to April 2021, I was one of two teaching assistants for the introductory course, Health & Society: From the Black Death to Breaking Bad, at the University of Saskatchewan.  This was the second time I was a TA for the course, but conducting seminars and student supports online was new to me. Having now completed this term, I can reflect on some on what I observed as a teaching assistant. The success of the seminars for this first-year course was based on a foundational dedication to being kind, flexible, and understanding of student needs. This extended to expectations surrounding weekly assigned “reading” materials. In this post, the third in our four-part series “Teaching in a Time of Crisis,” I reflect on the successes and challenges of various “readings” and how student engagement in seminars was influenced by the type, length, and style of each week’s materials.

On a personal level, I found it challenging to carry on like normal during pandemic times. In the previous year, I helped to lead the same course when the University closed due to increasing cases of Covid-19. With this online iteration, remote teaching presented its challenges. Staring at a blank screen of names and having students engage primarily in the chat during weekly seminars was awkward. But I was continuously surprised at the eagerness of students to engage with materials and each other. The weekly seminars were a very successful part of the overall course and most students shared that they looked forward to the discussions each week.

As Karissa Patton mentioned in her blog last week, the topic of health history often felt heavier than in previous years. However, there were opportunities to engage with lighter materials that students appreciated. At the beginning of our tenth seminar meeting, around the end of March and just after the “pandemiversary”, one of my students typed in the chat that “this week’s readings weren’t dry!” The topic for the week’s lectures and seminars was Drugs and Big Pharma and, indeed, the blog post that they were asked to read about the history of Gin and Tonic, by Jay Young is not “dry,” in multiple senses. The comment was funny and sparked a lively conversation about the history of drugs, colonialism, imperialism, and global trade. One student even shared that a gin and tonic is their go-to-drink, so this was a fascinating blog for them to reflect on and share with their friends.

Several factors contributed to successful student engagement with this reading in the virtual seminar room. The length of the reading, the topic, and timing all shaped their willingness to speak to the reading. As students progressed through their own FYRE project research, first with a secondary source analysis, then a primary source analysis, their overall engagement with readings improved. They were increasingly able to think critically about any given source, and they engaged with historical thinking concepts. The importance of skill building in this first-year course was clearly reflected in seminar engagement as we moved through the term.

In adapting the reading work-load to the virtual learning space, the number of academic articles the students were expected to read was decreased. We replaced traditional articles and book chapters with historical blog posts, podcasts, and videos to vary the mediums students engaged with in the hopes that their interest, and attention span, could be maintained. This was met with mixed success across our seminar sections. Most of the time, students were thankful for the shorter readings in the form of historical blog posts. However, at times they struggled to identify historical arguments when the blogs were more narrative in style, which is not uncommon among first-year history students.

While blogs were uniformly popular, students’ reception of podcasts was mixed. Those who enjoyed them expressed a gratitude for being able to listen to assigned material and rest their eyes - podcasts offered them some much needed time away from their screens. Those who hated the podcasts expressed their frustrations over the inability to know when to take notes, having to listen to the material multiple times to digest it, or faced some difficulty in even accessing the podcasts. This often resulted in the students not listening to the material at all, and an obvious lull in the conversation during seminars. The online discussion format made navigating these gaps in the conversation particularly challenging. There were no visual cues – flipping through notes, avoiding eye contact – to help me discern if they were refreshing their memories, had missed the part I asked about, or had not listened to the podcast at all!

While blogs and podcasts provided students opportunities to still engage in historical thinking, videos, perhaps unsurprisingly, were always well received. Whether it was a short satirical video about the history of marijuana or longer documentary films, videos in general prompted more discussion among students than readings. Videos often generated the most questions and students were most able to connect these sources to other secondary sources and themes from previous weeks.

The more typical reading material for a history course, academic articles and chapters, presented a challenge for students at first. As mostly first-year students, many were still unsure how to read these sources for class and how to prepare for seminars. To help guide students, this year I created a seminar syllabus that included a set of suggested questions to prepare. When multiple academic articles or chapters were assigned for one week, students could choose one to read. This seemed to work well and offered the students the chance to read whichever piece they preferred. Surprisingly, there was consistently an even split between the readings. This allowed me to put students in breakout rooms and ask them to begin their conversation with a brief overview of the article they read for their peers – ensuring that each breakout room had at least one reader of each article. This gave students a chance to review their own knowledge of the article by teaching it to their peers. It typically sparked conversation about similarities and differences between the articles, the authors’ approaches, and primary source use in forming a historical argument.

Breakout rooms saw a mix of student engagement and preference. Many of my students appreciated the chance to turn their cameras on and engage with their peers in smaller discussion groups. However, there were also some students who expressed a strong hatred of breakout rooms. Balancing these student preferences in our attempts to build a rapport among, and with, students was an ongoing challenge. Next week, in the final post in this series, Derek Cameron expands on this struggle to build rapport with students in a virtual space.

Alternatives to academic articles - historical blogs, videos, and podcasts – which were incorporated into the weekly “reading” materials for this course had an obvious impact on student engagement in seminars. These are increasingly important, and accessible, mediums for sharing academic research and knowledge among instructors and researchers. In particular, they often showcase graduate student, early career, or alternative career historians’ work and these are important voices to include in our course delivery. The inclusion of secondary sources beyond academic articles not only responded to and respected the needs of pandemic-era, online learning but also fostered skills that will help students become critical thinkers in other classes and beyond the classroom.

Letitia Johnson is a PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan who studies the history of race, ethnicity, and health in Canada. Her dissertation examines Japanese Canadian internment during the Second World War through a healthcare lens. She is also the current Graduate Student Representative on the CHA Council. You can find her on Twitter at @leti_johnson

Letitia - 4 May

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