Homework in a Time of Quarantine

“Eighty percent of life,” said Woody Allen, “is showing up.” Fortunately at times like these, eighty percent of school is homework. As most of my readers are aware, the Danish university campuses are closed for the next two weeks in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. But this does not mean that school is out for the students. Classes are still formally in session and we have been asked to develop online alternatives to on-site instruction. While I don’t want to disparage those who have poured a lot of energy and creativity into holding their classes online (see Andrew’s post, for example), I have decided to keep things as simple as possible, for both myself and my students. In this post, I want to say a few things about what I’ve decided to do, and why.

The basic principle is the one I stated at the outset. Closing the campus affects only about 20% of the activities that a university education provides. Most of the time, students should be reading and writing at home. The most important thing, therefore, is to make sure that these activities keep happening, and continue to be meaningful for the students. In principle, the students should be fine for two weeks just following the existing course syllabus in their reading, supplemented with some questions to answer in writing. But it’s a minimal solution and it can be vastly improved with very little effort.

I say that the students ought to be fine with individual homework “in principle”. In practice, of course, that may a bit optimistic. Will the students read if they’re not preparing for a class? Will they write the suggested essays? Will they understand the readings and the questions well enough to get something out of it? This will vary from student to student, and some students will no doubt find the individual exercises meaningless.

While I think this tells us something important about how dependent higher education has become on instruction, and how dependent students have become on their teachers, I don’t want to “politicize” the crisis. Later on, when we start talking about how to make institutions resilient to pandemics and other disasters, I’m sure I’ll want to return to it. Too much in academic life has become subject to external deadlines and “extrinsic motivation”, which, I believe, has made both research and teaching much more vulnerable than it should be.

But this, like I say, is no time to solve that problem. I bring it up now in order to think about all the things we can do keep students on track and motivated.

Since I want to keeps things simple, let’s start with some old-fashioned technologies. Most of our classes will be using some form of Learning Management System, to which the students already have ready access. (If not, email can be used for everything I’m about to suggest.) This will allow you to post instructions from day one. While you can begin to think about video lectures, I recommend you start with some clearly written advice and guidance for how the students should spend their time at home.

Basically, you will be using your LMS as a kind of blog (or you may just set up a blog, or use the one you have), where you regularly suggest readings and exercises for the students to be doing at home. I also recommend you set up a forum, where students can ask questions if they get stuck. (Alternatively, a comment field will do.) The tasks should be so simple that they know they’re stuck simply if they don’t know what to do. “Read Act II of Hamlet,” is perhaps easier said than done, but there’s no question about what they should be doing. Even better: “Read Act II of Hamlet out loud.” That way there can be no doubt in their minds whether they’re doing the assignment!

By a similar token, ask them to write paragraphs in well-defined writing moments. Have them work on their discipline. As much as possible, let them decide what to write about (or at least what to say) themselves. Ask them to make a plan to write at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words in 18 or 27 minutes the next day. Have them think seriously about who they’re talking to and how to say it. Again, after reading your instructions, it should be easy for them to know whether or not they’re doing what you’ve asked them to, irrespective of whether they think they’re doing it well or right. Have them do the assignments and similar assignments again, i.e., get them to repeat them. Tell them they are practicing. Like all practice, the task should be become easier with time and repetition. That’s how they know they’re learning.

Finally, a word about feedback. (I’ll say more about all these things in the days to come.) It is possible to facilitate feedback online by having students exchange their texts with each other. Here, too, keep the task simple and limited in time, so they can do it or not do it without any ambiguity about whether it’s one or the other. My “unfiltered feedback” exercise can easily be done by Skype (or even just phone). And most of it can be done in writing. If you want, you can pick one or more examples from a class set of submissions and do it as a short, 9-minute video. (I’ll demonstrate this in the coming days, too.)

I hope that is helpful to all those who are trying to cross these new social distances. Remember, academic writing is not “the loneliness that is the truth of things”. It’s a conversation among knowledgeable peers, and that conversation has always been mostly virtual. Eighty percent of school is homework.

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