Reaching Out to Students in a Time of “Instructional Resilience”

Maybe it has something to do with the power outages and the shuffling and rescheduling that followed in their wake, but teaching this semester—more than any semester before—has required a lot of follow-ups and check-ins to locate students who have either missed multiple class sessions, failed to submit assignments, or have otherwise gone MIA. While I’ve encountered some issues with absenteeism and missing assignments when leading discussion sections for large lecture courses at Berkeley, I’ve never confronted so many problems with coursework and attendance in the R&C classroom.

In past R&C courses, it seems that weighing course attendance and participation in final grade calculations has provided sufficient extrinsic motivation to keep students attending class sessions regularly. Similarly, a system of gradual deductions applied to assignments submitted late has likely helped to keep writing deadlines on track. However, this semester, I have several students who have missed multiple class sessions and/or multiple assignment deadlines. When I have been able to discuss these matters with them (both in terms of the content they’ve missed and the concerns it poses for their grade) they seem generally unperturbed. Frankly, when so much of the undergraduate culture of achievement at Berkeley seems GPA driven (or at least highly GPA conscious), I’m at a bit of a loss for how to best motivate these students to do the bare minimum as far as participating and completing their writing assignments. 

One of my primary concerns is the breakdown in communication that is happening. I recognize that our students are dealing with a lot every day, and that it is all too easy to fall through the cracks at a large university, especially if you don’t have the skills or knowledge of how to navigate the system (what some call the “unwritten curriculum”). I do my best to reach out via email if I notice that students have missed a few sessions, or haven’t submitted assignments. I try to stage these interventions as kindly as possible, making clear my concern for the student as a person and my commitment to supporting them in the course. But I also don’t want to micromanage college students, or devote so much time and energy to moonlighting as a truancy officer (albeit a nice one).

I’m wondering if others in our group are confronting similar issues this semester (especially post PGE outage), and how you are dealing with them. I’m especially curious to hear about strategies for communicating care and concern and offering additional support that avoid tacitly endorsing or directly exacerbating a kind of customer service approach to teaching. In this brave new world of contingent labor and “Instructional Resilience,” it sometimes seems as if all impediments to student achievement and learning are placed at the feet of instructors—problems to be solved through hard work and pedagogical ingenuity. While I clearly want to see all of my students succeed, I also want to ensure that they remain active agents in their own learning. With at times competing institutional logics at play (changing norms and expectations that, I would add, are not lost on many students), how might we as instructors strike this delicate and important balance?

2 thoughts on “Reaching Out to Students in a Time of “Instructional Resilience””

  1. Thanks for bringing this up, Ryan! I had been wondering whether my students were the only ones who seemed really thrown by the on again/off again quality of this semester. I had a class session about two months ago, right around the time of the first power outage madness, where only two thirds of my students (16/24) of my students showed up. Even though this is something I told myself I would never do, because I don’t think shaming students makes them want to be present, I sent a very shame-y email to the entire class reminding them that 1) there is an attendance policy and 2) I consider not showing up a sign of disrespect to me and to their fellow students, especially those who are leading the class discussion.

    Sending that email made me feel horrible, not least because I then received a veritable flood of emails from the students who had been absent apologizing for not letting me know in advance that they were sick/overwhelmed with midterms/traveling to skateboard competitions. I’m still not sure that sending it was the right move. The net result, however, has been that attendance has been fine since then, and students do make a point of letting me know in advance that they’re going to be gone. It leaves me feeling deeply frustrated, though, since I put all the information about attendance and participation in my syllabus and on my website, and talked about it in the first week of class, yet I still had to break my own rules and shame students into being there.

    This obviously doesn’t have much to do with your actual question, which was how to communicate care and concern to students. I’ve tried to be very honest with my students about my own frustrations with the schedule, and also very flexible when it comes to granting extensions to students who ask for them. One thing I’ve found very helpful, which I was inspired to do after our last meeting, is scheduling individual midterm check-ins with each of the students. We spent most of these meetings talking about their most recent paper, but I made a point to ask how each of them was coping with the power outages and changes in the schedule. Several of them mentioned that they had been affected by the power outages, and one said she hadn’t had power at her house for over a week! I realize that these meetings take up a lot of (unpaid) time outside of class, which not everyone has the ability to do. I’d be curious to hear whether other people have different, potentially more creative ways of dealing with the same challenges.

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    1. I’ve been thinking a lot about the call for “instructional resilience” since that email went out a few weeks ago, and it makes me wonder whether/how/if it is possible to somehow reacquaint students with the value (and precarity) of in-person instruction, such that it might become less necessary to wage what sometimes feels like a futile battle to get them to turn up to class! It feels like “instructional resilience,” at the end of the day, means something like forfeiting in-person class time and making do with a wide variety of other alternatives, for better and for worse. And I deeply sympathize with students who may be frustrated with the continuous interruptions, and who worry about living in a place that is so environmentally vulnerable. I don’t know what the answer is! But I would love to discuss.

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