Teaching During Trauma or Crisis

Whether we are teaching online or in person or both, we are teaching in a time of global crisis and massive upheaval. Especially as a highly internationalized institution, these are precarious and unstable times. And for many students, these are traumatic times as they worry about loved ones, their own health, and what this means for their future. In this situation, it will be important to balance 1) giving ourselves time and space to respond to the crisis and 2) continuing to provide our core teaching functions. Here are some resources and thoughts on how we can meet this moment in our teaching practices.

#1. Acknowledegment

Just acknowledging that this is a time of difficulty and change can help alleviate unnecessary pressure on your students to act as though everything is fine. Signalling you understand that students are not at 100% can be reassuring, which in turn can help sustain a trusting and productive – if changed – learning environment.

That said, it might not be helpful to make everything about Covid-19. As academics, it might be tempting to turn this into a learning moment. I teach international relations, and the importance of national territorial borders, so the temptation to illustrate so many course themes with reference to what is happening right now is very strong. But I also want my class to be a respite from the constant Covid anxiety. So for the most part, I am trying to avoid these illustrations during class, and instead inviting students to discuss the relationship between course material and Covid-19 on a voluntary basis outside of normal class time.

If you do want to bring Covid-19 into your teaching, here are some resources:

#2. Adaptation

Being willing to make changes in recognition of students’ emotional drain and lack of focus may make it possible to salvage the most important learning outcomes from your course. This adaptive approach is reflected in many of the examples provided under the headings of “Pedagogical Considerations” and “Assessment” above.

#3. Action

Empower students by soliciting and offering suggestions on how they can continue to learn while taking care of themselves.

In case it is at all useful, here is a recent email I sent to my students (slightly edited to make sense to a broader audience).

Hello everyone,

 As I mentioned in class today and last week, I not only recognize but empathize with the distraction and in some cases anxiety that is riling many of you right now. To that end, I’ve been thinking about how we can adjust some of our expectations for the next few weeks. A few ideas about how we can move forward together.

 I invite you to share your thoughts with me on what would help you continue to learn and engage with the course during these difficult times. 

  1. We can hold ourselves to a more flexible standard. For example, I am going to lower expectations regarding your reading comprehension and attention to detail, in recognition that you might be distracted and exhausted from the collective anxiety and uncertainty. I hope you’ll cut yourselves and your peers similar slack. When we are stressed and stretched, people tend to be quicker to anger and insult. Especially in times like these, I like to remind myself to ‘assume positive intent’ rather than taking offense or assuming the worst motives in others. I hope you will show me that generosity of spirit as well.   
  1. We should continue to learn about the world, about history, and the law, and we should continue to engage in intellectually interesting issues. Continuing to engage with this material is valuable long-term to be equipped with important knowledge and analytical skills.  But I also want us to keep learning and conversing because it is good for us in the short term to stay mentally active. We probably shouldn’t spend all day every day thinking about covid19. My hope is that this class can be a place for us to use our brains for something intellectually stimulating, but less emotionally taxing than following the news. 
  1. We should rethink class-prep, in keeping with the need for flexibility mentioned above. To that end, I am going to try to find videos that cover some of the information contained in the assigned readings because for some of you learning through videos might be easier than learning from reading right now. I am also going to go through the reading assignments and make cuts.   
  1. We could rethink class-time too. If you all would like, I can also do a bit more of something I don’t really like to do: lecture. I can do this because you may not be quite as prepared for class as you are typically. So rather than my normal approach of having you generate the most important take-aways from our reading, I can start class with a mini-lecture that will cover some of the important features of the topic/ reading. I know that many of you were just coming into your stride in terms of verbal participation, and I am sad that this situation may derail that somewhat. But do know that I’ve seen your effort and your progress.  
  1. We could re-think assessment.  I am thinking about ways to ratchet down the burden of assignments without giving up on our most important learning objectives. I will take this situation into account in terms of “participation” assessment. On Friday I’ll share some instructions for your research and debate regarding the South China Sea dispute, and I have already cancelled both classes next week to give you that time to do the research. The “deliverable” will be an annotated bibliography and brief summary of findings. I’ll give more instructions later in the week that will hopefully make this assignment very clear, and very manageable. After that, our only ‘assignment’ is the end of year take-home, open-book short essays ‘Consolidation Exercise.’ This will be the same kind of format as the mid-semester Consolidation Exercise. It will probably have more questions, but you’ll also be given more time to complete it. If you have any concerns about your ability to do these assignments, or anticipate any future issues, please let me know. 
  1. We should keep ourselves and each other healthy: Please continue to self-isolate (including not coming to class) if you have any respiratory symptoms (coughing, sniffles, etc.) and to monitor your temperature. You can notify me if you need to Zoom to class and take the time you need to take care of yourself.   

 Please let me know how this all sounds to you and if there are other ideas you have that might help us maintain a productive learning environment and feel a sense of intellectual accomplishment while balancing the need to take care of ourselves during a time of tremendous global hardship.

Prof. Sanger

Additional Resources re: How To Manage Crisis And Trauma In Class