Shifting Online

The global pandemic (COVID-19) has universities deciding to shift classes from in-person to online quicklyquickly ranging from overnight to something like three weeks. Shorter than a couch-to-5k, in other words. As rapid changes like these spread through higher education, people speculate, wondering what it means, how long such changes will last, whether anyone (students and faculty alike) is really prepared, and so on. Everyone’s doing their part to make sense of an unfamiliar phenomenon, and that sense-making takes a variety of shapes–blobby, tentative, many temporary. A medical doctor in this coffee shop just walked in and said to me oh, hey, VT (coffee mug gifted from a former grad student gives it away); “this is gonna be okay; there’s a 97% survival rate.”

Insofar as the generally altruistic goal of social distancing as a measure to reduce human to human contact and thereby to slow rates of transmission, campuses are un-bunching themselves, emptying the dorms as much as possible, interrupting residential and study abroad programs, adjusting. Just yesterday afternoon I was emailed a fair forewarning heads-up–come up with a plan for supporting teachers in the Composition Program if and when this shift happens. I had a call with the program’s associate director, opened a Google Doc, and we generated with help from others on the leadership team a six page document: 1) key principles guiding modified teaching in Spring 2020, 2) reasonable and appropriate curricular adjustments, 3) allowances for the labor involved with adjusting a class initially designed to happen in-person, 4) a caveat about how this is not an effort to forge at overdrive clip through elaborate training in Online Writing Instruction, and 5) a modest collection of resources for re-orienting instructional staff to the university’s LMS. I don’t know if this is the right approach. It is a lean approach–minimalist, humane, focused as narrowly as possible on the problem before us as an eight-week problem, a getting-to-May-6 problem. COVID-19 and social distancing efforts may continuing into summer and fall, but we will think together about appropriate pedagogical responses to those terms later. If and when we get the email to go ahead, we will circulate the Spring 2020 plan with what we believe will suffice for now in its honoring student and instructor well-being; urging flexibility and direct, timely communication; and extending again the forms of support we can make available (responsiveness to questions, openness to working through specific problems, general and continuing availability, administrative reassurance, etc.). No magic beans; no more warrants for drama or anxiety than the pandemic has already touched off.

In talking through the shift to online and upon witnessing quite a bit of buzz about what such a shift presumes about the work of teaching and learning, the planning involved, or the nimbleness of faculty–conceptual, communicative, and technological nimblenesses varied and intersecting as they are–there’s been a (at risk of sounding mildly judgmental, I’ll say it) clumsy differentiation between face-to-face and online teaching. True, at its crudest, some teaching happens with human bodies in the same room at the same time and some other teaching happens with human bodies not in the same room at the same time. We’re at the cusp of a pivot from one model to the other. But that other model–the one where human bodies are not in the same room at the same time–need not measure itself against the intricate and expert apparatuses now long established informing online pedagogies. That is, for now, in this switch-over, we don’t have to lug out the longest-scrolling web pages or the heaviest volumes on online instruction. We don’t have to school everyone new to teaching in online environments about the intricacies and affordances; getting to May 6 is a make-do goal. With this in mind, I’ve been partial to framing this not as a full, frenzied move to online writing instruction (OWI in a hurry), but instead as an ad hoc Spring 2020 modification in which we do our best to solve a short-term problem, respecting novice-ness as genuine (and vulnerable) and exercising scope restraint. Rather than touting this as a full and comprehensive shift online, I’m advocating for something more like online-lite, a minimalist approach cast perhaps a bit more in the shadow of correspondence courses than media-rich and daresay over-produced LMS-sparkled palaces. We can in time make sure everyone knows about the scholarly traditions informing such well-designed, well-made online courses, and, to the extent that pandemic-motivated social distancing becomes more world feature than world bug, we can get better at tying in our programs with that important body of work. But for now, for this moment, a spare approach will suffice:

  • communicate with students (promptly and supportively)
  • express clear and as-stable-as-possible dates and times for drafts and intervals of drafts
  • let existing course materials (curriculum maps and textbooks) do the work they were set in place to do
  • build in constructive interactions, focused as much as possible on uncertainties, opportunities for developing the draft (feedback-oriented stuff whether with peers or instructor led). Also, check out Bill Hart-Davidson’s “Feedback Cultures – A Guide For Teachers Thinking about Moving Student-Centered Learning Online” at
  • err on the side of being positive, constructive, encouraging, and reassuring with students, with colleagues, with administrators working fitfully to unpick snarled problems, but especially with students.

For right now, for this moment, that’s enough.

Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA)

A few weeks ago, I attended a “Regional Faculty Conversation” about the new Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA), an effort to update and improve seamless transfer among Michigan’s community colleges and public colleges and universities. There were three such conversations across the state in three days. I attended the four-hour get-together at Washtenaw Community College along with approximately 50 faculty and administrators from other programs in SE Michigan (e.g., Jackson College, Schoolcraft, Washtenaw CC, Henry Ford, Wayne State, Saginaw Valley State, UM-Dearborn, and EMU). The new MTA is an update to MACRAO, which has been the acronym used to name a comparable agreement initiated 42 years ago (though not updated since) and also for the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers.

The MTA was approved by the state-wide Council of Presidents last September, and it is scheduled to begin this fall. According to those who led the conversation, the state legislature prompted the update to MACROA in 2011. Generally, the agreement is a good idea. It is student-friendly and it stands to encourage efforts across two- and four-year colleges to make sure their lower division courses bear family resemblance. It brings Michigan into alignment with comparable efforts in other states. And it is long overdue. Forty-two years should not pass without such an agreement being revisited, but that’s the sort of thick-crust stagnation that becomes possible absent any high education authority in the state.

I’m writing a bit about MTA, though, and translating my notes into this entry, because the agreement includes a significant change related to writing. This slide sums up that change. Additional materials from the meeting are available at the Michigan Center for Student Success website.

Essentially, the highlighted lines indicate that the old agreement, MACRAO, required students to complete a two-course sequence in writing. MACRAO is clear about this point: students had to complete six credit hours in English Composition. The MTA, however, allows students to satisfy the agreement (and therefore, to become eligible for a full general education waiver) with one composition course and a second course in composition or speech. The new requirement requires less writing, and yet we are at the same time hearing continued pleas for more writing on all sides, particularly among campus stakeholders.

It might not seem like much, but this change creates conditions at odds with the design of first-year writing programs premised on a Comp I and Comp II sequence, in which Comp I offers foundational experience with writing in college and Comp II builds upon and extends those experiences to include research-based academic writing. The new MTA appears to create a path into the university along which students could satisfy general education never having explicit, direct experience with research-based academic writing. Stop for a moment to consider this. I mean this as a fair characterization of what the MTA sets up, and I would urge caution before weighing in with axiological conclusions, tempting though they might be. Late last summer, Michigan WPAs wrote, signed, and sent a letter expressing concerns about this change, but the Council of Presidents approved the MTA and assented to its Fall 2014 implementation in spite of the request for more consideration of the change to writing and input from faculty colleagues with expertise, training, and experience in rhetoric/composition/writing studies and writing program administration.

This preamble should be enough to catch others up on a few of the concerns that continuing faculty conversations might address.

  • At the May 15 Regional Faculty Conversation, there was quite a bit of discussion about convening a subcommittee who would suggest changes to the MTA that would clarify the focus of the composition course required to satisfy the MTA. Without such clarification, the MTA (as written) appears to allow one-credit writing courses (i.e., nothing explicitly prohibits this). It also allows combinations of Comp I and speech. Comp I could be online, accelerated, basic skills focused, or just about anything ranging from computationally scored five-paragraph themes to full-on project-based and portfolio-assessed courses. The subcommittee would, as much as possible, define common ground for the composition course. But would its input be incorporated into MTA? At the May 15 meeting, it remained unclear whether revisions, amendments, or footnotes could be introduced after this fall. Notably, the MTA doesn’t include any explicit provision for updates or future revisions.
  • Input throughout the process was either mishandled, miscommunicated, or never regarded as especially important by those organizing and leading the project. It’s not clear. Perhaps there was a sense that representation was adequate? To be fair, input would have slowed the process down, and it would have been resource-intensive to invite and involve more people. Math faculty were able to convene a group who collaborated to define the expectations for the math course. But writing did not receive a comparable invitation until recently, after the agreement was approved. Pressing this point–why, exactly?–brought to the surface different characterizations of how the MTA developed, from one version suggesting it was measured and deliberative, evenspread over the two years it was developed to another version indicating that the change to the composition requirement happened at the last minute.
  • The rationale for the change to writing is also difficult to pinpoint. Nobody would confirm it at the May 15 meeting, but it has elsewhere surfaced speculatively that the last minute change was an effort to bring Michigan State on board with the agreement. That is, because MSU only requires one composition course and a speech course, it creates conditions amenable to transferring to or away from MSU, which, once it was on board, was the largest public university in the state to participate in the agreement (i.e., University of Michigan does not). Whether or not this is valid, the changes to the writing requirement should have been based on something more substantive, e.g., evidence from participating institutions about how students with or without a two-course writing sequence during the first two years of college fare relative to their counterparts who do not take two writing courses. If they graduate at equal rates, maybe there isn’t anything more to consider here (aside from the caveat that high-achieving high school students oftentimes by-pass the two-course sequence because of exemptions and waivers).
  • Authority for the agreement remains ambiguous. That is, Michigan does not have a higher ed authority, and the MTA does not come with an implementation officer (even temporarily; its implementation is steered primarily by a 13-page handbook and a few similar documents, including FAQs and checklists. Who should programs contact for an authoritative stance on whether or not a program can require a course for MTA-eligible students, provided that same course is required for all FTIACs? The MTA seems to be rolling out with loose consent, and the agreement itself, as written, doesn’t spell out strict conditions that adopters must follow. For instance, at EMU, we’re told we can continue to require Writing Intensive courses as a fixture in General Education, but we cannot require all students satisfy ENGL/WRTG121: Comp II or its equivalent because that’s considered a “proviso,” and provisos are prohibited by the MTA.

That’s enough for now. Like I said, I don’t see much urgency in guessing how this is going to play out. I put my name in for the committee and would consider pitching in if and when such a group convenes. I suspect we already have more consensus across programs than we have had much chance to explore, much less articulate. And in fact, one of the most promising take-aways from the regional faculty meeting was a sense that we could begin exploring something like a SE Michigan alliance of writing programs that would help us tremendously toward articulating what we hold in common curricularly and also bench-marking for the persistent WPA arguments concerning part-time lecturer (over)reliance, full-time lecturer teaching loads, course caps, and so on. Other than that, as far as the MTA is concerned, we will continue to seek better institutional data that can tell us how FTIACs who take the two-course sequence compare with FTIACs who take only ENGL/WRTG121: Comp II compare with transfer students, in all matters of retention and graduation rates as well as performance in upper division WI courses. Better data will help us understand whether we have cause to be concerned, whether we have exigency to make further adjustments to the writing curriculum at EMU.