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Pandemic Pedagogy and the Limits of Compassion

Pandemic Pedagogy and the Limits of Compassion 

One professor’s hard-earned lessons from teaching in a continuing emergency 

By Beckie SupianoJune 19, 2020  

When Laura Tilghman learned in March that Plymouth State University was moving its courses online, she was relieved. 

Tilghman, an assistant professor of anthropology whose research interests include global health, had been following the coronavirus with growing concern. Even if her corner of New Hampshire was safe, she thought, students traveled all over for spring break and could bring the virus back with them. She was particularly worried about her 4-year-old daughter, who has asthma and had been hospitalized for respiratory problems when she was younger. 

But Tilghman also knew that the move online would be tough. The pandemic forced professors to redesign their in-person courses for online teaching — usually an intensive, monthslong undertaking — in a matter of days, and in the middle of the semester. It required them to figure out different technologies and the rhythms of teaching from home. 

And it meant supporting students who were grieving the loss of campus life, anxious about the future, and worried about the health of their loved ones. 

What is the right posture to take with your students during a pandemic? A debate soon flared up. Some professors worried most about upholding academic integrity and maintaining rigor. Others viewed the coronavirus as a once-in-a-lifetime emergency that called for an outpouring of compassion — and, yes, lowered academic expectations. 

Tilghman started her career, as many professors do, concerned about projecting her authority in the classroom. Students don’t always take female professors as seriously as male ones, and when she started at Plymouth State, she was a young-looking 34 and very pregnant. Five years later, she is still sometimes taken for a student around campus. 

By the time Covid-19 arrived, Tilghman had softened her approach. She was less worried about whether students respected her, and no longer felt she had to wall off her whole personal life from them. She was firmly on the side of extending students compassion. Students, Tilghman understood, have complex and full lives. Her course probably wasn't their highest priority — and it didn't need to be. Her role was to help them meet their own goals. 

It’s one thing to have a philosophy, and another to put it into practice. This spring, Tilghman faced all the usual dilemmas of her job — how to grade; what to do when students ghost; how to respond when they plagiarize. And she faced some new ones: How could she uphold academic values while looking out for her students as fellow human beings? How much should the rest of the semester be about learning, how much about just getting by? What does compassion look like during a pandemic? 

Those questions would follow Tilghman as the semester pushed her to rethink aspects of her job that had once been assumed, to figure out what really mattered to her as a teacher, and let the rest go. 

Plymouth State is built to help students reach the middle class. Founded as a teachers college, it is now a regional public university, part of the University System of New Hampshire. Even so, about half of its 4,000 undergraduates are from out of state — a crucial source of revenue in a state that ranks dead last in per-student funding. About a third of the university’s first-time students receive federal Pell Grants, a widely used proxy for coming from a low-income household. Some 40 percent of students are first-generation. 

 

Many of Tilghman’s students, she knew, came to college at a disadvantage. Having their courses suddenly shift online would not be easy. So as soon as Plymouth State made its first announcement about remote instruction, she sent them a survey, asking for their input on how she should adjust assignments and grading. At the end of the survey, she posed some broader questions: “Do you have any concerns that you would like to share? What can I do to support you as your professor during this turbulent time?” 

A few asked her to communicate a lot — especially with reminders about deadlines — and to be flexible. Some told her they were fine. Others shared their sadness about leaving campus and their worries about the future. A senior wrote that “plans to relocate have been postponed, and job search is at a halt.” 

Just about every student was struggling to some extent. But some, Tilghman saw, were barely getting by. One shared that with the campus closed, she was no longer getting counseling. “I know you do not have all the answers," the student emailed, "but if you’re willing to chat on the phone once a week for the rest of the semester, I think that will at the very least help … [me] stay focused on school." 

Her students’ feedback guided Tilghman’s plans for the rest of the semester. Moving a course online meant making a host of decisions. One of the main ones was whether it would be held synchronously, with students meeting in real time, or asynchronously, which allows students to participate at their convenience. 

Many professors gravitated toward the synchronous option, using Zoom, so that they could continue to see their students’ faces. It was a way, some argued, to provide continuity — a bit of normalcy — that students craved in the midst of so much disruption. 

For Tilghman, the choice was simple. Having taught online before, she was familiar with the idea that asynchronous courses provide students with the greatest access, a position around which teaching experts were quickly coalescing. It certainly matched the reality of her students’ lives. Some of them were sharing computers and bandwidth with multiple people; caring for younger siblings; working in settings like grocery stores, an Amazon warehouse, and a nursing home. Being available during their scheduled class time was no longer a given. 

Besides, live teaching wasn’t going to work for her, either. Tilghman and her husband, Ludo Razafindramazana, were keeping their daughter, June Tilmazana, home from school because of the health risk. There was no way to teach live while watching a 4-year-old. So Tilghman would record short videos of herself for her classes each week, walking students through the next phase of the revised syllabus. Class discussions would happen on a discussion board, and students who needed to speak with her could connect by phone or email. 

Tilghman also knew she needed to think carefully about what kind of workload she would require of her students. Some of her colleagues weren’t letting up at all, based on what students told her in the survey. “My classes are now double the work they were previously,” one wrote. Another described “completely freaking out” about other classes. 

Tilghman created a new syllabus for each course. She opened with a statement of purpose: “My main goal is providing flexibility given the wide range of circumstances you now all find yourself. I want you all to be able to succeed, no matter what those circumstances are.” 

To that end, Tilghman gave students options. She simplified each course’s final project. And she made clear that further adjustments were possible, too, if students needed them. At the end of each syllabus, she included a set of guidelines for remote instruction that had been written by a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was making the rounds. “We are going to prioritize supporting each other as humans,” it said. 

So far, so good. Tilghman felt that she was striking the right balance for her students, and leaning hard toward compassion. 

One aspect of moving her classes online, though, had Tilghman stumped. What should she do about grades? 

Part of what made setting a grading policy so challenging was that the university had not yet announced one of its own. Tilghman pondered what she should do at night after June went to bed. She and Razafindramazana would sit at their cluttered dining table and work, Tilghman sipping a cup of black tea with honey, often with cookies or chocolates. 

Remaking her courses was a lot of work, and it could also be hard to focus. There was new information about Covid-19 every day, and some nights, Tilghman would be pulled into reading the news. She often found herself working past midnight, sometimes until 3. When she went to bed, she was careful not to wake her husband, an electrician who usually rises around 4:30 to get ready for his commute. 

Tilghman talked about grading with colleagues. She read other professors’ perspectives on social media. Some weren’t planning to adjust grading or any other component of their courses, she learned. Others told her they were “just giving everyone an A.” Plenty of professors had strong opinions. It made her head spin. None of it felt quite right to her. 

Some colleges had opted for pass/fail grading as a way to recognize that students would not be able to complete their academic work as usual. Doing so, some advocates for the idea said, would alleviate students' stress and reduce inequalities among them. Others saw unintended consequences. What about students who needed to bring their grades up in order to keep a scholarship or maintain their financial aid? What about programs whose accreditation had a particular grading requirement? What about grad-school admissions? 

The policy that Plymouth State announced, more than a week after classes moved online, seemed like an attempt to satisfy all positions. Professors could decide whether to allow a pass/no-pass option in a particular course. If they did, students in those courses could then decide whether to choose that option or receive a traditional letter grade. 

Tilghman knew she would allow the pass/no-pass option. But the very term acknowledged that some students might not pass. For that reason, Tilghman wasn’t sure that the policy went far enough in acknowledging what students were up against. 

After all, though everyone was affected by the pandemic, their lives were altered in very different ways. The risk posed by Covid-19 varies sharply by age, health, race, sex, occupation, and geography. The economic impact of the pandemic, too, is disproportionate. For some people, the primary challenge of this spring was keeping busy. For others, it was staying alive. 

Tilghman was already skeptical about grades. She had grown interested in "ungrading," a method in which professors de-emphasize grades and instead try to help students learn to evaluate their own work. But this, she knew, would not be the time to try it. Ungrading means giving students lots of iterative feedback, and she didn’t have time for that. 

Finally, Tilghman arrived at a decision: She would weigh the work that students had already done more heavily than she had initially planned. Most of their remaining grades would come from a weekly written response that she would grade as complete or incomplete. Late work would receive full credit. She would still assign a final project, but she would lower the share of students’ grades it represented to 10 percent, effectively allowing most students to skip it and still pass. 

Tilghman wanted students to get something valuable out of her courses during remote instruction. She just wasn’t sure how much effort students would be capable of putting into them — and it didn’t feel right to penalize students for that. 

Tilghman was grateful she could work from home and adjust her day to take care of her daughter. Not only did she know that June was safe, but they were spending more time together than they had since June started day care, as a 3-month-old. They took neighborhood walks together, and Tilghman helped make art projects and build forts. She tried to ignore her email and the stresses of her workday, and just be in the moment with her kid. But it wasn’t always easy — she knew all of it would be waiting for her in the evening. 

 

June was usually good at playing by herself. But lately she'd been clinging to her mother. If Tilghman tried to move to another part of the house to knock out some work, leaving June with her father, the child would cry. At 4, a kid’s imagination takes off. Suddenly June was afraid of all kinds of things. Bears. Wasps. Tilghman tried to meet those fears with logic. Remember when there was a wasp? Mama came in and killed it. That’s what would happen again. Worst case, it could sting you. I’ve been stung by a wasp before. You’d be all right. 

During her long nights of work, Tilghman’s worries turned toward her students, whose problems she couldn’t solve as easily: The seniors who were scared of graduating into a deep recession. The students who told her they were putting her course off until they finished their work for other classes, for professors who weren’t as understanding. The students she hadn’t heard from at all. 

Reaching out to missing students was a delicate matter — after all, Tilghman didn’t know why they’d stopped participating in class. So she sent emails to express care for them as people, rather than frustration about missed work. “I am just writing to check in and see how you are doing,” she wrote. “I understand that you are juggling due dates and priorities right now for all your classes. But I just wanted to touch base, since you have not submitted work for my class since Week 9, to see if there is anything you need or if there is something I can do to help out. Hope you are holding up OK!” 

Some students still didn’t respond. There wasn’t much else she could do. For Tilghman, part of the attraction of teaching college is that college students are adults. Going to college is a choice. Coming to class is a choice. 

In early April, Tilghman finally found time for the grading she’d meant to tackle during spring break — the essays her students had handed in before the campus closed. Their work seemed to be from another life. 

When she started reading them, she quickly discovered a problem. One of her students had plagiarized. 

It wasn’t even subtle. The essay didn’t follow the directions of Tilghman’s assignment, which had asked students to describe a politician’s immigration platform, or write their own, and analyze it using what they’d learned in the course so far. Some of the words in the essay looked like hyperlinks. When Tilghman pasted those passages into a search engine, she pulled up the websites they had been copied from, word for word, without citation. 

Tilghman had caught plagiarism only a handful of times before, but she had worked out an approach to handle it. She would ask the student to come to her office and explain the reason for the meeting. Students, in many cases, cheat because they’re desperate. When they’re found out, they often cry. 

She normally docks points for a plagiarized assignment. Sometimes students want to do it over, even for a lower grade. That’s fine with Tilghman. Handling plagiarism isn’t about punishing students. It’s about teaching them something important. The point is for a student to understand how to produce scholarly work. 

This time there would be no tearful office conversation. Tilghman couldn’t look her student in the eye, communicating both the seriousness of the situation and her concern for the student as a person. 

Tilghman wasn’t even sure what to ask of the student — let’s call her Amanda. And Amanda was struggling. She was working full time, worried about the health of a vulnerable family member, and she hadn’t done any work for the course since spring break. 

Given all that her students were facing, Tilghman began to express her care to them differently, more directly. Her emails and texts to them became affectionate. She found herself, for the first time, using emojis with them. Instead of signing off her emails “Thanks, Professor T,” she would often use “Hugs, Professor T.” 

She was in frequent contact with some students. Tilghman asked one of them, a student struggling with anxiety, about the best way to reach her. By text, the student responded, adding that cat photos, memes, and gifs would help get her attention. 

In mid-April the student texted Tilghman: “I’m getting behind and overwhelmed.” The professor responded with a crying emoji and “What can I do to help? If it would be helpful to chat, let me know and I can call.” She added a picture of a cat with the words “hello?! Reply pls” and a heart written over it. 

When the student still hadn’t replied by the following day, Tilghman wrote again. “Heeeey, just checking in.” Later, the student wrote: “can’t focus on anything I’m so afraid, and I have so much work to do. My grandma is stuck in a nursing home, and like 10 residents have already died from Covid-19, I have no clue where I’m going to live once the semester ends.” 

Hearing about students’ struggles is hard. “You can empathize and respond back, like: I’m so sorry. And I always say: Let me know how I can help,” Tilghman said later. “But I can’t help with some of these situations.” 

In the case of Amanda’s plagiarism, Tilghman’s husband wondered if she could just overlook it, act as if she hadn’t noticed. But she didn’t see how she could. 

“It’s a basic academic skill that they should know and understand,” she said later. “And if that’s the learning moment in my class, cool. But that’s a really hard learning moment to have in the middle of the pandemic.” 

The next day, Tilghman emailed Amanda. “I had a couple questions about your immigration-policy essay,” she wrote, “but think it is best to talk about by phone or video call rather than email.” 

She still wasn’t sure what to do. 

Tilghman suspected that Amanda was avoiding her. After the email, they had made plans to talk by phone, but Amanda never called. Instead, she asked Tilghman, through the learning-management system, unrelated questions about a different assignment. Tilghman felt awkward approaching her. 

Maybe she was avoiding Amanda a little bit, too. 

The following week, Tilghman’s friend Whitney Howarth stopped by her house with a cardboard box full of carrots, limes, and other produce from mutual friends of theirs who run a catering and food-truck business. 

Tilghman and Howarth, an associate professor of history, are neighbors who usually car-pool to campus, but they hadn’t seen each other in weeks. Now, as Tilghman sat on her front steps and her visitor on a chair that had been pulled into the walkway to maintain social distancing, she asked for advice. How should she handle this plagiarism case? 

The two friends often discussed their teaching and didn’t always see eye to eye. “Laura is just so full of compassion,” Howarth said later. “I’m a little tougher.” 

She encouraged Tilghman to make use of Plymouth State’s academic-integrity policy. No process is perfect, she said, but this one was intended to be fair to all players. An instructor who suspected academic dishonesty would talk with the student and also to a supervisor — a department chair or its equivalent. A form would be completed. The professor would suggest a penalty. The student could accept it or appeal. Among other things, the process was meant to flag students who had been caught before. 

Tilghman was uncomfortable but was eventually persuaded to pursue that approach. 

She explained the situation to her program coordinator, who agreed that Amanda's plagiarism was a clear violation. Tilghman sent Amanda another email. She mentioned the call they had set up but not held. “Normally this is a conversation I would prefer to have in person,” Tilghman wrote, “but given the current situation I will start by email. Before I share my concerns, let me say first that my purpose in contacting you is not to punish you or penalize you, but to find a solution that is fair.” 

She explained that Amanda’s paper had copied a source verbatim without citation, violating the university’s academic-integrity policy. “I know that this is probably not an email that you are happy to receive, and honestly it is hard for me to write,” Tilghman continued. Still, she wrote, they should find a time to talk. 

Amanda responded right away. When they talked later that day, Amanda explained that she thought her mistake had been in failing to cite sources properly. No, Tilghman told her, that’s not all. You also copied and pasted large portions of your paper. That is not original work. 

Amanda wanted to write the essay again, for partial credit. Tilghman pushed her on that. Could she really do it? If she needed to, she could accept an incomplete at the end of the semester — just a few weeks away now — and take a little more time. But Amanda insisted. 

The issue was settled, but Tilghman didn’t feel satisfied. Soon after, she said, “I kind of feel like an asshole.” 

One risk of treating students compassionately is that they’ll take advantage of you. As the semester progressed, Tilghman noticed that a few of them seemed to be doing the minimum needed to pass. She tried not to take it personally. 

Most of them, though, were “really putting in the work,” she said. 

Some students, in fact, did “amazing” projects, Tilghman said, like the ones in her course on migration who created articles and infographics for a website on refugee resettlement in New Hampshire. Other projects were disappointing, but Tilghman often had enough context to understand why. 

As for Amanda, she turned in a good final project and submitted a new version of her essay. She told Tilghman that she’d run out of time on it, and it showed. She hadn’t copied and pasted this time, but she hadn’t really done what the assignment asked, either. Tilghman explained that she would get partial credit. If she wanted, the professor offered, Amanda could take an incomplete and try again, but Tilghman would respect her choice either way. Amanda just wanted to be done. 

This fractured spring semester, says Tilghman, changed some of her teaching practices for good. 

In the end, Tilghman gave out a lot of A's. Only a fraction of her students had asked to be graded pass/no pass, and she let them set a letter-grade threshold under which they would want that treatment. Few of them needed it. 

Just one of Tilghman’s 80 students did not pass. The student hadn't submitted any work or connected with Tilghman after spring break, and had been failing the class before then. Given that, “I felt pretty OK with him not passing,” she said, “but I gave him a no pass instead of an F.” 

As other colleges did, Plymouth State adjusted how it evaluated professors’ teaching during the pandemic — giving them, Tilghman remarked, their own version of pass/no pass. Students' course evaluations were modified. There were none of the usual Likert-scale questions, and students were given just three questions: how the course could be better if it had to be remote again, how the course had gone over all, and how responsive the professor had been. The university said it would not use the evaluations in professors’ annual reviews, as it would have done ordinarily. 

It’s always hard to make sense of student evaluations, Tilghman said. A bunch of students will like something about a course; others will complain about that same thing. Still, she felt pretty good about what her students had said — especially on the question of her communication with them. 

One set of comments did bother her, though. A few students wished she had taught live, on Zoom. Around the time she read those comments, Tilghman had a meeting on Zoom. It was mayhem. One of her cats sat on her head; June was trying to blindfold her and was screaming. All of that in only 10 minutes. 

“There’s no way I could have had Zoom lectures,” she said. But it still made her sad that some students felt they had missed out. In the fall, she thought, June would be back in preschool. If she taught online again, she would be more available to her students. 

This fractured spring semester, Tilghman knew, would change some of her teaching practices for good. She had gone from curious to convinced about ungrading. Revising her syllabi in midsemester had made her confront the arbitrariness of her own grading policies. Hearing how her students had experienced the pandemic threw the pre-existing differences in their circumstances into stark relief. It was hard to see how ranking and sorting students could ever be fair, or meaningful. 

 

Tilghman also saw that she could take away much of the pressure in her courses, and some of the students would still do great work, even with everything else going on. It didn’t seem that they needed the incentive of a good grade in order to learn. 

Other adjustments were smaller. Tilghman’s PowerPoint presentations weren’t information-heavy — she avoided lecturing too much. But she’d hesitated to give them out to students before class, unless they had an accommodation, in part because she thought that might discourage attendance. But this semester changed her mind. 

Holding off on giving students PowerPoint slides until class starts might not be intended to communicate:I don’t think you’ll bother showing up otherwise. But it still can. 

Those two examples — grades and giving out slides in advance — might seem unconnected. But there’s a common thread. Teaching is full of little moments when an instructor conveys his or her view of students. In those moments, does the professor imagine that students have good intentions, that they’re mostly trying to learn? Or does she imagine that they’re lazy, entitled, dishonest, unintelligent? 

Most everyone who teaches hopes to inspire students in some way — to have an impact on how they think or how they see the world; to help them develop into a better, more mature version of themselves. Is that best accomplished by making and enforcing a set of rules? Or can professors make more headway when they meet students where they are? 

For some professors, the spring’s foray into remote teaching is something to be forgotten as quickly as possible. But not for Tilghman. She plans to write about it — and to make reference to what her students thought of how she’d handled things — in her tenure packet, which she will put together this summer. 

There’s only so much you can really learn from an emergency, Tilghman said. But emergencies also have a way of clarifying what truly matters. “It crystallized for me a lot of my approaches to teaching, my priorities,” she said. “For me, I don’t think it’s a semester to forget.” 

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com. 

This article is part of: Coronavirus Hits Campus