What’s Changing? Navigating a ‘New Normal’ in 2021

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What’s Changing in Fall 2021?

Welcome back! Fall 2021 is in full swing.

Traditionally, I begin the academic year with a “What’s Changing” blog post (example: my 2019 What’s Changing post). In these posts, I share my big picture plans for the fall semester, and sometimes for the spring as well. Last fall, I broke that tradition with a post that I hope provided some encouragement to the education community.

The world broadly, and the education world specifically, has changed so much since Fall 2019. I know we all have spent the last ~18 months trying to make sense of everything while trying to balance our careers, our hopes and dreams for our students, our professional ambitions, as well as the health and well-being of our ourselves, our families and our loved ones.  We have witnessed loss and tragedy in our own lives, in the lives of colleagues and loved ones, and in the lives of our students.

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you’ve probably noticed a change in the form and content of my posts since the pandemic.

As I sit down to write this year’s “What’s Changing” post I am, quite honestly, a bit lost on what to say. I’ve been mulling over what to write about for a few weeks now. Perhaps I am having a hard time putting into words the shift I feel is needed in how I approach things. In a lot of respects, I think none of us are the people we were before this pandemic started. I know I certainly am not. When I walked into the classroom, masked up, and I saw my students for the first time in 18 months a strange thing occurred to me. They see the same person they saw in early March 2020. But am I the same? Are they?

What’s Changing?: Nothing.

Here is what has not changed:

I want my students to have the best possible outcomes for their education. I want them to have inspiring experiences, to graduate and attain fulfilling careers,and bring positive change into the world.

To do that, students need to be up to date on trends, to learn foundations, and attain applicable knowledge, skills, and abilities. I believe that students need to be exposed to the realities of the industry. I believe that I must set high expectations for them and hold them accountable to those expectations.

What’s Changing? Everything.

Here is what is changing:

There is one question on my mind as I start Fall 2021.  

How am I going to bring compassion and understanding into everything I do this year?  

As teaching is much of what I do professionally, the supporting question is then:

How am I going to bring compassion and understanding into my teaching this year? 

In my role as a senior fellow at the Bonnie & Bill Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications, I have been paying a lot of attention to the division, fear, mistrust and anger in our society today.

As educators, we are uniquely positioned to demonstrate to our students that there are possibilities to rise above these things. More than anything, I think we need to help our communities and our students (and perhaps ourselves) feel a sense of stability, a sense of optimism about the future, and a sense that the troubles we face today are not permanent.

How do we do this? Honestly, I don’t know.

But I think one way to start is to model compassion and understanding and to highlight the compassion and understanding that is taking place in the world. Our students are stressed and they are growing up in unprecedented times. There is a mental health crisis in higher education. The pressure is real; the pressure to perform, to land the job, to appear to the Internet that one is living their ‘best life.’ Perhaps we can emphasize to our students the importance of focusing not only on schoolwork and the future but also on the full range of the joy and wonders of life that exist today. I hear from former students who are not yet 25 years old and facing burn out. The pressure is real, too, in academia. There is no mistaking that.

We rush. Our students rush.

Perhaps we can slow down a bit. To borrow an old phrase, perhaps there are ways to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff.’

I know that I feel a need to rush from one innovation to the next; to express to my students the sense of urgency I feel at the pace of change in a competitive marketplace. As much as I have sought to ground my teaching in perennial skills and abilities and to not chase fads while, simultaneously, preaching adaptability,  perhaps I have a lot to think about.

What are we really teaching our students? That is, what are we modeling?

On a National Millennial Community trip to New York City several years ago, I met a professor who had been teaching a decade or so longer than I have. We were standing in a building near ground zero and he told me that what he teaches now is leadership. He looks at every class he teaches  – no matter the subject – and focuses it on leadership. I didn’t quite grasp what he meant at the time. But, more recently, I have thought a lot about what he said and my appreciation for the wisdom he shared has grown.

This year, I am not changing a lot of the assignments and activities I do. I am changing how I approach learning and the role I seek to play as an educator and mentor. Truth is, I haven’t quite figured out how I’ll do that. And I’m sure I’ll stumble along the way.

I do know that I am cutting back some and trying to shift my focusing from “more is better” to “better is better,’ hoping the depth and quality of the experience I provide my students will likely have a stronger impact on their learning than the total number of things they were exposed to (but perhaps did not retain). I want to listen more. I want to focus. I want to reconnect with my students as learners and as humans.

Seeing other people share on social media similar thoughts, questions, concerns about tech/life balance and goals for the future has been both inspiring and comforting to me. I hope that, as professors, we can continue these conversations and help each other navigate our new normal.

I wish you, your family and your students a safe 2021-2022 academic year.

In my next post, I promise to share syllabi for this year. I know that has been a trend at the start of the year that has been of benefit to some readers.

Be Well!

-Matt

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