Disrupted rituals

Anne Egger
published Apr 5, 2020 4:08pm

I spent a lot of time last week trying to imagine what my students were thinking and feeling. My searching was prompted in part by a comment from a colleague who is a high school science teacher-during a meeting in which we were discussing plans for the Earth Educators' Rendezvous, she said, "I'm worried about our seniors. They aren't going to have a graduation ceremony, or a prom; they aren't hanging out with their friends or going through the rituals they've been anticipating." I thought, "Oh, wow. She's so right!" Then she said, "And they will be your freshmen next year." Yep.

My structural geology students are mostly seniors. They have been anticipating this class (some with eagerness, some with fear), and the one it prepares them for—advanced field camp—for a couple of years. They've all taken an earlier field methods class with me, and when they show up in structure, I get to see just how much they've learned since then. I had been feeling pretty sorry for myself and my students that we wouldn't get to interact in person, but now I was realizing that the bigger, longer-lasting impact might be the loss of ritual: the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment that comes with working through a challenging cross-section together, with twisting the tracing paper around the pin on the stereonet, with relearning how to use a Brunton, and then, ultimately, with going to field camp.

My department at Central Washington University has not yet made a decision about our summer field camp; as of this writing, we still intend to offer it in person. However, we make use of the field stations of two other universities who may make decisions about those facilities that will impact us. In the meantime, NAGT is supporting a broad community effort to design and share remote/virtual field experiences for those who have already cancelled their in-person field camps or may have to do so (look for more information about that soon!). For better or for worse, "field camp" has been a rite of passage for many geologists. How does it feel to be in the class that didn't get to go? Some students will be relieved (that would have been me as a high school senior if I were told that a pandemic meant there would be no prom—hooray!). Others will be disappointed, some might even wait a year to graduate to take it next year. But how will their future employers, graduate advisors, and colleagues react to this disrupted ritual?

So I started thinking about how to help students feel connected to me and to each other throughout the quarter, to alleviate some of those feelings of loss and to still build the sense of community. All of the presenters in the (Suddenly) Teaching Geoscience Online offer helpful ideas about this. Although we won't have any fully synchronous class meetings, I've asked the students to sign-up for a mandatory weekly "check-in" time. I'll have Zoom office hours, too, but the weekly check-ins will be one to three students at a time, when they can ask questions, or just be working while I'm sitting there and they can hold something up to the camera if they want.

Another colleague told me that she had surveyed the students in her class that had been in-person and had been switched mid-stream to online. She asked them what they were worried about and was amazed by the frankness of the responses. I'm trying her idea, too—I made a short video introduction and then asked students to tell me a little bit more about their situations this quarter. I asked, "What are you nervous or worried about for this class and in your life at this time?" I hope their answers will help me help them be successful in the course, despite the new challenges.

As I created the pages for the check-ins and the introductory assignment in our course management system, I thought, "Why haven't I don't this before?" There's absolutely no reason why should only assess about my students' concerns when the class is being taught online. The disruption of the ritual helped me see its importance, however-an insight I can carry with me even when we are back in the classroom together.

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