“Digital History means no more snow days”

That’s what UMW History’s department chair, Jeff McClurken, told one of his classes the other day, and I’m reminded of it after last night’s mad scramble to figure out what to do about the snow.

I have a senior seminar that meets once a week, on Wednesday nights from 6-8:45, and we already lost a week to the semester’s first snow day. That one was relatively easy to recover, since I was going to lead that discussion, rather than it being a student-led discussion, and thus a graded assignment. I moved that discussion online, and hosted it on Canvas, our LMS, monitoring the conversation from home and adding my thoughts as appropriate. That still let me model the advance post I was going to require of student discussion leaders, how I’d like them to participate in discussions, and the summary I want them to write afterwards.

That was the first time I had run a complete discussion online (I’ve had students post, but that in my absence, and I’ve summarized after rather than being involved in the ongoing posting), and so I turned for help to my significant other, Darcie, who recently completed her MLS through Rutgers University’s online program. She had lots of tips for refining what I was asking students to do, and how to explain it to them, and the whole thing seemed to work out fairly well.

Last night promised to be a different story. With impending severe weather, administration announced between 3 and 4 pm that campus would be closed and classes cancelled after 6pm. I’d been madly scrambling all day to be ready for class (6 hours of scheduled classes on Wednesdays), meet with students (two advisees, a potential thesis student, a current thesis student), and polish off an abstract for a conference panel proposal (which I felt obligated to do, since my collaborators had already spent time on theirs). Nonetheless, it was not a relief to return from my 3-4 class to discover the email announcing the cancellations. Now what was I supposed to do with my evening class, which would be missing another week, this time a student-led discussion of a great book?!

Luckily, I had the earlier online discussion to work from. I talked with a colleague to think it through, then modified the earlier discussion guidelines. This time, students would work from the advance post their classmates had shared, responding to prompts as well as to each other, and the student discussion leaders would check in and add their thoughts as the conversation progressed. I also told students to expect to spend the first hour of next week’s class revisiting the online threads, and addressing topics the discussion leaders felt needed additional attention. I emailed everyone, posted the plan on Canvas, and stuck around to make sure no one showed up for the start of class–no one did (I’m sure they were checking their email diligently every couple of minutes until the announcement came, but they may not have checked since).

I’m not sure I could have brought that together as effectively if I hadn’t done it already earlier in the semester, and perhaps more to the point, I’m not sure how fair it would have been to students to ask them to pivot on such short notice and expect it to go smoothly without them having had earlier practice. And I’m also absolutely positive that even the ability to move things online wouldn’t have been so plausible just a few years ago–other LMS’s I’ve used have been less user-friendly, the format would have been less familiar, and at my last university a shocking (to me, anyway) number of students didn’t have home internet access (lived in very rural areas, truly couldn’t afford it, etc). Nonetheless, I still wonder about whether my email and posts–all I can really do at the moment–made it to everyone, since some people likely don’t watch their email for that kind of information (possibly deliberately), and could have gotten the announcement via other channels, like the UMW website, university announcements via text message, or Twitter.

And then I realized there’s a downside for me to all this. As I dropped files into Dropbox and added notes and reminders to the Notes app–both of which sync to my phone and are accessible from the laptop I often have with me–it occurred to me that there’s no snow day for me, either: no excuse not to write that letter for a student’s internship, keep up with the conference proposals and other writing, set up my grade book in Canvas, etc. And maybe those students who don’t check their email after the snow day is announced are on to something.

I know none of my thinking here is revolutionary, but I think that is telling in itself.

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One Response to “Digital History means no more snow days”

  1. Jmcclurken says:

    Yeah, that comment’s come back to haunt me, even as it’s become increasingly clear this semester how accurate the notion has become. I sure would have liked to have the rest of the day off after 4 hours of shoveling this morning….

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