Back to (virtual) school: perspectives of a new lecturer during COVID.

I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING - dog computer | Meme Generator

My first term leading a module during COVID also happens to be my first term leading a module at all – and of course I’m not just leading one, but two! Everything is new, and this brings with it lots of challenges, but also lots of support. While I don’t particularly know what I’m doing this year, the comforting thing is – nobody else does either!

Fortunately, all module & program leads at UCL were enrolled as students on a mandatory online module this summer, which was written to help us learn how to adopt the University’s ‘Connected Learning’ approach.

The module was packed full of ideas to engage students from their computer screens, get everyone involved & motivated, and explain complex concepts in simple terms without necessarily having live feedback or queries from the students.

It was brilliant.

It was also terrifying.

Frequently throughout the module, reference would be made to last year. How did you engage your students on this module last year? How did you collect feedback, and what did you learn from it? How much of this content was made available online last year? How will this need to change during COVID? For me of course, the answer was generally ‘…dunno?’

It’s a strange thing to start from square one during a year like this.

The massive positive, as I said at the beginning, was that everyone else was just as lost as me. Every time I (virtually) ran to someone for help and gave the disclaimer I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING, I was always greeted with a smile, a laugh, and a ‘me neither’. We muddled our way through together. Not one person told me off or said I should have already known the answer to something. A huge range of people patiently (virtually) sat me down and taught me the basics of the systems I was new to, that they were experts in.

One of the biggest challenges was that we re-wrote one of our modules from scratch this summer. As well as having new learning outcomes, themes and requiring 21 brand new lectures and hundreds of new randomized online exam questions, the content itself is also now entirely online and viewable directly in the course page. This includes interactive elements, videos, and different kinds of ‘check your knowledge’ sections from drag and drop answers to standard MCQs, all with a handy progress bar and navigation panels to make it as straight forward and accessible for the students as possible. The formatting was made consistent using HTML, which I was surprised to find I somewhat remembered, having learned it way back during the MSN Messenger days! This module was a team effort and a huge body of work that I’m very proud of having had a hand in.

Aside from developing new content in new ways, there was a lot of other tasks I needed to learn in order to lead modules this year. I was taught to use a range of different central college systems to arrange things like student timetables, exam marking, academic records, and even how to install virtual laboratory simulations within a course page (which by the way – is so much fun).

On that note – particular thanks to Atalanta, Kurinchi, Norman, Darren, Alvena, Zahra, Tope, Lauren, Umber, Faith & everyone else who has taught me how to lead modules over the last few months – I very much owe you all a drink if we ever see each other again!

The collective sense of WE WILL FIGURE THIS THING OUT TOGETHER was a truly inspiring thing.

To be quite honest, there can be times in academia where everyone around you is so deflated or overwhelmed with their own individual academic stresses, that peer support can be truly lacking. But in these last few months trying to get our new online teaching up and running, this could not have been further from the case. Everyone I mentioned above (and more) had time and patience for me when I needed it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’re a couple of weeks into term now, and so far we’ve had no major issues or setbacks. My first few Zoom lectures went off without a hitch – no technical difficulties, no complaints, not even one moment of ‘eh I think you’re on mute there Susan’!

The students I have met so far have been motivated, eager and engaged. Even with the majority of cameras off, I can still hear the smiles in their voices. They laugh along, they suggest things, they answer questions – the Zoom fatigue I had expected (that many of us around the world have fallen victim to) was not particularly apparent. I am sure over the course of the term this may change, but so far things are incredibly positive. They are here (virtually) and they are ready to learn.

During one of my online induction sessions I used a poll to see how students were feeling about completing a module virtually. I included a range of answers from ‘anxious’ to ‘lonely’ to ‘excited’ and was giddy to see that by far the most popular answer was ‘delighted to be able to attend lectures in my PJs’!

To summarize, my experience of being a lecturer during covid has been significantly better than expected – so please cross your fingers for me that this continues!

Why I started writing ‘To Did’ lists!

I’ve always been a fan of writing ‘To Do’ lists – they’re great for keeping tracks of small bits of work that could slip between the cracks during a busy day or week, and they’re also great for a little dopamine burst when you tick off an item.

Of course the drawback is the list always grows longer, and never gets completed!

Recently, as part of my transition into life as a member of faculty, I’ve started occasionally writing the opposite version, which I’ve taken to calling my ‘To Did’ list. Yes, I realize some people go with ‘To Done’ – but it’s on my ear now and I’m sticking to it!

The list consists of things that I have taken care of in a given day or week, and forces me to take a few minutes to acknowledge the work that I have managed to get done, rather than always focusing on the mountain ahead.

It also allows me to visualise the spread of different types of work that I’ve done, to see if it aligns roughly with how I intended to balance my time between research, teaching, and other tasks.

Finding a better balance in your work (essay)
Image credit: Inside Higher Ed

This is useful, because I’ve received warnings from quite a few academics that in my first year as a lecturer I would likely end up doing virtually all teaching, and virtually no research, and that I should try to make sure my research isn’t neglected if at all possible.

I always wondered whether this early research-teaching imbalance is real, or whether us academics maybe just convince ourselves that this balance is shifted farther towards teaching than it really is. I suspect this could happen, because we have a tendency toward feeling perpetually behind on our research, and teaching ‘To Do’ jobs usually have harder deadlines than research ones, so we often feel like we’re being forced to spend time on teaching tasks instead of research ones…. Maybe it’s just a trick of the mind, and we are actually doing a bit more research than we think? Or maybe it’s true, and my research will take a huge hit in year one, that I should actively work to prevent?

Of course, with covid-era teaching requiring significant extra hours from teaching staff, and preventing new research experiments from being carried out within the lab during lockdown, I suspected that I might fall victim to this potential research-teaching imbalance even more than your average first year PI.

And given I am a scientist, the urge to collect data to answer this question was strong.

Hence the ‘To Did’ list.

Did it identify a huge imbalance toward teaching?

No, not really!

I’m writing this in the evening, having just written out my ‘To Did’ list for today. It seems nicely varied, with eight items that I spent roughly equal time on. The two most time consuming items (by only a small margin) were pure teaching, one item sat nicely on the teaching-research border, four items were pure research, and the smallest one was ‘other’.

Over the summer, before I brought in the ‘To Did’ list, I started going through old ‘To Do’ lists and highlighting research items yellow, teaching items green, and everything else blue, to try to collect similar data on how I was balancing these types of work. I found that yellow and green were almost perfectly equal, with blue less common. Which to me, seems ideal – between the results of the ‘To Do’ & ‘To Did’ lists, I am reassured things seems to be relatively well balanced so far!  

An unexpected positive was that the ‘To Did’ list also highlighted for me how international my work has become, which hadn’t really clicked for me. Increasing my international network will (I hope) help my research career, and so it was exciting to notice items related to collaborations with Ireland, Finland, India and the US all in there alongside my main work in the UK.

Aside from the broad overview the ‘To Did’ list gives me of the variety of work I’m doing, it does also provide the same sort of dopamine release that ticking off a ‘To Do’ list does, only in this case, for me at least – it’s even better! Everything on my ‘To Did’ list is complete, even if it’s just a small step in a bigger picture. It’s something I’ve done that day, something I’ve accomplished, and something that is not hanging over me anymore.

One rule of my ‘To Did’ list, is that I do not allow myself to write ‘wrote/read emails’ as an item on the list. This is because I’ve had a bad habit in the past of putting myself down by saying ‘all I did all day was emails’, when in actual fact I may have been troubleshooting research problems, liaising with collaborators, submitting proposals, planning projects or reviewing papers – email was purely the vehicle. Calling those items ‘emails’ is a bit like spending three days on a wet lab experiment and saying ‘all I did the last few days was move stuff with my hands’ or teaching all day and saying ‘all I did today was speak!’ Writing these kinds of items on the list with verbs like liaised/reviewed/edited has made me acknowledge the reality of the work being done, and also helped me to feel better about previously perceived lack of productivity during lockdown, while I was really missing the lab!

So whether you’re trying to collect data on how you break up your time, or just looking for reassurance that you’re still getting s#!t done during the pandemic, I whole heartedly recommend writing a ‘To Did’ list.  

I guess I can now add a 9th item to today’s list – writing this blog!