4.24.20: Week 6 Update from Provost Farrell

An update sent to faculty and staff.

Dear Faculty and Staff,

This year’s Kentucky Derby may have been postponed, but we are now in our own kind of home stretch.

Some of us might be feeling triumphant, while others might be feeling more winded and just relieved to cross the finish line. Whatever the case, I hope you feel like you’ve not only survived the semester, but also that you’ve learned a few things. I know I’ve found some satisfaction in rising to the challenge of suddenly changing how I do what I do, while still engaging my students and helping them learn. It was by no means perfect, but here we are. I hope the same is true for you as we enter the last week of classes and then final exams.

Even though we have plenty left to do for this semester, we are already looking ahead—not just to summer, but to next fall as well, and the many uncertainties that lie between here and there. Before you leave this semester behind, I encourage you to find a time to gather (virtually, of course) with your colleagues in your department or college and debrief. Share what was difficult and what was perhaps not as hard as you expected. What did your students tell you was difficult? What did they adapt to well? What do you wish you had been able to do but weren’t able to, given the short transition time? And what would you do next time?

That “next time” might be pretty soon, as a likely—though not certain—scenario for Fall 2020 is that some of our classes will be held remotely again. I have a small group examining a variety of possible scenarios for next fall, but given the likely pace of “recovery” from this pandemic, it’s safe to assume a full return to “normal” will be far beyond the start of classes in the fall. We’ll have a few months to prepare, and our exact configuration (what we choose to do and what gets chosen for us by government officials) will become clearer over that period of time, but making significant adjustments to how we approach remote instruction may take all that time and more.

We approached our move to remote instruction in the middle of the semester with understanding and flexibility, as we were all adapting to a new mode. In the future, we must all move beyond this initial stage of adaptation to determine ways in which we can thrive as an academic community, including using lessons from the spring to meet what our students expect to receive and what we expect to deliver as educators moving forward. This is no small responsibility, to be sure, but it’s one I’m certain we’re able to handle.

We ask that you begin now to take stock of this semester, brainstorm with your colleagues what you might want to do differently next time, and let us and LTS know what kind of support, advice or workshops would be most helpful in the days ahead.

On the topic of taking stock, now’s the time for us to receive feedback from our students as well. I used to advise an undergraduate student group that organized a really big student expo—a science fair-type event that lasted several days and was a draw for many K-12 students and parents. The overall chair of the committee that ran the activity was a senior. At the start of the large organizational meetings she held each week, she would invite “shines and whines.” Every committee chair in the meeting was invited to offer the group one achievement for the week (a shine) and one complaint (a whine). This may be a common way to engage a group, but I had not seen it before, and it was led particularly well by this undergraduate senior! In your course evaluations this semester, you will get “shines” and “whines.” It can be hard not to be a little defensive about the whines—especially this semester, when we might get a few more of them—and sometimes not pay as much attention to the shines. I hope this semester’s new format for reviews will be helpful in allowing us to learn from the whines and appreciate the shines. Let’s focus on understanding what has been successful and what could be better. That approach will serve us all well in the long run. 

Please continue to engage with your students any way you can: Zoom, email, text, tweet, phone call, whatever works for you. This time of year is particularly stressful for them, and likely even more so during this unusual semester. They’ll still have to take finals and finish out the academic year, but personal connections can help ease that tension a little bit.

Come to think of it, the same is true for all of us. Reach out, connect, talk, and laugh with colleagues and friends. We’re almost there. There might not be a Derby until September, but we can still celebrate a little. Pour yourself a mint julep if you like them—I’m not sure I do, but it might be worth a try as we race to the finish.

Have a good weekend. Stay healthy.

Pat Farrell