FASS News, Research

Reminiscing tough times and acknowledging the importance of in-person interactions

March 02, 2022
Photo Credit: Rebecca Saloustros

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences greatly appreciates the contributions, assistance and services that Nicky Didicher has provided as a teaching fellow during the pandemic.

Due to the global pandemic in 2020, the world went through a dynamic shift. The year prior, SFU Department of English professor Nicky Didicher began a two-year term as a faculty teaching fellow (FTF), a role that supports the continuing improvement of teaching and learning within SFU’s faculties.  

One of Didicher’s initial goals focused on wellness by compiling strategies and programs for faculty members and staff. 

Didicher’s plan was to build a central repository (or meta page) with all the wellness support available from SFU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), human resources, faculty relations, and the Wellness Centre at Maggie Benston Centre (MBC). For example, if you needed compassionate leave, what policies to look at and who to talk to would all be found on the meta page. Didicher began gathering resources in hopes of developing this initiative in 2020. However, before anything could be put in place, the pandemic forced society into lockdown and all forms of education had to take place online. As a result, Didicher shifted her focus to supporting faculty members’ transition to remote teaching. “It's a great shame, because I felt that’s when we needed those wellness programs the most,” notes Didicher. 

Didicher then became a Canvas (SFU’s online learning platform) point person not only for her department but for many faculty members in general. “Canvas was not built to withstand the sudden surge of traffic flow from remote learning. As a result, in the beginning of the transition there were many technical issues,” said Didicher, as she often found herself in Zoom calls with colleagues trying to troubleshoot technical issues.  

Didicher also assisted the deans with communication on what the FASS faculty members needed during this period and assisted with events that had to be hosted online. With SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences, she helped organize and participated in a pilot program called Interdisciplinary Teaching Buddies. This volunteer-based program matches faculty members to observe their teaching and provide feedback to each other. “I think the program was very interesting,” Didicher says. “I gave a report to the Associate Dean and Teaching Fellows to see if we would consider creating something similar in FASS or be more formally involved with the program from Applied Sciences.”  

Didicher expresses that her opinion towards remote education has not changed since the beginning of the pandemic. She finds that remote teaching is more time- and energy-consuming than in-person teaching. She observes that during remote teaching, her average work hours per week rose from fifty-five to seventy. Didicher feels that most students are glad to be back in the classroom; that they feel more engaged and are excited to participate in discussions when in person. “They are able to make better connections in the classroom and the ideas move more quickly. It is more stimulating for people’s intellect and emotions,” Didicher says.  

Taking the current semester as an example, in which the first two weeks of class were online, Didicher noticed how as she prepared her students for midterm exams, most students were two weeks behind on course content as a result of the online start. Didicher finds that despite her efforts to stay connected and supportive of her students during remote learning, they simply do not thrive the way they do in-person. 

Didicher laments that the pandemic has been tough on almost everyone. As a teaching fellow she created advice resources for faculty members and students to follow in hopes of alleviating some of their stress. For example, she created a “ROCK Your Semester” poster and sent it out to her colleagues. She uses the word ROCK as an acronym to represent the ideas of Reduce, Organize, Communicate and Be Kind. 

Though Didicher is a positive person she cannot deny that the pandemic has left her both mentally and physically exhausted. “You don’t quite realize how important social interactions are until you lose them,” she says. “I was stuck in my apartment, only leaving twice a week, once for groceries and once for a short walk.” 

Through the pandemic, Didicher wrote a series of poems she calls COVID Poems that represented her mental progression as the time passed during lockdown. Didicher wants to write another poem as things are slowly reverting to in-person, however, she has yet to find the time or energy to do so. 

Didicher hopes to travel after teaching eight consecutive semester since the beginning of the pandemic. She plans to take a professional development semester in Summer 2022 and will be on study leave the following year. During her study leave her major project is to redesign her Engl 387 Children’s Literature course, removing all authors who are cis-het, white, able-bodied men from the reading list. Didicher will also be exploring the concept of ungraded courses. “This is when you give feedback to students but no marks, and at the mid-term and end-of-term they write a report on the quality of their learning and assignments and assign themselves a grade for the instructor’s approval,” she says. Though Didicher does not see this working in larger courses with TAs, she hopes to try implementing this concept in her smaller upper-level courses in the future.