A new type of new year

September 10, 2020

By Reema Faris, PhD Student

September always feels like the start of a new year to me, even more than the transition from December 31st to January 1st. It is the month of new classes, new schools, new clothes, new school supplies, new roles and responsibilities. September conjures up memories of shopping expeditions with my mother and our tug-of-war over teenage back-to-school fashions. It also makes me apprehensive, an expression of my own social insecurity about expanding my social circle once again to a broader collective and coalition of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, professors, and students.

This September also marks a return to my own studies and to teaching, all under the cloud of the COVID-19 global pandemic. As a result of our new reality, I am facing another new new: remote instruction. I did not hold a teaching assistant (TA) position this spring when universities shifted classes online and in-person instruction ended. I saw what this transition meant for the undergraduate in my household and I understand the impact it had on other students. While a few of my colleagues in the GSWS Department have already had their first experiences as virtual TAs and sessional instructors, I have not. When I log on to my tutorials for GSWS 100 later this month, the experience will be a first for me. I’ll be meeting students for the first time through a platform I am just getting to know — Blackboard Collaborate, which is nested within Canvas, SFU’s student information system.

It’s a daunting prospect.

I know there will be technological glitches, no matter how much I prepare in advance. I know there will be challenges in forging connections with my students through a plethora of computer monitors. However, the work I have done in moderating online conversations for the North Vancouver District Library has shown me that engaging in collective learning through a digital platform is feasible and this knowledge will help me persevere.

My preferred teaching style is to work with students in person, face-to-face, and that is not the way I will be working with them this term. I am encouraged though that Blackboard Collaborate features a number of components that will help me approximate my usual approach. It lets me share files with my students in real-time, allows me to use breakout groups for smaller student discussions, and includes a virtual whiteboard that the students and I can write on to exchange ideas, observations, and insights. That means I will be able to use elements from my regular pedagogical practice to bridge the digital divide. In this way, I will show my students I care about their learning and I care about them as people, as individuals. It will help me demonstrate that students are so much more than images on my computer screen.

As challenging as all this newness is, it is also an exciting opportunity to develop new skills and to fashion a fulfilling learning experience for the students. I will overcome the distance that comes with communicating in a virtual, digital environment because I am passionate about the course content for GSWS 100. I will overcome the difficulties I encounter in using the technology because I love teaching. And I know my students will be generous and forgiving because they, too, are dealing with their own concerns and anxieties as they negotiate the new road map of academic learning in this pandemic age.

Together, we’ll make it work. We have to. And the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s Provincial Health Officer, will be our guide: “Be kind. Be calm. Be safe.”

Which reminds me. I really ought to swing by Staples, with my mask on, and see what’s on sale before classes resume this week.