As we continue to monitor public health information and guidance, as we develop our understanding of curricular best practices under the current circumstances, and as we try to balance these with our identity as a place-based and face-to-face college, I am writing to clarify and emphasize a couple of important points about the fall term.
First, as Kathy and I have clearly stated, each instructor at Smith is free to choose the mode of instruction they deem most effective for their students, most appropriate for themselves, and best suited to the specific materials and methods of their courses. Some of you have questioned whether you really have complete choice in this matter, and I want to emphasize that any course may be offered in a fully remote mode for any reason. In fact, approximately half of our courses at this point are designated as remote. If you have been leaning toward remote but weren’t sure if you could make that choice, know that you have our support, as well as the guidance of our colleagues in the Sherrerd Center and the Digital Support team.
At the same time, we know that our students treasure and crave opportunities for in-person engagement with their courses and teachers, and that they deliberately chose Smith (as many of us did) precisely because such engagement is at the heart of the education we provide. In light of this, I want to encourage you to find — when and as you can, to the extent you are comfortable —opportunities for in-person engagement of some kind. This could be small-group discussions during scheduled class time, or out-of-class conferences, to be held outdoors. There may be a high-impact in-person activity that you can carefully offer at some point during the course of the semester. You may invite students to “office hours” in a classroom or outside. You might even return to the roots of peripatetic academic practice and go for a walk with your students individually or in small groups, linking course concepts to aspects of campus.
In any case, I urge you to communicate clearly and explicitly in two ways. First, if you have already changed your mind about the primary mode for one or more of your courses, let the registrar’s office know that immediately. That will help all of us at the college provide accurate information to students about their course options, and it will also help all of those planning to support fall courses (facilities, digital support team, registrar’s office, advising, etc) to have a clear sense of the work they have to accomplish between now and the first day of class.If you are waiting to try out the multimodal classroom experience first, you’ll have an opportunity to do that next week (workshop information is coming later this week), and you can make your decision then, which is still in advance of the August 10-14 registration period.
Second, let your students know early and often what your plans are. Please include specific information in your syllabus about the course’s mode and your expectations. If there are in-person components in your course, let students know about them from the beginning. If not, make clear how you will engage them in ways that create a classroom community in the virtual space. I encourage you to write to your registered students before classes begin, to introduce yourself, to let them know what excites you about the course and maybe even to bring them into your thinking about the best ways to teach it right now.
This fall is going to be a strange and trying time for all of us — but it will also offer a time for pedagogical experimentation. Remember, you are not on your own in this. The Sherrerd Center website offers numerous resources for you as you think about how best to meet your course’s learning objectives, and the Digital Support Team has plenty of programming to take you through the selection of specific activities and tools to carry out your curricular plans, with August workshops to be announced in the coming days.
It is as a community of scholars and teachers that we will best weather this storm and emerge stronger on the other side.
With thanks for your efforts and best wishes as ever,
Provost and Dean of Faculty
Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature