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Letter to Students, March 13, 2020

Letter to Students, March 13, 2020

Dear students,

I write to share my remarks to faculty this week regarding Smith’s move to alternate modes of instruction.

This is an unprecedented move, and not one anyone wanted to make or would choose to make under other circumstances.

In the face of this challenge, we will work together, as a community, to sustain students’ academic progress and overall development as thinkers, makers and leaders.

During the next two weeks, we will work to shift into alternative, and for most of us, unfamiliar modes of instruction to enable academic continuity for our students. This process will involve several steps or stages:

  • Identify the core value of your course: What is the essential expertise – knowledge, skill, method, etc.—that you hope to have students will emerge with?
  • Identify the key elements of your pedagogy that deliver that core value. I know this is a hard one. It is the entirety of what we do that affects the transformations we hope our students experience. But if you have to focus on one or two central kinds of work or interaction that are most important for your course, what are they?
  • How might you produce an experience somehow analogous to those key elements in an online or virtual mode?
  • What tools would you work with to produce that experience?

Some acknowledgments: This is not going to be perfect. While the ambition to make this shift is huge, the possibility for what we might achieve in these alternative ways is modest. We want to keep our students in touch with us, with each other and with the vital core of the discipline as it manifests in our courses.

We want to prepare them adequately for whatever course might follow this one in a sequence.

We want to provide meaningful engagement with the material in full awareness that it is not the quality of engagement we would otherwise demand of ourselves.

For these reasons, a couple of things need to be made explicit. These are unusual circumstances. We will not pretend that this semester is in any way normal for either our students or ourselves. For students, we are making all grades for courses mandatory S/U. Faculty will enter letter grades as usual so that we have maximum information regarding student work and performance, but these grades will be displayed as S/U.

For junior faculty, I assure you that this semester’s teaching will be differentially weighted at moments of high-stakes review. The student course feedback forms and other measures of effectiveness will in some way be bracketed. We will make the exceptions and accommodations necessary regarding class visits and other elements of review. We will work with departments and T&P [tenure and promotion] to build into evaluation of scholarship a recognition of this semester’s particular burdens (and perhaps those of the coming summer) and the ways they might slow productivity.

We are engaging in this work as a community, and we will support each other through this work both now and in the aftermath.

In light of that, I ask the following.

  • We urge departments to meet and discuss their plans and identify particular challenges.
  • We invite faculty to join us for training and workshops in the specific tools through which you will work to move your course online.
  • We urge you to communicate with your students. If you still have the opportunity to meet in person before spring recess, please use that time to develop norms, set expectations and orient to tools if possible.
  • We urge you to design a new syllabus for the course you are embarking upon on March 30. Please try to shift your thinking from instruction, then reading period, then exams… to a combination of instruction and independent work leading to assessment to be determined by faculty and appropriate for the discipline and course, with all to be completed by the currently scheduled end of exams, with the current deadlines for grade submission remaining in place.
  • We also urge you to submit midterm grades for all students, again in an effort to gather as much information as possible for this semester’s work.
  • Please be in touch with your advisees as well. If they are taking courses at other Five College campuses, ask them to contact their instructors for advice or information on alternative modes of instruction.
  • Know that no one has to do this work alone. If you are able to conduct online instruction from home, you will be welcome to do so. If it’s easier or better for you to work from campus, that will also be an option, at least in the near term. In either case, we will try to help you with the tools and techniques that you’ll need.

Critically, I ask that you ensure we deliver an equitable experience to both our on-campus students and our students who will join us from their homes in the following ways:

  • I ask that you not meet with or give preferential treatment in any way to students who remain on campus. There must be no exceptions to this.
  • I remind you that all teaching spaces, including laboratories, performance venues and classrooms, are closed to all students.

While this may seem antithetical to Smith’s mission, I must remind you that who we are at Smith is not changing—but how we deliver on our mission must change.

In my twenty years at Smith, I have seen our faculty, staff and students rise to meet every challenge that has come along. I know that this community will rise to this challenge, too, and that we will emerge from this experience stronger.


Michael Thurston
Provost and Dean of the Faculty