A few years ago, a student of mine lost his father to an unexpected illness that took a wrong turn. Two days later my student came to class. Surprised, I let my student know that if he needed to take time off to be with his family, I would later work with him to help him catch up on materials he would miss. I was giving him permission to be absent from class. He didn’t want to. In fact, he said that being in class helped him forget about his problems.
His reason resonated with me. As a student, and even now as a teacher, being in class has always offered me a sanctuary where I could tune down everything else and immerse myself in a community of knowledge seekers, if only for a few hours each week.
Today, growing numbers of colleges and universities all across the country — including Dartmouth College, Rice University and Stanford University, among many others — are temporarily canceling their face-to-face classes to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 situation. The conversations on our campuses, as well as on professional Listservs, have turned to the topic of academic continuity plans as the nation continues to deal with the impact of COVID-19. As I look through the materials put together by various teaching and learning centers and instructional technology groups, I have noticed that the resources have focused almost exclusively on the hows of technology: tools to record lectures, create discussions and proctor exams. Yet while the technological know-how to virtually connect with our students is necessary, it is not sufficient to continue the teaching and learning endeavor.
Beyond the electronic connection, we need to connect emotionally — especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty. As a neuroscientist, I know that emotions are key to learning. In Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio asserts, “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” Recent literature affirms the importance of the affective domains in teaching and learning.
So I began to wonder about the impact such transitions will have on students and colleagues emotionally, psychologically and even physically. The current situation hits close to home for me. During the 1991 Operation Desert Storm, I was a student in middle school in Baghdad. When the bombing started, schools shut down abruptly. We didn’t have internet or the ability to attend school virtually. One morning, one of my teachers showed up at my house, hand-delivered homework and reminded me to keep studying. To this day, I remember how her dedication and acts of resilience and hope helped me feel a tiny sense of normalcy during that turbulent time in my life. At night, I would sit by the candlelight to study and dream of going back to school and all the conversations I would have with my friends.
I do not question any higher education institution’s decision to move their classes online or close their campuses. Rather, I am thinking about how we can teach in times of uncertainty and how we can ensure that our students continue to learn most effectively.