Despite teaching classes that focus on digital media, my first experiences teaching online—like those of so many other teachers—are happening during a pandemic. So I can’t claim to be an expert in online pedagogy, and I’ve been combing the posts of those who are experts in search of wisdom. I’ve been awed by the work of our colleagues supporting mass migration of teaching online, under enormous pressure and working with sometimes irascible or recalcitrant academics. I’ve been dismayed by our tendency to lecture or moralize at each other in social media as we all try to figure out how best to serve our students (though I suppose that tendency is proof the pandemic hasn’t entirely washed away the old world). I am absolutely sure that I am not getting it right.

Spring semester was a sudden shift, but I’m now preparing to start a summer course next Monday (yes, we’re already in our summer term at Northeastern). I’ve known that course would be online for six weeks now, as have my students. In other words, I’ve had some time to actually consider and prepare. I still don’t think I’ve figured it all out. I’m sure this summer course will still try too hard to reproduce the dynamics of an in-person class. We will probably still have to adjust things as the semester proceeds and we see what is and isn’t working.

What I am trying to do better this semester is to simply acknowledge the many uncertainties of learning in this moment, for both me and for my students, and to build that shared acknowledgment into our class dynamic from the beginning. The “COVID Caveat” below was written in light of the most compassionate, student-centered posts I’ve encountered since this all begin. More than anything, it seeks to recognize our shared humanity and give students permission to prioritize the demands of life over the demands of a course.

I’m putting this prose into a post in case its language could be useful to others preparing syllabi, but also so I can return to it after this particular crisis has passed. I hope and believe my pre-pandemic pedagogy prioritized my students’ humanity over university metrics, but I won’t pretend getting to that point was easy or quick. My pedagogical training, such as it was, focused on establishing classroom authority, which felt urgent when I was a baby-faced, twenty-something grad student teaching students only a few years younger. It’s taken years to unlearn that dynamic and work towards a more empathetic and equitable pedagogy, and that work will never be done. I hope this “COVID Caveat” can serve as a reminder, when things begin to seem normal, that normal is always precarious for someone. Some version of this caveat will continue to appear on my syllabi post pandemic, hopefully enriched by the class it will help structure.

COVID Caveat

Much of the prose on this page and the linked syllabus pages (Course Policies, Assignments & Grading, Schedule) is adapted from previous semesters. I have tried to adjust it to account for the strangeness of this suddenly-online course in these suddenly-remote times. I am certain, however, that I have not imagined every situation that might arise, or fully accounted for the full range or extremity of situations you might find yourselves in this summer. Frankly, I have never taught this course or any like it in this format, and I will rely on your understanding and grace as I figure it out. I hope to extend that same understanding and grace to you.

Consider this caveat a kind of override switch for literally everything else on the syllabus. I mean it, I promise—everything on this syllabus is subject to this one clause. We’re all doing our best to learn together during an unprecedentedly difficult time. We’re working in new ways and in unusual environments. We’re caring for others and trying to keep ourselves healthy, sheltered, fed, and sane. We are worried all the time and some of us are dealing with fear and loss. Among all these challenges, I still want to come together and talk about the history and future of the book because I find these topics fascinating and—dare I say it, given this world we find ourselves in—important. I believe we can learn a lot from each other and even have some fun together in the next few weeks. I will operate from the base assumption that each of you is here in good faith: that you are curious, engaged, and eager to do the best work you can. Taking all that as given, I also want you to know that your health—both physical and mental—is always more important to me than this class. Your family and friends’ health is always more important to me than this class. You don’t have to apologize to me if attempting to learn during a pandemic forces you to work at a different pace from what’s outlined on this syllabus, or if we need to find an alternative path for you through this class. My primary role as a teacher is to support you however I can. Let me know how I can do that better. I mean all of this, sincerely. Let’s work together to meet the challenges and find the joys of this strange semester.