Teaching Resources

A stressed-out woman holds her head and looks at her computer.
Teaching Assistants have experienced an increased workload during the transition to online learning. Photo via PickPik.

In the last few months, higher education institutions have faced the challenge of moving in-person coursework to various online platforms in response to COVID-19. During this unprecedented time, a graduate level course at the University of Minnesota called “Teaching Sociology” launched a project to evaluate how instructors were handling the transition. The graduate students administered a survey to the Sociology department’s instructors and teaching assistants and issued a final report highlighting broad trends and making recommendations for the department to consider as the crisis continues and planning for the fall begins. Given how widespread these issues and challenges are, we thought it might be useful to share some of those ideas here on TSP, with particular focus on the experience of teaching assistants.

The survey found that, much like their instructors, nearly all TAs experienced an increased workload with the transition online. This increased workload was due to both technological learning curves and increased overall time demands. In addition to the extra emails, students expected TAs to respond more quickly and have increased availability outside of already extended office hours. Yet perhaps most salient is the proportion of TAs who noted an increase in emotional labor. TA’s provided anecdotes of dealing with students’ panic and anxiety over the rapid transition online and students’ upheaval in their personal lives. They also reported being on the end of increased student frustration and emotional outburst. In a more extreme case, one TA noted that they had received aggressive emails from students, but many more reported students’ frustrations being communicated directly.

While the survey was meant to provide reflections on the rapid transition to online teaching, the findings suggest some important considerations regarding the roles of and challenges faced by teaching assistants during unsettled times. Borrowing from the literature on workplace harassment, we find that individuals in low- to mid-level supervisory positions, such as TAships, often experience such challenges in their roles.

TA weekly hours worked pre- and during COVID, Spring 2020 

Note: this includes both 25% and 50% appointments.

The literature on workplace harassment suggests that, unfortunately, backlash against low and mid-level supervisors is not uncommon. Although many would view the authority of a supervisor as providing a protective measure from harassment, research suggests that it provokes backlash from subordinates. As a result, workers in supervisory roles are more likely to experience harassment, and that likelihood increases even more if they are female. 

In contrast, in the United States, people in higher supervisory positions such as an executive or department head are less likely to experience sexual harassment. Given that women in low- or mid-level supervisory positions are often on career tracks for these higher level positions, it is somewhat surprising that they are the most likely to experience workplace harassment.

While this literature focuses on women and sexual harassment in the workplace, these frameworks are useful for understanding the harassment faced by others in low-level supervisory positions, such as TAships. TAs may receive more “blowback” from undergraduates who hesitate to make demands or express frustration with professors, and this backlash is likely to fall more heavily on TAs who are women and/or people of color.

Because TAs often have a lot of responsibility but relatively little power, our findings suggest that instructors consider the following recommendations: 

  1. In designing remote courses, reconsider assignments and expectations for students and TAs. This may require giving TAs ample time to deal with technological challenges, as well as additional training in how to provide tech support to students.
  2. Both instructors and TAs reported a significant increase in extensions and accommodations. Consider creating a shared document so that TAs may better manage a range of deadlines and accommodations.
  3. Establish and reinforce norms and expectations for respectful communications with students throughout the semester. 
  4. Recognize and discuss responsibilities around emotional labor. Discuss which student comments or emails should go directly to the instructor and which should be handled by the TA.
  5. Put explicit email and office response hours in the syllabus to help manage and bound TA work hours.

Works Cited

Olle Folke, Johanna Rickne, Seiki Tanaka, and Yasuka Tateishi. 2020. “Sexual Harassment of Women Leaders.” Daedalus 149(1): 180-197. 

Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone. 2012. “Sexual Harassment, workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power.” American Sociological Review 77(4):1-23.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation on May 14, 2020 and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

College students don’t have to appear in person to do good.
Tom Werner/Getty Images

At Troy University in Alabama, students went online to help a county with a high infant mortality rate in the state of Georgia to analyze health disparities and develop solutions.

At Cornell University, where I teach, law students are providing legal services online to death-row inmates in Tanzania and children and young farmworkers in upstate New York.

At five state universities in the U.S. heartland, students are helping Michigan towns create government websites.

These are all examples of “e-service learning” – that is, service learning that takes place online. Service learning refers to a wide range of student experiences meant to help a community organization, local government or business.

I am an education researcher and – along with my colleague Yue Li – I am investigating the best ways to engage students in e-service learning, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Even though colleges and universities have shut down their campuses due to COVID-19, e-service learning shows how college students can still do their volunteerism in the virtual world. Students need not be physically present to help support local government, local nonprofits and vulnerable individuals like farmworkers, all of whom have a greater need for the help of volunteers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vast benefits

Service learning is not meant only to help community organizations, governmental agencies and businesses. It’s also meant to advance the student’s individual academic goals.

A key part of service learning is for students to reflect on the service they actually do and how whatever they are studying – whether it be health, law or the environment – relates to the real world. Reflection also helps students clarify their personal values and gain a sense of civic responsibility.

Better outcomes

Compared to peers who didn’t do service learning in college, graduates who did participate in service learning report higher levels of civic-mindedness. That is to say, they are more likely to work with others to achieve public goals.

For community organizations, the benefits of having college students help
with their work are vast. Students can offer companionship for elderly clients, become role models for high school students or simply serve as an extra hand to tackle a nonprofit’s back-burner project.

Research applied

Through e-service learning, communities can gain access to the latest university research. For instance, residents of Gracias Lempira, Honduras, and Rohne Village, India, used engineering research to build electricity-free water purification systems. And in Louisville, Kentucky, students from several universities created models to help residents decide where to plant trees to cut down on air pollution.

Each partnership has unique benefits. For instance, an official at an international climate action group – Team 54 Project International – remarked on how a Cornell University student played a key role in gathering information for a tree-planting guide. The guide will be used to help plant trees in Serbia that are suited for the region. The guide will also serve as a template for similar tree-planting projects around the world.

Is virtual the same?

Can students still have a meaningful service learning experience in cyberspace?

A study of business marketing students shows that students who engaged in online service learning gained the same skills, such as the ability to work well with others and understand cultural and racial differences, as those who worked alongside their partners in person.

Back in 2013, some university scholars predicted that online technologies would disrupt in-person university teaching as it was known, including service learning.

What I have found is instead of disrupting in-person teaching, e-service learning has enhanced it. It does this by offering opportunities for any student and any nonprofit with an internet connection to form a partnership on short notice. E-service learning has also added new opportunities for busy students to help NGOs overseas, U.S. nonprofits and local governments in other states. Students help with everything from disaster planning to food waste and hunger issues.

Ever since colleges and universities have been forced to move their instruction online due to COVID-19, critics have worried about whether or not they’re doing a good job. But as schools continue to teach online for the summer and possibly even the fall, similar attention should also be paid – in my view – to how well they are engaging students in service learning online.

Especially with employees working from home due to social distancing, e-service learning may prove itself as one of the most effective ways to prepare students to solve the kinds of problems they will encounter once they start their careers.

[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]The Conversation

Marianne E. Krasny, Professor of Environmental Education and Civic Ecology, Cornell University

Shows a multitasking woman, breastfeeding a baby, ironing clothes, with pets in the way, and a laptop open and next to her.
Image: Shows a multitasking woman, breastfeeding a baby, ironing clothes, with pets in the way, and a laptop open and next to her. This image is modified from a CC0 graphic courtesy of Clker-Free-Vector-Images via pixabay.

Are you exhausted? Zoomed out? As we say in critical incident stress management (CISM), “You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation.” This reflection is considering the faculty or administrator perspective on our current interpersonal reality. The student perspective is a separate writeup.

How could you have attended the same number of meetings in Normal World B.C. (Before COVID-19) and your schedule wasn’t nearly this exhausting? This is a matter that potentially affects only those of us privileged enough to be able to do at least two things: (1) continue doing our paid jobs, and yet (2) stay home and safe. For those of us in this virtual boat, many are realizing how attending the same number of meetings as in a usual week is way way way more exhausting when they happen via a video conferencing platform such as Zoom. There are many reasons, and here are three:

1. Perceptual mismatch

When you’re in a meeting, like back when we did that sort of thing together in the same space, you’d get a “read of the room.” It’s in our nature to do this. You’d scan the room, passively attending to details like, how are people feeling? What’s the mood or the vibe here today? Do folks seem to be on the same page? This is natural. In a video conference though? You are trying to read 25 rooms. You are. It’s in your nature. And you’re trying to do this while, ironically, ignoring the room you are literally in. That is not how perception works, which is the process through which we attach meaning to our sensory input in order to understand the social world. You’re trying to read all the rooms up on that screen, while ignoring the sensory information coming at you from within the room in which you are physically located, and that’s before you even engage with anybody. Speaking of the rest of the people:

2. Interpersonal intensity

When you’re in a room in Normal World B.C., you are not trying to maintain continuous eye contact with 25 people for an hour. In person, you can be in a group in shared space, completely engaged, attentive and present, and you’re still not maintaining eye contact with every single person at the same time. In a video conference, even looking down at a relevant piece of paper can be perceived as you checking out, no longer actively listening, or some other indicator assumed to be a lack of effort. 

3. High vulnerability and intimacy

While reading all the rooms and ignoring your own, and doing your best to maintain eye contact with everyone in a group continuously, you are also letting people read YOUR room. Your room right now is probably inside or outside the place you presently call home. That’s a level of vulnerability and intimacy greater than you signed up for when you began in this position, right? You didn’t plan on letting these people into your living room or your bedroom.

There’s Science Behind This!

The psychological and mental health effects of shifting nearly all of our interpersonal interactions into video conferencing is yet unstudied. What I’ve written in this piece is based on what we know to date about how the brain does its job. 

For more information on the perceptual burden you might be experiencing, look first at the process of “unconscious inference” known as perception itself. As we take in sensory information, through the process of sensation, our brain has to work with that input to produce something for us to understand and to which we then respond, through the process of perception. Reading 25 rooms while ignoring the sensory input from the very room you are in, makes this entire meaning-making process inherently more complex and likely burdensome. This is a traditional, bottom-up explanation of perception. 

Another perspective on perception is one of top-down processing, which “occurs when people’s expectations, emotions, and bodies affect how they see the world” (Reiner, 2019:267). This explanation is one of embodied perception, considering sensation and perception as not linear and not separate from our physical selves. 

Whether you view processing as top-down or bottom up, you will find explanations of your present state of exhaustion. Then recognize that making eye contact is one of the earliest forms of social communication we learn in our lives. This primal social role is made more central when we’re in video conferences that make most other social communication harder to gauge. We might feel the need to maintain eye contact more than what we would normally do, given this restriction of the medium, and this would likely contribute to our cumulative exhaustion.

What else?

Of course, there are more than three reasons why you might be feeling exhausted. The runners up include blurring of boundaries that can lead to you working well into the evenings and weekends when you never did that before. You might not be the cause of those boundaries blurring – especially when your boss expects you to respond at all hours, but you might find that you need to draw a line more firmly around your off time. You’re also suddenly some kind of movie producer to some extent, which probably isn’t within your skillset, so that’s tiring as you try to excel at something you’ve possibly never even planned to try. And none of this even considers the exhaustion and psychache we all are feeling to varying degrees as we interpret the current global pandemic, with concerns for the future of society and worry for the people we love within it. How could you not be exhausted right now?

If you are reading this and you have any authority in this world, please cut folks some slack. If your organization can continue to be fully functional online? Cool. If you’re a boss, shorten the meetings. If you are an educator, lean towards fewer assignments and lessened demands. Shorten the meetings and classes. The exhaustion you are feeling makes sense, and it is universal. Please take care of junior faculty, graduate students, and the support staff whom you are probably realizing are working more than they should be.

A young woman sits in a beanbag chair while participating in an online class on her laptop. Photo by pxfuel.

In this unprecedented time of suddenly teaching courses online that were designed to be taught on campus, and as we look ahead to the upcoming semester, we are now solidly in the realm of online teaching and learning. Neither you nor your students signed up for this. No matter what you chose to do early on in the response to COVID-19, what are you going to do looking ahead? What have you learned that can help you decide? Are you going to teach synchronously or asynchronously? What’s better for your students? What’s better for you? 

Teaching synchronously involves holding “live” sessions that generally allow interactions in real time. Teaching asynchronously means you are probably producing little movies of what you wish you could be teaching in the in-person classroom environment where we all thought our classes would be taking place, and you upload these little movies for students to view on their own schedule. Acknowledging that there are strongly-held beliefs about the superiority of the method on each side of this debate, let’s walk through the key strengths and drawbacks of each option.

What’s so great about teaching synchronously?

This category of online learning allows students to see and interact with one another and with you, to give and receive real-time feedback on their ideas, to brainstorm and collaborate with peers, to ask questions of you as a lesson is being shared, and to be reminded that we are community members, separated physically but not in spirit. With real solidarity, synchronous classes can remind all of us that we are not alone even as we negotiate our changed landscape amidst the novelty that is physical isolation.

You can be creative in nurturing a sense of community in your synchronous classroom. You are a team, on a shared mission. You are in this together. Making eye contact and having conversations at your regularly scheduled class times is priceless as a preventative measure for mental health outcomes, and for increasing engagement with the course materials. Whether students are in your class to complete requirements of a major, or to earn elective credits or specialty skills and knowledge, in the synchronous online classroom you can readily help students remember why they registered for your course to begin with, which can be very grounding. 

So the benefits of teaching “live” include improved communication efficiency and clarity, increased sense of community, fostering solidarity with and among your students who might deeply value the peer support and shared experience of being together for your class. 

Image shows grid view of 25 students in Erika Sanborne’s Social Research Methods discussion/lab section on March 18, our first suddenly-online synchronous gathering. We all wore University gear, to remind one another that we are in this together. Students gave expressed permission to share this class photo. Photo by Erika Sanborne.

What is good about teaching asynchronously?

The most popular reason for choosing this option for your teaching is flexibility regarding when work is done. You can make your little lecture movies whenever you have the time and space to do so, recognizing that your own obligations have likely increased for now as well, so this flexibility can be invaluable. Also, of course, your students can watch those recordings at their convenience. Students’ life circumstances have likely changed. They did not plan to be where they physically are right now while they are completing your course. They might be sharing technology and not have unlimited access to it. They might be across the globe in an incompatible time zone. They might not want to let you and their entire class into the space where they are living right now. This unprecedented social intimacy may have unknown effects on their emotional well-being, and an asynchronous class lets them receive lecture information without that intimate reciprocity of audio and/or video from the place that’s currently home to them.

Asynchronous classes have pedagogical benefits too. They allow students to literally “pause” your class when they are confused or need a break, something only possible in their dreams for in-person and synchronous online classes, which go at a pace not set by them at all. Also, the technology requirements to take in an asynchronous class are lower, and this is therefore more accessible to more students. Watching or downloading a video can happen on the most basic internet-capable devices. Asynchronous lectures can even be mailed on DVDs, or transcribed and printed out with captioned graphics as needed. They can also be closed captioned for accessibility. 

What have you learned so far teaching under these conditions?

You need to set up mental scales of your own, to weigh out and determine what really matters to you, and what is best for you and for your students. I’ve spoken with many individual faculty members at several universities while consulting on this topic, and in every conversation, we’ve decided the best option is to offer some combination of both synchronous and asynchronous offerings in a class. This is not necessarily ideal or superior. It’s just one way of trying to maximize the benefits of both options, while using each to cover the shortcomings in the other. Perhaps thinking through this example will help you refine your own plan as we look ahead to more of this sort of course design, of teaching classes online that were slated to have taken place in person.

An example of “doing both”

Suppose you were scheduled to teach your class twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, 10:00 am – 11:15 am local time. For this example, you can now meet synchronously (live) Mondays and Wednesdays at 10 am local time, for about 30 minutes. Keep it briefer to minimize the fatigue that results from too much continuous video conferencing, for them and for you. After revisiting your course’s learning objectives and determining what’s most essential, cover the associated lecture topics live, interactively. Remain, or reclaim if you’ve steered apart, the community that you were before everything shifted online. Invite your students to your live classes assuring them of both your accompaniment and your realization that they likely have new burdens and expectations. Use some simple measure of classroom participation (i.e. three short questions that you introduce throughout the 30 minute class, and that can be answered typing on a smart phone); offer them some various live office hours each week, and teach your class. Give them whatever is most important for your course.

What about those students who cannot make it to the live classes? There are valid reasons. If at all possible, do not expect them to share the reason with you. Asking them to justify why they cannot attend your class online, when they had not planned to be an online student right now, is a bit unfair. Trust your students when they say they cannot make it to your synchronous class. Their reasons may include time zone difference, lack of technology, no free space in their home, no quiet space, less time to be a student because of shifted family responsibilities such as caregiving, etc. Some are working jobs to make up for parents’ lost wages now. Some are homeless because student housing was their solution for where to live right now. For students who have never had an online class before, they might have anxiety about how it all works. There are many reasons why one might not be present for synchronous classes.

The solution for them is simple. Record those 30 minute live classes, and make them available to those who cannot attend at the regularly scheduled class time. Make sure they can complete the same simple measure of classroom participation in a way that is no more or less taxing whether one is live or one is watching the video later. Make sure you follow FERPA regulations and basic copyright laws for recordings, and that you only make public your own face and your own thoughts. You can also restrict access to these videos with passwords, time-limits and other means depending on your platform. Check with your institution for these details. 

Which option is better for you and your students?

That is the question we have answered on the fly, and may be reconsidering as we look ahead to plan future semesters, and only you can answer. I am in favor of the “doing both” option as in the example above. I have had the most success with, as have faculty I’ve helped figure some things out. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary. No matter the option you go with, do your best to be truly present with your students, and to let them see that, either as they make eye contact with you themselves, or otherwise when they see you offering your accompaniment as they view the recording later. If you are choosing to go strictly asynchronous, do what you can to connect with your students and to allow them to share the experience of your class with one another. One pro tip: Talk to the camera, not to your screen, to convey eye contact. It is worth practicing this skill.

You are probably doing great. If possible, consider synchronous classes such as in the example, with a recording offering a comparable experience for the students who cannot get to the live class. If you offer no synchronous classes, try to have some optional synchronous time in general, whether that’s office hours or something else. You’re reaching out through the physical distance between us, to show them that you care about their learning and their struggles. 

If you are personally juggling too many unforeseeable stressors, or you need to do exclusively asynchronous instruction for whatever other personal reasons, that is valid, My hope is that you find nothing but institutional support for you doing the best that you can. If you are struggling with the fatigue that comes from too many video conferences, all while trying to hold your concerns about the world and your loved ones in check, please hang in there and be kind to yourself. You are not alone either.

Collage featuring the titles of TSP’s Partner and Community Pages, all of which afford high-interest and accessible sociological content that’s great for teaching.

Previously we posted “Using TSP to Teach Online.” This week we’re featuring content from our partner and community pages. In addition to producing in-house content, The Society Pages is an online hub for blogs written and curated by other social scientists. We can’t feature them all here, but you can find the full list at the bottom of our homepage.

Sociological Images” is designed to encourage people to exercise and develop their sociological imagination by presenting brief discussions of compelling and timely imagery that spans the breadth of sociological inquiry.

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Photo depicts a modern office work space with two tables and two white boards. Photo via Pixabay.

This article is reposted with edits from an original post made 3/11/2020

Erika Sanborne is a TSP Graduate Board member who has received various awards for teaching and often serves as a teaching & technology consultant for faculty and graduate instructors. Her research interests include the life course, race, and religion. Her favorite course to teach is statistics.

Many of us are a week or two into teaching a suddenly-online course that we had designed to teach in person. Having taught about 50 undergraduate class sections in person, and about 50 undergraduate class sections online, I am duly familiar with both options. To be clear, when I have taught the same subject online and on campus even during the same semester, they are very different courses. Yet here we are with this current situation, so let’s deal with it as best we can. In this write-up, I’m inviting you into “round 2” following all the big changes you have made in the past few weeks to get to this moment.

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Screenshot of a Zoom meeting for the University of Minnesota’s SOC 8090 course, also known as TSP’s graduate editorial board.

As instructors move their courses online, we at The Society Pages want to help out by offering a guide to our site. We have lots of sociological content that can be used in teaching, from new research coming out of journals to podcast interviews with sociologists. We strive to make our content clear, concise, and public-facing — perfect for undergraduates! 

What kind of content do we have? (and how can you use it to teach?)

There’s Research on That!” – In this blog, we curate sociological research that speaks to things that are happening in the world.

  • Have students read “#SayHerName and Black Women’s Experiences with Police” for an overview of research on Black women’s experiences with police, including distrust of police and the challenges that come with motherhood. Then, ask them to respond with a short post about the racialized and gendered challenges that lie ahead in developing police-community trust.

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A protester marches in a rally against the use of Native American caricatures as sports mascots. Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

This resource is the final project for “Race and Racism in the U.S.” The course is designed to explore how race structures contemporary issues in the United States. The course focuses on historical and contemporary race issues to demonstrate that race is a constructed system of privilege, power, and inequality embedded in everyday life. Using sociological theories and methods, students learn to locate claims about race in society by examining media, news, television, and other fields of public discussion.  

This final project reflects students’ ability to assess the dominant social narratives of race in the United States. Students use secondary sources and critical content analysis to uncover what people think and feel about race.

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Photo by Heather, Flickr CC

If you’re anything like me, when you need a break from your work, you spend some time binge watching TV. Of course, I only watch the most intellectually stimulating shows — which brings me to The Great British Baking Show. Over my holiday break, I watched all six seasons and the holiday special. While this isn’t my proudest accomplishment, it did get me thinking about student feedback and The Great British Baking Show as a pedagogical model.

Photo of Paul Hollywood by helen, Flickr CC

If you haven’t seen the show, the set-up is that in each episode, the bakers have three baked goods that are judged before one of the contestants is eliminated. The bakers know about and plan for two of the challenges, but the third is a surprise. As you can imagine, each week there is a range of success, and therefore a range of feedback given.

Over the course of the episodes, I began to notice that judge Paul Hollywood stood out — not just for his icy, blue eyes but also for the comments he made and the advice he gave the contestants each week. Paul is especially efficient and concrete in his feedback to contestants. Paul and Mary Berry, the other judge, follow many of the tactics that research shows to be best practices in providing effective feedback. I want to highlight a few of them.

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Image from rear of stadium seat lecture hall facing forward, photo by nikolayhg, pixabay CC

Jessica A. Cebulak and John F. Zipp. 2019. “Using Racial and Class Differences in Infant Mortality to Teach about White Privilege: A Cooperative Group Activity.” Teaching Sociology

White college students often struggle to understand, recognize, and learn about white privilege. Many students prefer a “color-blind” approach that denies racial inequalities altogether. Although there are other teaching strategies that try to overcome this, too many simply shift the conversation to inequalities in social class. These strategies fail to address the complicated relationship between race and class. As a result, students struggle to understand, for instance, why affluent, well-educated Black women still have higher infant mortality in the United States than low income, poorly educated white women.

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