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Teaching and Supporting Students in Times of Crisis

We are going through historic times of upheaval in the United States on multiple fronts.  The COVID-19 pandemic, racial tensions, climate change, economic distress and more all converge to produce unprecedented levels of stress, hardship, and uncertainty for many of our students, staff, faculty and administrators, as well as the wider community.

CAFE exists to provide a wide range of support to our faculty, understanding that, in addition to being academic experts in their disciplines and teachers, role models and mentors for our students, they are also on the frontline for critical connections for supporting students to survive and thrive in their lives in other ways.

College campuses are about many things, but two values of academic cultures are repeatedly highlighted in conversations about today’s universities: 1) the rights to free speech, academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, and 2) (in the words of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation's Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation initiative) the need to “unearth and jettison the deeply held, and often unconscious...belief in a ‘hierarchy of human value’,” and ensure the dignity, sense of belonging, and safety of every member of our university community.

Since its inception, the work of diversity, equity and inclusivity -- as well as the defense of free speech and academic freedom -- has been central to CAFE’s mission and programming.  Faculty workshops, intensives, learning communities, and teaching resources on how to create inclusive learning environments, overcome implicit bias, respond to microaggressions, effectively introduce and manage difficult dialogues, decolonize teaching and research, and teach in culturally responsive ways, have been offered to faculty across the MAU and beyond. We will continue this essential dimension of faculty development and support.

Many students -- both at UAA and across the contemporary college landscape -- come to campus with daunting challenges that can derail their efforts to accomplish their academic goals. Food insecurity, the impacts of racism or combat or sexual assault, financial stresses, homelessness, physical, mental or emotional illness or disabilities, family responsibilities, intergenerational trauma, and other obstacles can influence their daily lives, as well as their likelihood of getting through college. In addition, they are deeply affected by the range of crises afflicting our nation and our world in ways that may complicate the learning process. 

It is the responsibility of faculty to do our best to accept students where they are and as they are. This is part of what Dr. Tia McNair refers to as being a “student-ready college” (2016). In order to do that, we must embrace students where they are as learners, as well as recognize and address students’ pain and distress in response to these forces, doing what we can to assist them in finding the internal and external resources that will help them not only complete their studies, but find a sense of wholeness and health as human beings.

At a minimum, during this especially challenging time, faculty can do the following three things:

1)    ACKNOWLEDGE THE SITUATION

Acknowledge that we are going through historic times of upheaval, and that the resultant distress is real. It is affecting everyone’s sense of well-being and capacity to focus, learn and function in a wide range of ways.  Do not underestimate the value of teaching with compassion. Knowing that a faculty member understands and cares about the strains they are experiencing contradicts feelings of isolation, builds community, and helps students realize that they are supported, a critical piece of building resilience, as well as a sense of belonging at our institution and in higher ed in general. If a specific crisis occurs (a shooting, a natural disaster, the loss of a fellow student, a racial incident,etc.), it is always better to do something rather than simply continue on as if nothing has happened.  For more ideas about how to respond, review these recommendations on Teaching in Times of Crisis developed by our faculty development colleagues at Vanderbilt University.

2)     SHARE KEY RESOURCES

Faculty should provide a list of campus resources that can help support students and, more importantly, talk about these resources and encourage students to make use of them.  UAA offers a wide range of support resources to help students with a spectrum of needs. Including information about them in your syllabus and encouraging students to make use of these resources can make the difference between success and failure. If you did not identify these resources in your syllabus this term, it’s not too late to share them. Here’s a list of resources you may share with students. Note that this list is not exhaustive, but attempts to highlight key support resources in a range of the most common categories of student needs.   

3)     CONSIDER COGNITIVE LOAD

Be mindful of the nature of cognitive load, particularly in these challenging times. Offering flexibility in demonstrating mastery of material is an evidence-based best practice at any time, but is especially important right now.  Particularly given the additional stresses on students due to the pandemic (unemployment, living in cramped quarters with other family members, difficulty accessing technology, etc.), faculty need to increase flexibility in terms of assignments, deadlines, and how and when course materials are made available to students. Focus on aligning your assignments to accomplish your student learning outcomes, and consider relaxing or eliminating other important but less essential activities. For specific suggestions of how to do this while maintaining high academic standards, please review the webinar on Trauma-Informed Pedagogy by Dr. Mays Imad, a neurobiologist who heads up the teaching and learning center at Pima Community College. The entire webinar is excellent, but the passage most relevant to the point we’re making here begins at 10:36. 

Finally, we want to remind faculty that none of the great work we do as educators is possible when we ourselves are depleted. Just as students, staff, and administrators feel strain, faculty, too, are overwhelmed, and this is sure to be a particularly challenging time for faculty members from underrepresented backgrounds. Look out for your colleagues and remember that self-care is critical in this difficult time. If you need information on resources that may be available to faculty, please let us know.  We see you. We are here for you. You have our word that we will continue to serve as allies and do our best to support your needs. Don’t hesitate to reach out if there’s anything we can do (uaa_cafe@alaska.edu; 786-4644). We’re in this together. 

Need Student Support Resources?

You can learn more about some of the student support resources that are available at UAA by viewing our Student Support Resource List. This list is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but it will provide you with some guidance. Please note that this is a live document and may be updated as necessary; we recommend revisiting this document periodically for the most current information. As always, please feel free to contact us if you need further guidance.


References 

Gannon, K. M. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. West Virginia University Press.

McDaniel, R. (2019, November 07). Teaching in times of crisis. Retrieved June 03, 2020, from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/crisis/

McNair, T. B., Albertine, S. L., Cooper, M. A., McDonald, N. L., & Major, T. (2016). Becoming a student-ready college: A new culture of leadership for student success. Jossey-Bass.

Stachowiak, B. (Host). 2020, May 06. Radical hope: A teaching manifesto, with Kevin Gannon. [Audio podcast]. Teaching in Higher Education.  https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/radical-hope-a-teaching-manifesto/

Stachowiak, B. (Host). 2018, November 8. Teaching with compassion, with Peter Kaufman.  [Audio podcast]. Teaching in Higher Education. https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/teaching-with-compassion/

Stachowiak, B. (Host). 2020, May 28. Values-centered instructional planning, with Robin DeRosa and Martha Burtis.  [Audio podcast]. Teaching in Higher Education.  https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/values-centered-instructional-planning/

K. Kellogg Foundation (n.d.). Jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value. Retrieved June 03, 2020, from https://healourcommunities.org/

Zakrajsek, T. (2019, October 25). Cognitive load: A fundamental key to student learning. Retrieved June 03, 2020, from https://www.scholarlyteacher.com/post/cognitive-load-a-fundamental-key-to-student-learning