Cammy Shay • Houston Community College
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The shocks of the pandemic can color the way we reflect on the experiences of the past 16-months. Still, without sounding too Pollyannaish, I’ve considered the constructive lessons we’ve learned in my department after being thrust into the new—and completely different—pandemic normal. The lessons are many. As chair of an 80-member department, I am delighted with how the faculty adapted their teaching practice to this new normal. Now, heading into the 2021-22 academic year, the challenge is to hone those lessons as we return to campus in what I’m calling a post-pandemic (r)evolution normal. I’m pleased to share with this larger community as the changes we’ve experienced are nothing short of revolutionary!
The scene is late February 2020, and I had just become aware of the pandemic’s rapid disruptions. Emails fly off my keyboard as I alert the faculty to start thinking about using Canvas ASAP. Then, Spring Break–and more disruptions–arrived. The sudden shift to remote work and online learning obligated me to reach out to full- and part-time faculty for help moving some 40 faculty members, or half of the department, into online teaching using synchronous and asynchronous tools. We paired online teachers with those who had little to no experience beyond using the Canvas grade book through the rapid development of a remote mentoring system. The learning curve was steep, but we were ready to go.
The collaboration among full- and part-time faculty members through this remote mentoring initiative strengthened our work and allowed us to continue developing online instructional skills. The combination of technical and pedagogical help and moral support offered by the mentors showed me that we could lay a strong foundation for building our capacity for the coming academic year. I am very impressed with the ways the instructional faculty stepped up to meet the COVID-19 challenges. Beyond the pandemic, we are faced with regular environmental challenges due to climate change. I can now say we have the ability—and agility—to adapt to hurricanes or winter storms or whatever else nature throws our way that may shut down our campuses.
In preparation for the 2020-21 academic year, we had to augment our nascent skills in synchronous instruction. Despite the College having a robust online program, most classes were taught asynchronously. Now, with access to WebEx, Kaltura, and Zoom, individual faculty members could choose the tool that best suited their needs. The department offered support by designating one of the associate chairs as our “techie.” Having a technology point person in the department expedited help for relatively simple issues; the College provided support for more serious matters. Additionally, College-wide training sessions helped make synchronous teaching more engaging.
Now that most faculty members are comfortable using streaming technology, I expect to see virtual synchronous office hours, supplemental instruction, review sessions, and even guest speakers used in campus-based and online classes. Furthermore, the College now offers remote synchronous classes (Online on a Schedule) in addition to asynchronous courses (Online Anytime). There is considerable excitement among some faculty to teach the Online on a Schedule classes, and students are voting in favor of them with their enrollment decisions.
New Professional Development
The confluence of the pandemic, social movements for justice, and the 2020 elections unleashed a flood of open-access webinars by people in teaching and learning, political science, and related fields. Instructors needed access to pedagogical information to support online teaching and current research-based information about what was going on in the United States and around the world in the face of so much change. Suddenly, our promising-but-young Canvas-based Teaching Resources shell received infusions of new source material; another associate chair took charge of building it out. It has grown to include links to many of these webinars and information about the pandemic, wellness, and other content material for the courses in our catalog. I am incredibly excited to have political science research presented by the authors themselves shared with our students, which was entirely beyond our reach before the pandemic. It is my hope (and plea) that political scientists will continue to provide open access to their webinars. As we move into the next academic year, all instructors will be encouraged to add relevant online content and political science research regardless of the mode of instruction of their classes.
Moreover, the pandemic meant that professional conferences moved online. Faculty members had unparalleled—and low cost—access to remote conferences in pedagogy and political science. I was able to push out information regularly and encourage participation in ways never imagined before. As with webinars, I hope that remote conference options will be available after we return to campus.
Remote Professional Engagement
Though many faculty members lamented the loss of classroom interactions with students and professional and social conversations with colleagues, we became aware of the many ways we can use streaming technology to communicate in real-time and face-to-face. Remote College-wide and department meetings eliminated the need to drive around the vast Houston metro area that the College serves. Quick conversations or meetings are easier to arrange. Collaboration on projects is simpler to schedule. And, as noted earlier, virtual office hours and supplemental instruction better meet the needs of students. The convenience of live-streaming is near-universally acknowledged as one of the critical positives to come out of this pandemic. I look forward to more engagement with instructors in my large and diffuse department using video conferencing tools as we move into the new academic year. Not only will my time be utilized more strategically, but faculty members won’t have to face the burden of navigating Houston’s notorious freeways to get to my office!
Relationships with Students
Finally, a change deepened by the pandemic is how instructors perceive their relationships with their students. Learning from students about the losses they experienced during the pandemic, (loved ones, employment, finances, their health) while striving to continue their studies, peeled back the veneer of academic distance to expose the visceral reality of their lives. The encouragement, support, and guidance the faculty offered their students and how students responded proved to us that compassion does not compromise the quality of instruction. Instead, it increases trust by building deeper connections. Going forward, the leadership team will launch a department-wide inclusive teaching initiative that will build on the foundational experiences of faculty and students during the pandemic. With online access to excellent resources provided by teaching and learning experts, we will fashion our initiative to improve student outcomes in all of our courses.
A department chair’s work is often lonely, all the more so when it is done remotely. My work has been supported and augmented by others in the department leadership team, including two Associate Department Chairs (Dr. Veronica Reyna and Dr. Steven Tran), the Program Coordinator (Ms. Brenda Riddick), and a most capable Administrative Assistant (Ms. Ana Garza). Without their consistent support and willingness to dig into the challenges we faced, we would not have succeeded in moving our department forward. With them, I can look forward to building upon our successes as the department continues its post-pandemic revolution.
Cammy Shay is the Chair of the Government Department at Houston Community College, where she got her start in teaching while attending grad school at Rice University. She has accumulated 15 years of experience in department leadership positions, from Associate Chair to Chair. In addition to her Chair responsibilities, she is creating a Department Chair Survival Kit to help incoming Chairs adjust to the demands of the position.