Fresh Perspectives Interview with Prof. Arthur Bahr

Providing and Soliciting Feedback

Arthur Bahr, Associate Professor 

Class: Major Authors: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, 21L.705
Semesters: Fall 2020
MIT Department: Literature Section

Key Takeaways

  • Through short videos (or other media) instructors can inform students of expectations around class participation and make explicit the rationale behind those expectations before the semester begins, generating student buy-in for policies they may otherwise perceive as arbitrary or harsh.
  • Communicating with students in multiple formats, such as one-on-one Zoom calls and prerecorded videos that expand on topics discussed in class, can help more students engage more deeply with the class material and the instructor. 
  • While instructors have different levels of comfort when it comes to discussing mental health, it is important to adopt flexible policies and practices that recognize the ongoing mental health challenges students may be facing.

Interview Transcript

00:00 How did you approach the challenge of remote teaching?

I think at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it sort of goes without saying that the technical subjects are important because they’re giving students training in sort of concrete technical skill sets. And I think the pandemic has given SHASS faculty an opportunity to say like, OK, well, what is it that we really need to get those students to do, to be able to do? What is our version of a technical skill?

And for me, I think it is, among other things, the ability to participate fully, openly, collegially in a challenging conversation about challenging issues and challenging texts, because that is a skill that students are going to need to have as they enter the, quote unquote, real world. And it’s hard to do over Zoom, but it’s all the more important to teach precisely because it’s hard.

And I’ve always tried to be transparent about participation. Like, I give mid-semester reports on how they’re doing in that aspect of the class, with sort of concrete suggestions for improvement, like it would be great to hear you speak up more. I would love to help you figure out comfortable ways of doing so, right? So I’ve tried to create that sort of two-way communication even beforehand.

But I think the fact that participation, the fact that Zoom was such a new, weird, and potentially alienating medium for so many of us, it gave me an opportunity to, and I think gives all of us an opportunity going forward to start from first principles and say like, OK, just because we’re on Zoom doesn’t mean that attendance is optional, doesn’t mean that participation is optional. Here’s why. Right? Here’s why attendance and participation still matter, even over Zoom.

So I wanted to be very transparent about my expectations, which were you don’t miss class. Class happens when it happens. Everyone has to be here. And so I prepared a little video just sort of introducing myself, the topic of the class, which was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and sort of laying out my expectations. And I think that set the right tone, in terms of both transparency, like I said, but also just giving them a sense of who I am in a more informal and relaxed way than the first day of class.

So that was one thing. And then stuff sort of developed over the course of the fall semester, as well. But that was something that students actually mentioned on the subject evaluations, which was encouraging. So that’s something I plan to continue doing even when I go back to regular in-person teaching, just that sort of little– you know, I think it was seven or eight minutes, but I think it was helpful. And I think it helped students decide whether they wanted to take the class or not, as well. So it was lots of benefits.

03:29 How did you use asynchronous elements to support learning goals?

One strategy that I used was to create these what I called video footnotes after class, which were really just like little riffs on a cool word or image that we hadn’t talked about, we hadn’t talked about at all or in depth in class. And they were like three to five minutes, so not a huge investment on the student’s part. Unscripted and unpolished. And I thought that was actually quite important. Like, I would prepare any screen shares ahead of time, but otherwise, I just launched in with a general sense of the point I wanted to get across.

And unless things really went south, which they did occasionally, I just posted that first take, sort of warts and all, because– well, partly because that’s who I am. I’m that guy who gets really excited about cool, weird poems, and sometimes I misspeak or lose my train of thought. And that’s OK. And because I thought that it was important to put out a sort of more authentic, more imperfect version of me to give students sort of permission, in a sense, to put themselves out there in comparable ways in class discussion.

Because these are very difficult texts, in all sorts of ways, I think giving students asynchronous options for demonstrating mastery– well, for developing and then demonstrating mastery of those challenges, whether it’s learning to pronounce and declaim middle English correctly, whether it’s learning to use the Online Middle English Dictionary, which is a very complicated but also incredibly exciting digital resource, giving them asynchronous options for doing that does a lot of good things. It lets them develop that mastery on their own terms and at their own timetable, because depending on their linguistic background and comfort, they may sort of pick it up quite quickly or need more time.

And then it also makes the classroom space one that can be devoted more to thematic and, quote unquote, literary issues. And I can be confident, or I can be more confident, at least, as a teacher that everyone in the class is bringing the full sort of complement of linguistic skills to bear because I’ve hopefully given them the tools to acquire that mastery outside of class in a way that is less intimidating than having to do it sort of live, with everybody watching and me sort of correcting their every mispronunciation.

06:13 How did you get feedback from students?

So one thing I’ve done for a long time is have mid-semester course evaluations. They’re very low-key. I mean, I just ask students to describe one aspect of the class that they think is going well or that they’re enjoying, one aspect– at least one, at least one aspect of the class that they think I could improve still this semester, whatever this semester is, and then also one or more aspects of the class that it’s sort of too late, as it were, to fix, as it were, that semester, but that I should think about going forward.

And that last issue is the kind of thing that the end-of-term subject evaluations are also, of course, very useful for. But I think asking the students for that kind of feedback even while the semester is going helps persuade them that I’m serious. And I think as soon as they believe that I care, or that any of us cares as an instructor, it opens up channels of communication not just about course design, which is what the questions are explicitly about, but it also creates an invitation for students to be open and communicative about other things, as well.

​​07:47 What role did mental health play in shaping the class?

I think during the pandemic, obviously, mental health has been a huge issue for a lot of us, even those who haven’t consciously sort of grappled with it before. So I was just very open with my students. I mean, I have a mental health day policy on my syllabi, which I have for a long time. So I have a strict attendance policy for all of the kind of pedagogical reasons that I outlined before, but everybody is entitled to miss one day of class no questions asked. Just send me an email that says I’m taking my mental health day. And I include myself in that.

And so last fall, I was just really overwhelmed at some point, and so I canceled class and just said I was taking my mental health day. And I told my students to use the class time to– it was a beautiful day. It was late fall, right, so it was a beautiful day. And I said, go do something that brings you joy. And I got some really lovely, some really nice responses of just how appreciated that was, and pictures of people outside on the Charles. So that was really nice, and also something I got end-of-semester feedback on.

And I think that– so everybody has to do that in a way that’s authentic to them. Like, I’m comfortable talking about those issues. Not every instructor is. And I don’t think it should be– certainly not required, but really even expected. But I do think that it behooves all of us as teachers– you know, mental health has been foregrounded by the pandemic. Even though the pandemic is a physical– it’s about a virus, it’s foregrounded issues of mental health, as well. And I really hope that all of us remember how important that issue is when we come back into the classroom, too.

10:05 How will Zoom play a role in your teaching going forward?

Having Zoom as one available space and one available mode of communication is really helpful. It is not better than in-person for a lot of things, and probably actually most things. But it is better for some. And I think, importantly, it’s better for some students for some things.

So I think it gives another mode of access to the professor or the instructor for students who are shyer. And I think also– I mean, I had one student who was going through some really tough stuff in the fall. And I think we were able to– and we had kind of one-on-one Zooms where their camera was off because they were just in distress. And it was too intense, I guess, to have their camera on and be sharing what they were sharing with me about what they were going through.

And I really appreciated that that was available to that student, and to others going forward, as a way of– because that’s a very different kind of interaction than if they had to come to my office and be there, like, with me at my desk, right, inhabiting sort of this physical space of authority, and they’re over there, right? It’s just different. And I think the fact that they were able to turn their camera off and sort of exert that one aspect of control in a context in which they felt sort of totally out of control because of all of these external forces bearing down on them, I thought that was really good.

I think offering to have one-on-one student conferences, either in person or over Zoom, is something I’m going to keep doing, actually, both for convenience– I mean, let’s be honest. I mean, I think more students will come talk to me if they don’t have to physically come to my office. But also, I think– I’m trying to– I’m remembering back– I almost said I’m trying to remember back– to being an undergrad and being intimidated by professors. And I don’t think I come across as intimidating, but you never know, right? And I think that giving students a mode of access to me, as the instructor, that may be less socially fraught for them, as a student, is to everybody’s benefit.