Pleasant Surprises of 2020
No, this won’t be a blank column, although I understand the temptation.
Although most of 2020 was a series of disasters, even this year had a few high points. As the late Leonard Cohen put it, “there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” So as the year winds down, I’d like to acknowledge a few pleasant surprises the year brought.
Zoom office hours – Apparently, far more students have shown up to faculty office hours through Zoom than ever did when they had to travel to actual offices. The entire point of office hours is interaction between faculty and students; if we managed to trip over a way to make those hours more effective, that counts for something.
TLC – Our Teaching and Learning Center — staffed by instructional technologists and instructional designers — absolutely stepped up this year when the entire college had to move to remote delivery in the space of a week. And ours wasn’t unique; all around the country, instructional designers and technologists really earned their stripes this year.
Pass/Fail — This Spring, many four-year colleges indicated that they would accept grades of “pass” in transfer for the first time, in recognition of the pandemic’s ripple effects. I was gratified to see some recognition of the reality of many students’ circumstances. I would have preferred to see more of them carry it into the fall as well, but it was still a humane and reasonable gesture.
Faculty-led summer professional development — Brookdale’s faculty took it upon themselves to put together a “faculty share” online conference in August in which they shared tips for remote teaching. They did it on their own, during a month in which they were off-contract. By all accounts, it was a rousing success. It struck me as an excellent example of putting students first.
Student tenacity — I”ve long suspected that community college students are among the hardiest in higher education. This year has proved it conclusively. Students have lost jobs and parental incomes, and have found ways to keep showing up anyway. Some have to share laptops with younger siblings; some have to improvise ways to get wi-fi. But they do it. More would do it if it were easier, of course; the presence of remarkable endurance doesn’t license structural neglect. But many still found ways to succeed, even when juggling more than many of us ever did.
The CARES Act — It was imperfect in many ways, but at least the CARES Act got a few things right: it sent aid directly to institutions, it sent aid directly to students, and it spent enough to matter. Some of those lessons seem to have been forgotten, or erased; I hope our collective memory is strong enough not to let that happen. All three of those elements are crucial.
Moving processes online — I don’t think I’m giving away any trade secrets when I say that some of our internal processes have been impervious to technological change for a long time. This year finally forced some hands. When we absolutely had to, it turned out that we could move many paper-driven workflows online without losing anything; in fact, after the conversion, the processes are actually more efficient. I wouldn’t have chosen a global pandemic as the mechanism, of course, but at least we learned some lessons that can pay dividends even after the pandemic is finally tamed.
Placement — Many of us have been unhappy with Accuplacer for a long time. When it went down this spring — during registration for fall — the “if it ain’t broke” argument became unsustainable, and we were able to develop more thoughtful and research-grounded methods for placement. Now that the inertia of the old system has been broken, there’s really no reason to go back.
Obviously, none of this was worth the pandemic. But that’s not really the question at hand. The pandemic happened; our only choice was in how to respond to it. Community colleges have long worked wonders on shoestring budgets, but this year, they did more than that. They provided hope, and continuity, and actual human caring in a time when all of those were in short supply.
Wise and worldly readers, what would you add as pleasant surprises of 2020?