General, pedagogy, Lecturers

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a Creative Writing lecturer

Dr Judith Heneghan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester tells us how the Covid lockdown is affecting her work.

About the University of Winchester

The University of Winchester traces its origins to a teacher training institution founded in the mid-nineteenth century. This became known as King Alfred’s College, and in the late twentieth century it began to offer degrees in the humanities and performing arts, as well as education. It was awarded university status in 2005 and now consists of four main faculties: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Business, Law and Sport and Education, Health and Social Care. There are approximately 8000 students, the majority from the UK (roughly 6% are from overseas). The Creative Writing programmes are located within the Department of English, Creative Writing and American Studies and offer a range of single and combined honours degrees at the levels of BA, MA and PhD.

 Please tell us a little bit about the disciplines you teach in and the courses you teach. How many students are in each course/lecture, the make-up of the student body. How did you typically teach before the Covid-19 crisis?

I teach Creative Writing at undergraduate and Masters levels, and also supervise a couple of PhD students. Creative Writing as a discipline is long-established at Winchester. Cohorts are a mix of home and international students, pursuing full-time or part-time study. Classes usually take the form of classroom-based seminars for groups of between 14 and 28 students. The writing workshop is a key component of our approach and features peer critiquing and small-group discussion.

Please describe the restrictions that have been applied at your city and your institution as a result of the coronavirus.  When were they first put in place?  Are your offices closed? If so, are you and your colleagues working from home?  How do you do this in practice?

From 23 March onwards, when the nationwide ‘lockdown’ began, the University closed to all but essential personnel. I had already begun to work from home and therefore continued to do so. I arranged to pick up a monitor from my office so that I could have two screens set up on my dining room table, which has now become my ‘home office’. Email traffic has not been much changed by lockdown, but I have been using my mobile phone to a much greater extent, mainly to communicate with colleagues.

Have you been teaching remotely, and if so, for how long? Is it a new experience for you and the students? Which software do you use and is it working well? What about exams? 

The timing of semesters at Winchester and the nature of Creative Writing as a subject means that I have not yet had to do very much remote teaching. I had only two weeks of teaching left before classes concluded and I was able to deliver these sessions via Powerpoint presentations, notes and by setting up discussion threads on the University’s intranet. Tutorials were conducted via email, Zoom, MS Teams or phone calls, depending on the student’s own preference.  All of these have worked well as temporary measures. Creative Writing students don’t sit exams, and they have been submitting assignments online for the past two years. My time at the moment is mainly taken up with marking, which I can do at home.  However, when the new academic year starts in September much greater adjustment will be needed. The extent of this will depend on the levels of social distancing restrictions in place by then.  We may have to accommodate blended or online delivery for a longer period of time.

Which challenges have affected you most?  How have you dealt with them?  What are you most proud of having achieved during the emergency?  What would you say are the greatest challenges that your students are facing? How do they communicate with you?  We’d be very grateful if you could add some short anecdotes here!

Possibly the greatest challenge is the level of uncertainty we all have to cope with, especially when I look forward to September. Concluding the current academic year has been relatively straightforward for me personally, and students and staff have been remarkably flexible under the circumstances. Face time and video conferencing have created some welcome camaraderie as pets and family members make unscheduled appearances! However, the past few weeks have unquestionably been stressful for many of the students. One can only imagine their anxiety about current and future jobs, assignments, and access to resources and technology, and we’ll be doing all we can to support them through these uncertain times. Communication between lecturers and students is less of an issue than peer-to-peer learning and contact, which is very important because of the way our courses are structured, but also for socialising and networking; and this will continue to be a significant challenge until social distancing measures are eased.

Have you had access to the library? Are there ways in which the library can provide more help at the present time?  Have they already helped – for example, by providing access to more online content, offering scanning services, etc.? 

My understanding is that the university is indeed providing access to more online content etc.

Please give any further information you would like to add.  What do you think will happen when people gradually go back to university?  Will some things have changed permanently?  Can some good have come out of the crisis and its impact on the ways in which people work – e.g., by using distance learning more innovatively, being more creative with the development of teaching and learning materials?  What are the mid- to long-term impacts on teaching likely to be?

I think it is inevitable that online learning will increase. Necessity will drive innovation across all subjects and perhaps this in turn will extend to innovation in the way we offer traditional face-to-face learning and teaching, as the ‘blended’ classroom becomes more familiar to us all.

Tell us a little about yourself

I came to academia quite late, after an early career in publishing, having brought up four children. In 2000 I studied for an MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester, and when my first children’s books were published in 2005 I was invited back to teach. I was Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival for six years, and now divide my time between lecturing and writing. My novel for adults, Snegurochka, was published by Salt in 2019.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

General, Lecturers, pedagogy

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a lecturer

We talked to Dr. Oliver Lindemann, Assistant Professor for Research Methods and Techniques at the Department of Psychology, Education & Child Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Netherlands

(c) Oliver Lindemann

Tell me a little about your University and the current situation

Erasmus University grew out of the “Netherlands School of Commerce”, which was founded in 1913 and has always been one of the world’s top-ranked Business Schools. In 1966 a Medical Faculty was added and the “full” university under its current name was established in 1973. To this day, the university focusses on Medical, Cultural and Social Sciences and the Business School (RSM) remains a big influence on the university’s overall reputation. In recent years, the Rotterdam School of Social Science and Behaviour has enrolled more students than the Business School. Psychology is the strongest subject within this school by some distance. The percentage of foreign students is high. They come mainly from Germany and the Asian countries.  

Which courses do you teach?

I teach research methods and statistics for Social Sciences across the school. Most of my students are Psychology students but some study other disciplines, mainly Pedagogy. I teach both post- and undergraduate students and supervise a small group of PhD students.
Because my courses are compulsory, typically 400-500 students attend my lectures. In the past year, we’ve even had lectures of more than 1,000 students. Levels of knowledge and interest in my subject are diverse and as the cohorts are also large it is difficult to teach in a way that caters for everyone. Consequently, I record my lectures and ask as many students as possible to watch them online and only attend in person if they must. It’s mainly “talk and chalk”, so it makes little difference to the quality whether I tape a lecture or conduct it as a “live show”.
The students also attend tutorials in groups of about 20 students. There they discuss and practise the methods learned in the lecture.  Since the lockdown this has become much more difficult, because tutors have to support students on a one-to-one basis and provide feedback.  

How has the current situation impacted your teaching and which measures have you taken?

The Erasmus University moved to online teaching and learning when the lockdown began in March. There will be no face-to-face teaching before the summer; all lecturers have been advised to prepare online autumn lectures, too.
I have weekly virtual 1-to-1 catch-ups with the 7 or so BA and MA students whom I am currently supervising; others can book short Zoom calls with me via my website. The students need more frequent contact now because they can’t see me on campus or exchange informal opinions about their work with each other. I also offer online workshops for graduate students and the open science community Rotterdam. We discuss methodological issues of psychology or I introduce new statistical approaches. Usually, these webinars attract 20 – 40 participants.
Our university uses Microsoft Teams and Zoom for online teaching. It is working well, though in webinars you have to set very strict rules. All participants are asked to wear headphones where possible and they are being put on mute; they can ask questions through the chat function. If more than 20 people attend an online session, I try to appoint one “assistant” (a student on the course or someone I ask to join specially) to keep an eye on the chat and  summarise the questions for me, so I can focus on the lecture itself.  Mostly it works out well.

What are the biggest challenges for yourself and the students?

The students’ biggest challenge is non-academic: they face real financial problems. Nearly all of them work to cover their daily expenses, and most typical student jobs no longer exist. Some of my overseas students have had to return to their home countries because they couldn’t make ends meet.
The other big problem is the lack of a peer group. It is a key principle here at the Erasmus University Rotterdam to encourage independent learning by small groups. Some students are very good at scheduling learning groups via Zoom to stay in touch with their peers, but others really struggle. We may not be able to motivate them enough to continue.
Teaching doesn’t present as great a challenge as research to me. I an experimental psychologist and I usually conduct empirical research on participants in labs, which is currently impossible. Students trying to complete their theses suffer similarly; a certain amount of research can be conducted via (online) questionnaires, but the validity of this kind of research is limited.

What about access to learning and teaching materials? How supportive has the Library been?

The library was closed for several weeks but has recently re-opened. It now admits a limited number of patrons. It has always had an electronic-preferred policy, so we always have access to digital resources; currently there are some additional electronic resources, but only for a limited time. It’s my understanding that publishers have helped with this. The library has made extra funding available for additional digital resources we may require for teaching
The library’s digital learning team has been very supportive throughout the crisis, for instance, in getting Zoom licences rolled out in a very short time. They are now busy trying to develop solutions for online exams. Moreover, the university has a Media Lab – quite a professional operation with proper recording studio facilities – but the staff there were overworked even before the crisis, so there is now little chance of getting a window of opportunity there. 
The students suffered when the library was closed.  Rents in Rotterdam are horrendous, so students tend to live in tiny rooms that can barely contain a bed, a wardrobe and a bike, and they often don’t have broadband at home. Therefore, they rely on working space and Wi-Fi in the library. 

Has the use of materials changed?

I have not changed the textbooks and other materials I use for teaching yet. However, it has become even more important only to use material that is available online. For the lecture I am preparing for the autumn – the Philosophy of Science – there are some print titles on the reading list. If I can’t find digital versions I shall replace them with alternatives. It gives me an opportunity to update my reading lists!
I have noticed that it’s become necessary to prepare more detailed exercise notes for tutorials. I normally just distribute some exercises (and solutions) and any questions are being discussed with the tutors; now I have to include step-by-step guides and provide more explanation to ensure the students understand what they need to do. That is very time-consuming for all lectures.
Many publishers offer good learning platforms to support their textbooks. These are really helping my teaching now. The main obstacle is the diversity of the platforms themselves. Each one has different navigability, DRM etc. It would be really helpful if they could be more standardised.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I guess this crisis will have a long-term impact on remote working, especially for non-academic staff, who until now were used to regular office hours. I hope it will become more normal for them to work from home, as academics have done for many years.
I have the feeling that psychological research is currently focusing more on reviews and meta-analysis. Some of my colleagues are finally completing that textbook they have always meant to write.
Overall, the greatest drawback for students is the breakdown of peer-learning. Even the best lecturer in the world cannot replace the experience of learning with and from your peers.

Tell us a little about yourself

I graduated in Psychology from the University of Trier (Germany) and after completing my PhD at the University of Groningen, I worked in the field of numeric cognition at the Radboud Universities Nijmegen and the University of Potsdam before starting my current position in Rotterdam three years ago. I am married and in my spare time I enjoy listening to classical and jazz music. I love cooking (and eating!) and am a keen supporter of the German football club Borussia Dortmund.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]