Ag Science in the Midst of a Pandemic: Transitioning to an Online Curriculum
Organizing as a Graduate Teaching Assistant
In the midst of this public health emergency caused by COVID-19, we wonder: how can we still teach agriculture from home? Is it even possible? We all know the lecturer who constantly fidgets with the projector, forgets to mute the audio or stop the playback for the next Youtube video. It's me, I'm your technologically challenged teaching assistant, and as TA it is often difficult to juggle being both a student and a teacher. Moving forward into this transitioning period of social distancing and self quarantine, many universities are moving towards online teaching and as TAs we’re faced with this new territory on both fronts! Some of us may be anxious about this new normal yet necessary transition as we do our part in flattening the curve, luckily we get to go through it together and are able to share our experiences and a few things learned along the way.
What to expect from yourself & your students moving forward:
Dealing with disappointment, anxiety and a lesson on compromise.
You are going to have to compromise. I enjoy what I do and enjoy sharing it with others, and surely teaching has become a space to do that. As a perfectionist, it might be disappointing having to make certain compromises with your semester’s plan as some things will simply not be accessible for you or your students for now. There are many things that can be taught online, but finding the cervix on a cow when practicing artificial insemination is not one of them. Some things are out of our control and we're all doing our best in the midst of stressful times. Cut yourself some slack and focus on what you can do. When in doubt, ask your community what they're doing and how they're coping with the transition.
Use resources already available, such as educational Youtube channels like Khan Academy, Osmosis, TedED, CK-12, ReadWriteThink and many more! It will depend on what your course focuses on and at what level you’re teaching or studying. Many universities also have their own channels filled with educational content ready to use!
Set up online video meetings for your office hours through video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet or use platforms for remote team collaborations like Microsoft Teams or Slack. This way you can keep communication channels open and be able to be present (at least virtually!) for your students and clear up any questions that may arise about the course material or our current situation.
If you’re uncomfortable with live video, you can always prepare lectures that are more interactive. One thing you could do is record yourself ahead of time or include voice over commentary in your lecture notes or presentation to further explain a topic or make sure they focus on the important pieces you might highlight during a lecture. You can also use platforms as Kahoot!, Quizlet or Padlet to make your lecture meetings more engaging and see where your students stand on the topic!
Depending on your college or university, as TA you might have access to platforms such as Canvas, Google Classroom or Moodle to name a few. Take advantage of them to set up assignments, quizzes and organize your course schedule!
There are also some things you should keep in mind moving forward:
Be patient. Your professors are trying to adapt in the same ways you are. Maybe they've never taught an online course before, maybe you have never taken one. It's uncharted territory for the both of you!
You're entitled to your feelings. A lot of research has been put on hold and you may be feeling worried about losing work or not getting enough done. You may be worried about payments, or losing grant opportunities. You might have to defend your thesis online, that conference or symposium you were working so hard for has probably been cancelled, a lot of things have come to a halt. We’re transitioning into a new reality and big changes come with big emotions and that’s ok. Remember we're all going through it, don’t be shy to open the conversation with your peers.
It's okay to take a step back. It can be overwhelming to expect from ourselves, and others, the same amount of productivity and output during this transition as we usually would. We're in the middle of a public health emergency, not on vacation. It’s okay if you need space to adapt.
How to get into "work mode" while quarantined at home?
Set up your space: designate this area for work and nothing else. This will be your "work temple" if you will. If quarantined with others, ask them to be respectful of this time and space. If you’re quarantined with a partner who’s also working from home, have separate work areas so you don’t interrupt each other’s work flow. Get some noise cancelling headphones, designate work hours if you’re sharing a space and try to be respectful of each other’s process.
Take breaks and don’t feel bad when you need them. Remember to have time off work, just because you’re home doesn’t mean you have to be available at all times. Do things for you, it’s not a realistic expectation to be productive all the time. Just maybe don’t binge eat all your quarantine snacks over the weekend, you don’t want to be burned out and hangry. You’re working from home but you need to set boundaries here too, on both fronts.
Set up a support group: Communication is key! Keep open channels of communication with your PI, your professors and your students. Communicate with your peers, ask your fellow TAs what they’re doing to prepare their laboratories, offer to help by peer reviewing papers they’re working on, give them feedback on setting up online assignments. Nurture our sense of community during these difficult times, be there for each other! Hulu and Netflix are cool and all but after binge watching a whole season of Iron Chef, it’s nice having someone to talk to when you start questioning your own existence. If you’re uncomfortable with talking to someone you know you can always contact Gradresources.org or call The National Grad Crisis Line at 877-GRADHLP (877-472-3457) or check your university’s own resources and counseling.
As a TA you’re also a student and are thus more in tune with what struggles your own students may be facing, keep them in mind and support each other during this transition. These new circumstances might mean academic anxiety due to less than perfect internet connection, if any; sharing computers at home with other family members, economical instability, etc. The range of struggles your students could be facing is as diverse as it is unpredictable in an unprecedented situation such as this one.
We’re currently in the middle of the first major pandemic since the Avian Influenza in 1918. Over a hundred years later, with an ever growing population, never ending travels and growing demands for food, initiatives such as OneHealth prove it is as imperative as ever to further our studies and understanding of human/animal relationships and how they impact the public health spectrum through. As scientists we are privileged to understand the severity and possible repercussions of the situation we’re in and as teachers it is our responsibility to educate students and empower them to be in a position to educate others.
Take it one day at a time. We’ll get through this. Stay safe!
This article was written by Women In Ag Science (WAGS) collaborator Alejandra Chang-Colón.