Luke Waltzer on How to Adjust to Distance Learning, Stay Connected, and Give and Get Support

Luke Waltzer (Credit: The Graduate Center/Coralie Carlson)

How are you doing? Hanging in there? Holding up? Your inbox might be filled with dozens of those messages, along with technical questions related to how, exactly, you can transition your seminar or undergraduate course to a distance learning mode.

Luke Waltzer, director of The Graduate Center’s Teaching & Learning Center, recently (and remotely) offered his advice for professors and graduate students who are preparing for their first experiences with asynchronous instruction — professors and students not interacting at the same time — as well as his thoughts on staying connected, and caring for yourself and others.

The Graduate Center: What are your top tips for professors and graduate students who are delving into distance learning for the first time? Are there different considerations professors should keep in mind for teaching doctoral students and for teaching undergraduates?

Waltzer: Keep it simple. Transitioning your instructional mode in the middle of the semester is not the same thing as developing a distance learning plan for a whole course. It’s also important to remember that our students’ lives, and our own, are in the process of being completely upended. It’s okay for our work in the university to take a back seat to our work in our families and in our communities. In every decision that we make over the remainder of this semester, we need to ask take this broader context into account. 

I’d say the above approach is equally necessary in graduate and undergraduate courses. What it translates to instructionally is a preference for asynchronous modes of instruction, clear and easy-to-follow instructions, and flexible and reasonable deadlines. Synchronicity may be possible in smaller classes, like those taught at The Graduate Center; I’ll try this in my own course will next week. But faculty should be using this time to prepare for the very real possibility that synchronous communication with students will be limited for some time to low bandwidth options like phone calls and chat programs, and video conferencing may prove difficult.      
 
GC: How is the TLC helping faculty and students adjust to distance learning?

Waltzer: We’ve set up a few ways for Graduate Center students and faculty to reach out to us for help. 

We launched a website — http://cuny.is/continuity — last week that provides a high-level orientation to the challenge of shifting instructional modes. We’ve created a web form, which we distributed to all GC programs, where faculty and students can reach out for individual consultations. TLC staff are working through dozens of requests. And we, working with partners in the Futures Initiative, GC Digital Initiatives, and the Macaulay Honors College, launched a Slack workspace, open to faculty across CUNY, to facilitate connection, support, and to direct our colleagues to resources. More than 600 faculty and staff have joined since last Thursday, and it’s already proven to be an active and supportive community. The work there has been heartening. 

TLC staff, just like everyone else, are adjusting to this major disruption, caring for their families, and making plans for their own research and teaching. I couldn’t be prouder of the team’s presence, sensitivity, and sense of purpose these past two weeks.    

GC: How can — or should — professors and graduate students help their students deal with stress? Are there resources you’d recommend?

Waltzer: The most important step faculty can take is to be flexible and supportive with all deadlines and expectations. Faculty should also be aware of wellness services on the campuses where they teach and in the broader community, and be explicit that their students’ physical and mental health are of utmost importance. Students need to hear this in every one of their courses. Faculty might consider individual messages to each of their students, if possible, offering personalized support. It’s a lot, but it’s important that students know we care for them and CUNY wants to be there for them through this trauma.     
 
GC: Are there any websites, blogs, Facebook groups, or other sources of online information that would help professors and students get up to speed on distance learning?

Waltzer: Faculty can check our http://cuny.is/continuity site, as well as https://www.cuny.edu/coronavirus/, which includes links to each campus’ response. Our Slack group offers a wealth of resources. Frankly, there maybe has been an oversaturation of guidance in the past week, and that can be difficult for faculty to digest. Teaching Centers throughout the system are doing a fantastic job of distilling and localizing this guidance to the particulars of a campus, so I’d encourage faculty to start there. We will be announcing additional initiatives to support reflection and adjustment once courses begin in their new format. The work is just beginning. 
 
GC: What are the best resources for professors and students who feel isolated? Many graduate students spend much of their time working alone under the best of circumstances, and make an effort to socialize through activities like running groups, regular meetups for coffee, and so on. Do you recommend reaching out through Zoom meetings, FaceTime or Google Hangouts, and Skype?

Waltzer: Definitely. Feelings of community and connection will help get us through the isolation and loneliness that we’re all going to feel over the coming weeks. Faculty and students should reachout to colleagues on their campuses and elsewhere, and look for opportunities to connect about your and broader interests. 
 
GC: Do you think it will get easier as we get further into this process? How do you see people adapting in the next month or so, or by the end of the semester?

Waltzer: I honestly just don’t know. The situation is so fluid and changing every hour, and the context is so traumatizing, that I haven’t been able to look forward with any clarity. I have hope that our leadership will step up and the tremendous resources of this country will be brought to bear on this terrible pandemic. But I can’t say that I have optimism about our society’s ability to rise to the occasion. I am absolutely certain, however, that CUNY faculty will continue to do what they’ve always done: Show up for their students, and make the city proud. 
 
GC: Any tips for relaxing at the end of the day? How are you coping? 

Waltzer: I’ve been trying to be more disciplined about my media consumption, but with mixed results. I am exercising every day, playing and listening to music, trying to watch some movies, preparing some projects around the home with my children, and checking in with my family every day. All these things have helped. It’s been really hard, but I’m hanging in there. 

Submitted on: MAR 18, 2020

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