Following the announcement of stringent lockdown protocols on March 17th 2020, the streets of Paris were largely abandoned to homeless people, and everything that makes for ‘boulevard life’ or intellectual enquiry shuttered up. At the University of London Institute in Paris, we were only part way through the second term of our MA in Urban History and Culture. How would we continue to provide the sort of experiential pedagogy that is the hallmark of the programme with its regular site visits and its commitment to training students to put fieldwork and observational practice at the heart of their research? How would we ensure access to the resources the students need, in terms of student support, libraries, and tutorial guidance?
Of course, the various digital platforms were a principle factor in the answer to this. As well as huge amounts of staff time in managing to make these platforms operative. But over and above the most immediate concerns in supporting students in making decisions to stay in Paris or to relocate to their primary homes, in the UK or the US, how did we help the students keep their studies underway once all the books sitting silently in our lovely on-site library in the Institute, a key hub of learning and intellectual sociability for ULIP students became unavailable, our scheduled programme of seminars was suspended, and the different phases of assessment were thrown into uncertainty?
The Institute librarian Kim Le Minh, relatively new to the team and our programmes, has done an incredible job in communicating general information but also in steering individual students towards ways of finding early sections of books in the form of journal articles, or means of access to films that offer some sense of exploration of a space or site. The Student Services team, under Claire Miller, worked to make it absolutely clear to students how the assessment processes would be adapted to ensure that they could continue towards the same learning outcomes confidently. And colleagues have been exemplary in their willingness to keep channels of communication open to students despite the pressures on their own environments.
These efforts converged in the decision to carry through with what is always one of the key components of work at this stage in an MA programme, that is the dissertation proposal presentation. Many of our students were struggling with the fact that the project they had planned to carry out now seemed compromised. Others felt remote from the city and disconnected from the excitement and challenge that had been powering their intellectual curiosity. So we set up regular on-line discussions, twice a week, with individual tutorial discussions in-between. We always started these discussions with a brief sense of what the world around us felt like and laughed about how wildly different our experiences were, from small rooms in central Paris to remote houses with fields outside, from Montmartre to LA. And if anything, these differences sharpened our determination to keep focused. Some students grasped very quickly how they would adapt their project to these new conditions, others decided that they could continue with the original plans despite them. But perhaps most importantly there was an incredible commitment to working as a group. So we decided to test the technology most of us were only just discovering and stick to the intended process of oral presentations, involving faculty from our partner institution Queen Mary University of London, although we also had contingency plans for the actual assessment if students felt this adapted delivery would prevent them from performing to their best ability.
As it turned out, this was not necessary. All students enrolled in the programme delivered a really high-standard presentation, using visual material effectively and gaining the collective feedback that the ‘assembled’ group was able to offer. The projects ranged from car reduction in European cities and the factors in social transformation, a project conceived before lockdown but reinforced by what that has shown us; late 19th-century caricatures of women cyclists; forms and perceptions of sociability in public spaces amongst migrant African men, also informed by post-lockdown reporting. As always this presentation moment was a key stepping stone towards getting dissertations projects onto viable and focused lines. But in this context, I think it also had the added dimension of underscoring why the whole endeavour of producing a sustained and well-informed piece of research matters. For what was most apparent even with the limitations of the digital interface with its small boxes and sometimes wobbly images, was the way listening to one another fired everyone up. Not only did the group as a whole help individuals adjust their objectives to more feasible and effective ends, but above all they made us all want to see these projects come to fruition.
Some practical observations about what I have learned about teaching online in the past few weeks:
- Never underestimate the value of a direct conversation with an individual student, and the fact that it can be quite brief and still be effective. Emails can feel easier to get done, but they are often better as a back-up.
- One practical example of how to adapt a bibliographical need is often a lot more productive than multiple lists of possibilities.
- Peer-to-peer support or interaction is invaluable but sometimes needs to be structured, with concrete suggestions for how students meet online to continue working together. We can think they find this sort of interaction straightforward, but that is a mistake.
- Direct questions to the more silent participants in online sessions can be vital, but they can require tolerating a bit of ‘dead’ time, just as they can in a classroom.
- Making the reality of individual surroundings present before getting into the thick of the discussion is useful, so that they can then be ‘left behind. It can be done quite quickly and allows everyone to adjust to the group.
- Don’t get too focused on the annoyance factor that can come from realizing that someone is busy doing something else – too bad or tant pis, as the French say, that is the reality of multi-channel life.
- Keep frustration with the technical interface or one’s own felt inadequacies in using it to a minimum.
- Remember that the screen sucks all your attention towards it, especially when you are juggling between multiple boxes and your own materials and the chat feed etc. It is very tiring and really important to come up for air. Shorter sessions with break between them are more effective. And it can be really productive even for the on-screen matters in hand to reconnect briefly with the world around you too.