By: Anthony Lince
April 1, 2022
As students reviewed the prompt for their second essay of the semester, I started to get nervous. I could sense, almost tangibly, an overwhelming feeling of burnout from everyone. In my first-year writing courses, some version of this happens right around the fourth paper of the semester. To try and ameliorate those issues, I typically end up cutting one small assignment—like a reading response or short writing task—which usually helps students push through.
But, of course, in the fall of 2021, things were anything but usual. We were enduring a second year of the COVID-19 pandemic (with no clear end in sight). Many students had dealt with—and, to this day, continue to deal with—loss, trauma, anxiety, and depression (again, with no clear end in sight). This wasn’t a typical semester at all. With the heavy weight of all that students had endured, it was no wonder that they felt the way they did.
And yet, foolish as it might sound, I tried to move those thoughts away. “This will probably clear up the next class session. We just need to keep on pushing through,” I thought to myself. This essay assignment is important.
Next class session. Things weren’t better; in fact, they were much worse. That feeling I had gotten only two days before now seemed to permeate through everyone more intensely.
At this point, I was faced with a difficult decision: should I continue with this major essay or cancel it? As an educator, I’ve always tried to adhere to the feminist pedagogical tenet of building equity, trust, mutual respect, and support. Continuing with the essay, it seemed, would be going against this tenet, especially in providing support for students to succeed in the class. Canceling the paper appeared like the right thing to do, but what about upholding rigorous standards? What about helping students learn as much as they could? Although I considered myself to be flexible, outright getting rid of a major essay is something I hadn’t ever really considered before. That felt like a step too far, because the content and outcomes were important. I wasn’t sure what to do.
Nevertheless, about an hour after much deliberation with myself, I sent a Slack message to my class, letting students know the second essay was canceled because of the current circumstances of the pandemic and issues it engendered. Even though I had a great deal of guilt after sending that message, it only lasted about a minute. The student responses that quickly followed absolved me of my worries and let me know that I made the right decision.
Some students said that this helped with their mental health more than I could understand. Others said that they were able to focus on homework and tests for other classes. One comment, in particular, really stood out to me. A student noted that I was the first instructor to ever really care about what students were going through.
I share that last comment not to brag, but to reflect on its implications. Currently, the mantra in educational spaces—and, more broadly, in the US as well—seems to be to “continue on as normal, to do as we have always done.” In my eyes, this means continuing to focus on the content, course outcomes, and the learning objectives. But doing so—attempting to move forward as if everything is fine (much like I was thinking of doing)—is likely to create major issues. Not accounting for the very real concerns that students are dealing with, for me, seems like the most pressing. In effect, continuing on as normal keeps the focus on education, but not on the people getting that education.
In canceling the second paper of the semester, I quickly realized I wasn’t letting students off the hook or being less rigorous. Instead, I believe my action demonstrates that I was trying to be in tune with student struggles—that I was paying attention to their current realities. Really, as part of my feminist pedagogy, I could see that I was ultimatley attempting to create a culture of support and care, one that listened to the troubling circumstances many students were enduring. The student comments I shared earlier demonstrate that they were happy to have an educator that created an environment of support, that this idea would be upheld over all else.
I’m not going to write and say I’ve completely reckoned with the aftermath (if I can even really call it that considering we aren’t in the after part yet) of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I feel as if I’ve at least started to grapple with some of its consequences. Moving forward, as an educator, I’m going to intensely consider the assignments I have students do. “Is this amount of work necessary, given our current reality?” I might ask myself. The answer, I presume, will most likely be no. I think that the same amount of quality learning can happen with less. In fact, I actually think I might see an improvement in engagement with the course material because there will be less work. Always rushing from assignment to assignment, doing as much as possible, and getting burned out along the way is never a recipe for success, so doing less seems like a step in the right direction.
I’m not suggesting that our work isn’t important, or that it doesn’t matter (or, even, that it’s always possible to cancel major assignments, especially when considering institutional requirements), but continuing on as normal is surely a difficult argument when it could cause burnout and mental health issues for students. If students get to that point, our work will be the least of importance to them. Instead of trying to do things as we typically have, what might be more important is to slow down, to consider what students are going through, and to make the necessary adjustments so students can thrive—with their academics, yes, but also with their mental health.
About the Author
Anthony Lince is a Latinx scholar, a student-centered teacher/instructor of English and first-year writing courses, and a qualitative teacher-researcher. His current research centers around equitable assessment practices. He can be found on twitter @linceanthony and on his website at anthonylince.com.