by Dalton Greene ’22

For the Macalester community, the Fall 2020 semester has looked very different from what anyone is used to. From the shift toward remote learning to the introduction of a 7.5 week module system, students and faculty alike have had to develop new approaches to make the most of this unusual time. Professors in the English department have worked hard to take bold and dynamic new approaches to their teaching, and Assistant Professor of English Amy Elkins has been particularly mindful of the unique opportunities this semester has brought with it. While teaching “Reading Nature in the Global Novel” in module 1 and now, in module 2, the capstone course in literature, Professor Elkins has given much thought to the ways faculty and students can most effectively approach remote learning. Having been in her class in module 1, I’ve seen firsthand the time and energy she’s put into maximizing the classroom experience for her students, and I can confirm that her creative and adaptable method has been successful. I recently had the opportunity to interview Professor Elkins about how her teaching has been going this semester and some of the wisdom she’s picked up along the way, and we’re excited to share some of her reflections here! 

Professor Elkins headshot
Professor Elkins

What were some of your primary considerations while developing remote classes for the fall? How did these compare to your learning goals for traditional, in-person classes?

My primary considerations were three-fold: political, pedagogical, and practical. 3 P’s! I was asking myself, politically speaking (in a climate where different populations are impacted in different ways by an unprecedented, globally-dangerous viral pandemic) how do I design a class that operates in an inclusive way, while also preparing students—helping them discover tools—for moving impactfully through diverse spaces in this world? On a pedagogical level, I aspired to balance autonomy with community. I wanted students to feel empowered to design this new learning situation in a way that makes sense for them, while I also wanted them to feel powerfully connected to a meaningful learning community. My customary learning objectives (blending critical and creative thinking, writing and communication, deep attention to textual analysis) were all there, too, but they were framed in new ways. Practically speaking, I opted for depth over breadth, and I challenged myself to innovate with my curriculum. I aimed to provide students with bursts of intense focus and creative engagement rather than to engage in a longer, more expansive, exploratory approach to learning.

How would you define a “successful” class, and how did your definition of success shift this year?

Two interesting things happened this year. As I was designing courses, I started to think about how important structure would be for students on the new module system—an issue of design that I wanted to balance with an authentic emphasis on community. Around that time, I found a journal from my sophomore year of college (cringe!) in which I lament an experience I had in an English class. The gist of it was, “I’m developing my thinking here, but I never get the chance to speak in this class!” I remember what that felt like, and I also remember what it felt like the following year when I studied abroad in Oxford, where all of my learning was suddenly and totally student-driven! With that in mind, I decided to structure the entire class around Oxbridge-style supervisions. Small groups of students would all get the chance to speak, over and over again, in ways that might foster powerful intellectual experiences in a short amount of time. 

 So to answer your question: Did my definition of success shift this year? In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. Yes—we all need to get through the pandemic, and we need to do so in a way that keeps us safe and well as individuals, while we also balance the health and wellbeing of our communities. That balancing act requires compromise on a range of levels. Assignments need to be shorter, more targeted. We need to get to core concepts and theoretical frameworks a bit quicker. And structure became even more important than it usually is—I want students to feel super oriented, to take things off their plates where possible. But also, no. Are students developing as attentive, creative scholars? Thinking as global citizens? Growing as humans? Writing better sentences? Those core values remain. I’m all about the radical joy of learning, and that feels more important than ever in classes this year.

What new opportunities have arisen from remote learning for you as an instructor? Do you see yourself implementing some of these in the future, even when classes are in-person again?

It’s counterintuitive, to be sure, but I’ve appreciated the social depth of remote learning; we have to band together and really show up in order to learn together in more intentional ways. When I was planning courses, I brainstormed ways to maximize deep engagement while also minimizing Zoom-fatigue. One answer I came up with is a structure for teaching with Slack. We communicate via chat all the time, and I wanted to build on that to see what we might do pedagogically with the platform. It’s versatile, dynamic, and I could see using it in future courses. 

Have you and your students had any particularly rewarding moments so far?

Some students will know I love experiential and hands-on learning. In module 1, I assigned a class hike. Even though we couldn’t hike together in the traditional sense, we had a remarkable collective experience, and it was great to see how the hike (in addition to the assignment attached to it, which dealt with the neuroscience of metaphor) challenged a lot of the class to push their thinking forward in creative directions and to get outside their intellectual comfort zones. A member of the class shared that they found the course healing, which meant more to me than I can say—especially given all we’re dealing with this year.

All of us here at The Words would like to thank Professor Elkins for so generously sharing her perspective and to all the professors within and beyond the English department working to ensure that students receive the best class experiences they can!