Like his colleagues across campus, when classes abruptly went online last March, Sam Ace, an award-winning poet, had to make profound adjustments to his classroom and his teaching.
And like his colleagues, his approach was thoughtful, flexible and generous.
Ace, who taught Introduction to Creative Writing and Poetry and an advanced poetry seminar called Poetry and the Image: Formations of Identity last spring, identified three primary goals.
“My first goal is to be available for all my students, to keep connection with them and be aware of those who are falling off the radar,” he says. “And that’s not about them showing up for that check-in every week. It’s about what I’m hearing from them, if they’re posting to the forums. It means my reaching out via email. These are all things that I would be doing anyway if we were in person, but it feels even more important now.”
His second goal was to be extra-crystal clear in his teaching, whether in the Zoom classroom, on the Moodle learning platform, in one-on-one meetings or through email. “Since I don’t see that student in person, and they’re going to be in class every week, I need to make sure they know I see them,” he says. “Do they understand what I’m saying? Do they understand what we’re doing? Did they get this concept out of the reading? I am really checking in every week.”
His third was to add some lightness to their days.
“One of the things I do is send a weekly email to both classes with extra material and links,” he said. “I say, ‘I think you might enjoy this, to relax.’ It’s tangentially related to writing and what we’re looking at in class, but it’s also some relaxation, maybe some humor. I also send a weekly curated list of virtual readings that are taking place all over the world. I’m trying to make sure I’m keeping that connection. I’m hoping that that gets through.”
The result, he was finding, was a strong sense of community, a deep sense of connection between faculty and students, and students and students. The generosity of alums meant Mount Holyoke had the resources to facilitate the rapidly shifting modes of teaching, Ace says, allowing the faculty to adapt quickly.
“The Teaching and Learning Initiative and peer support has been extremely useful. The College has gone out of its way to provide support in helping me create an exciting online teaching experience for students.”
Another positive result, he says, is a greater connection with the outside world.
“As a teacher of creative writing, I am more able to bring the rest of the world into the classroom. I’ve done that by inviting visitors into the classroom from all over the country, but also by taking students out of the classroom as writers. The technology allows greater access to teaching possibilities that greatly enhance what a liberal arts education can be.”