Teaching Tips

Coincidental community

We’ve all been forced to learn some new things in this past month. For instance, I’ve learned how to use clippers to cut my husband’s hair—#thanksyoutube #quaranskills. I’ve learned a variety of new online videoconferencing and team organization platforms. I even plan to keep using some of them.

But my favorite new learning is that community—something most of us are craving—can happen coincidentally. That is, it can happen as a bonus side-effect of community we’re already trying to develop or maintain. A number of my colleagues and I have remarked that in going online, we were grateful we already felt good community in our classes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve found I STILL need to be intentional about community. But even then, there are bonuses to celebrate.

Here are a few ways I’ve been able to coincide community with class.

  • Before our first Zoom gathering, I asked my students to post a photo of themselves in their new workspaces. I always do better if I can picture not only the person’s face, but where they are situated. This text string brought up some fun chatter.
  • Before our third class, for homework, students were to choose a virtual background for their Zoom sessions. This was another way to have some fun chit-chat and get-to-know-you time as the class session was getting started.

And we tried a Zoom version for the WISE (Write-In Series) workspace I conduct—where all students are usually invited to gather in a physical classroom in a large square facing each other, working at tables. Here were the best parts of virtual WISE (besides the comments saying, “Thanks, that was productive.”):

  • Food brings us together, even when we’re apart. These workspaces always include chocolate chip cookies baked according to my mom’s homemade recipe, so I included the actual recipe in the Outlook invitation I sent to those I thought might be interested in attending. Students who didn’t even come to WISE wrote me about baking the cookies. They sent pictures. Students ate cookies onscreen. Of course, this comment made me feel the best, like I would always be a part of one student’s community: “[My family] loved them! They like your recipe better than our old one—and I agree.”
  • Breakout sessions don’t separate, but connect. One group of students arrived at WISE and immediately asked to be in a breakout room. They worked together for about an hour, and one or two popped back to the main session to ask questions. Two attendees were friends who hadn’t been able to connect for a while. They asked to be put in a WISE breakout room to catch up. Afterwards, one said, “This is the first time we’ve been able to meet up since before spring break, so thank you!”

One can argue that college is as much about community as it is about making academic progress. I would argue that my classes and the WISE workshop are going to be stronger for the coincidental community I’m fostering.

If you have other ideas about how to engender coincidental community, please post in the comments below. I can’t wait to try more.

Ellen Sprague is an associate professor of writing who is looking forward to trying online teaching for a full summer course in just over a month: Intro to Creative Nonfiction. She likes to experiment!

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