Opinion: Teaching online will present challenges for GSIs but ultimately be beneficial

By Brooklyn Kiosow, Copy Editor

Shane Tolentino

When campus closed last semester on March 14, I found myself struggling to rethink my own course as a graduate student instructor, or GSI.

It was my third semester teaching “Writing and Rhetoric” as a graduate student in the nonfiction program of the English and Creative Writing Department, and I was forced to revise my syllabus and in-class activities to work for an online course.

In a June 16 email to English and Creative Writing faculty, Pegeen Reichert Powell, chair of the English and Creative Writing Department, said all GSIs teaching “Writing and Rhetoric” will have to teach online during the Fall semester.

While I have more time this summer to prepare an online course than I did in the spring, the prospect of teaching entirely online made me nervous as someone more comfortable teaching in a physical space.

I wasn’t the only one. GSIs like Karl El Sokhn, a graduate student in the nonfiction program in the English and Creative Writing Department, are also not thrilled about the absence of in-person instruction.

“Technical difficulties make the course so awkward, and you waste so much time,” Sokhn said. “I think preparedness on a technical level is important [to avoid this].”

I dealt with technical difficulties while transitioning last semester and discussed with my students what would work best. I decided it was impractical to assume all of them could meet at the same time while they are also dealing with the ramifications of a pandemic. Instead of using Zoom, we used the discussion board on Canvas to communicate.

However, next semester, all sections of “Writing and Rhetoric” taught by GSIs will be taught remotely with synchronous elements, which means instructors and students will sometimes meet virtually at the same time like they would in a classroom. Sokhn said this is something he will be taking advantage of because he “wants to see his students as often as possible.”

To help GSIs prepare, the college has created an online faculty development course called “Teaching Online at Columbia College Chicago.” The course is available to all faculty, but there will be a specific section for GSIs.

The course will be workshop based, and participants will do a lot of the “hard work of really preparing courses for the fall” by revisiting old assignments and rethinking in-person activities to fit an online environment, according to Hilary Sarat-St. Peter, associate professor and GSI coordinator for the English and Creative Writing Department.

While the course is not required, GSI’s who participate will receive a $500 stipend. I plan on taking the course, along with Sokhn and Delia Rainey, a GSI and graduate student in the nonfiction program in the English and Creative Writing Department.

One of the reasons I came to Columbia was the opportunity to teach. And with three semesters of teaching in-person under my belt—and in the era of social media and now the pandemic—being able to teach online will most likely be a skill people will wish they had learned sooner.

Sarat-St. Peter said the Provost’s Office worked with faculty to look at entire programs that could be moved online to reduce foot traffic through the college. Sarat-St. Peter said she proposed sections taught by GSIs be moved online because refining GSIs’ ability to teach remotely—which is a marketable skill in higher education—would ultimately be beneficial, she said.

But Rainey is less concerned with her ability and preparedness and more concerned with what students are paying for the online course.

“My main qualm really isn’t about me, it’s about the students and if it will be worth their thousands of dollars to take an online class with me,” Rainey said.

Through other tools and resources offered by the college, these are the fears the college is trying to help instructors conquer.

GSIs will have the opportunity to take part in course setup workshops on Academic Technology as well as Canvas “shells,” which are adaptable content that all “Writing and Rhetoric” instructors can use to prepare their courses. Sarat-St. Peter will also host regular Zoom meetings with GSIs and offer one-on-one mentoring.

The transition to remote learning was less difficult for me than the transition to remote teaching last semester. While I was no longer surrounded by other writers and creatives in my graduate program, we still met on Zoom and shared and critiqued our work with similar success.

But preparing a syllabus for an online course for the first time brings forward the fear Rainey expressed—how do I make this online course as successful as an in-person course?

Instead of scrapping my entire syllabus last semester, I re-imagined my group in-person activities. Instead of slicing up the essay “The Smallest Woman in the World” by Lia Purpura and handing it out to my students in groups of three to put back together, I posted the essay on the discussion board and asked each student to look at its arrangement. Could it still make sense if it it were written in a different order?

While it is fascinating to watch students arrange the essay in a multitude of ways in-person, the point of the lesson was still apparent after reading students’ thoughtful comments. And while reworking it, I was looking at the point of the activity more critically.

One thing I did not have to tackle last semester was forming close relationships with students in an online environment because I already met them in person.

It is heartening to watch students develop in a classroom, witnessing those who never raise their hand begin to speak up and others become close friends.

Next semester, GSIs teaching “Writing and Rhetoric” won’t have the luxury of witnessing this. Students will have to form bonds through a computer screen.

However, Rainey and Sokhn gave me some ideas on how to make Zoom feel more like a classroom. They plan on developing ground rules for their courses that will help them and their students get the most out of the course—such as writing in the Zoom chat instead of speaking aloud if that is more comfortable for the student or introducing “presentation etiquette” to their course.

Rainey said she believes the college is trying its best to help GSIs create effective courses, and while it is unfortunate she cannot teach in-person, she said she is staying positive because she is grateful to be able to teach writing, which is something she likes to do.

I am taking the change in stride. Preparing and teaching an online course will improve my overall teaching ability, and as someone who wants to learn the ins and outs of teaching, I am getting a complete lesson.