How to Create a Minimum Viable Semester in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

Ep:

The coronavirus has been declared a pandemic, and this is affecting the academic community in significant ways. Universities are going online, travel is being canceled, and the impact is profound. 

How can you finish the academic semester and continue your writing practice during this difficult time?

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In this bonus episode, I’m sharing my recommendations for creating a minimum viable semester. Listen in to find out what this means and how to implement it. 

 

Shift the Way You Think About the Semester

In the world of business, there is a term called the “minimal viable product”, which is the simplest version of a product. Often a company starts with the minimal version, makes sure people like it, and then makes improvements. 

In this situation we are going to do the opposite of that. We’ve set the syllabus and our semester in order, but now we have to drastically reduce what we thought we’d be able to do.

 

Empathy and Grace

The two themes that I want you to keep in mind as you are developing your new semester are  empathy for students and grace for yourself. This situation is horrible for you and it’s also terrible for your students. 

You are under lots of stress,  and will potentially be delivering the rest of the semester with others in your home. It’s going to be stressful and not ideal, but have grace for yourself.

 

Document Everything

I want you to document your efforts for everything you do. Presenting is no longer an option, so you won’t be able to put it on your CV. As we remove things from the CV, there’s a lot more work you are doing that is invisible… but I want you to document that.  

Start a document that will be titled “Additional Labor During Pandemic” and just make a running, informal list. List all of the stuff you are doing that you weren’t doing before that is labor, such as  “online support group”, or “redesigned 3 classes to be presented online.”

 

Minimum Viable Semester Planning

I want you to get it out of your head that you can recreate that semester that you had planned. It’s just not going to happen. Instead we have to back way down on your goals. 

Check out the book “Finish” by John Acuff. He says you need to cut your goals in half or double the time it takes to get there. It is so important for our momentum that we hit our goals, but since sands have shifted, it’s time to back way down on your goals.

Instead, look for opportunities to create something different. Look through your areas of teaching, research and service and think about what goals were included in those three areas;  then rewrite your goals. You (or your university) cannot hold yourself to the previous standard. 

 

Rewrite your syllabus 

The contract that you made with your students at the beginning of the semester cannot be the same now. A few things to consider:

  • What is your situation really going to look like if you have to work from home? Change your goals correspondingly. You can’t work 8 hours a day the way you work on campus, but you can be more efficient in less time. Try to get 4 hours of work done to start. Then adjust if you can get more in.
  • Try to lower the bar on your writing, and get 1-2 hours once or twice a week during your tiger time. I would call maintaining a writing practice for 1-2 hours a week a huge win, considering the amount of brain space this crisis is taking up. You can check out this video for more on this topic.

 

Teaching

One of the things that derails our writing is when teaching takes over… and if this happens, so be it. Document what you are doing, and have grace for yourself. Look at your syllabus, and figure out what considerations are called for. For example, you can’t give the students a ton of online reading if students can’t get online. You will have to scale way back. 

Ask yourself: What do I need to teach them? What do they need to be able to do and know in order to say they took this course? Eliminate or simplify assignments, or change the way assignments have to be submitted, etc. You need an online course that is empathetic to them.

 

Simple Tools

Zoom: You can use Zoom to create a nice powerpoint presentation video to download, then upload it to a learning management platform. You can use a free Zoom account for up to 45 minutes. If you want to upgrade your zoom account, it’s only $15/month.

Loom: A totally free way to do  super easy recorded videos. It will record your screen and record you talking over your powerpoint.  Screenshare gives you a link so you don’t have to do the downloading/uploading.

Slack: Another free tool used for group texting.

Google Docs: You can share documents this way and forego a learning management system.  

 

Make it Easy On Yourself

Make it easy for people and do a couple of things:

  • Make templates for your lessons. It is predictable for students, and it makes it easy on you to have that structure which helps you when creating the lessons
  • Think about the combination of synchronous and asynchronous methods of teaching online. If you did your lessons asynchronously (record something where students can consume anytime), that can be good for you and your writing. Then your days are more flexible and you can use more of your tiger time to write. If your students have unreliable internet access, this is a good method for them.

 

There should be some time for  synchronous meetings, so you could have asynchronous content plus 1 hour per week of virtual office hours that lets students connect with you.

“Everything is gloom and doom, but there is also opportunity here.”

Look for those places in your academic career that you can control and take action there. Use situations like this to build empathy, to practice grace for yourself and document it all along the way.

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