Stay Tuned…

Ah, poor little blog, so sadly neglected!

As I am sure many of my educator colleagues know, this past year has been… surreal. Exhausting. Challenging. Terrifying. Exhilarating.

We appear to be moving toward the next phase. I am deliberately avoiding “getting back to normal” for a few reasons: first, what the heck is “normal,” anyway? Second, I don’t think we will resume all our activities exactly as they were before the pandemic. Finally, I hope that we won’t just fall back into doing everything the way we’ve always done it.

So, over the summer, I am working on a few things, inspired by this shift:

  • with my very awesome co-author Erin Reid, a paper on how Canadian university and cegep educators coped with the sudden swerve to emergency online teaching in March 2020, and the shift to teaching online long-term over the past academic year;
  • reflecting on the social media aspect of the past year, and how we used SM to create or expand communities of practice, to provide peer mentorship (and much needed virtual shoulders to lean on)
  • researching online assessment and all the pearl-clutching around ‘cheating’ – I think we need to examine our ideas of what cheating is, and whether our expectations of assessment are realistic, not just in the context of the pandemic, but in the larger context of the digital era.

I would love to hear your thoughts on any of these projects, whether in the comments here or by email maggie[dot]mcdonnell[at]

I will also be drinking iced tea on the back deck and hiking with the dogs, so it’s not all fun and games.

Pandemic Practice

It’s February, which means it has been almost a year since the world changed. On March 13 2020, our campuses closed, and since then, most university business—teaching, research, administration, fundraising—has happened “virtually” (more on my problems with that term later). All classes were cancelled for one week, to give teachers time (ha!) to make the transition to teaching remotely.

Pandemic panic

Initially, most of our panic was focused on the tech—would we have full licenses for the platforms? Did we have the hardware we needed (think back—this was a really big challenge in Spring 2020, when the entire world moved from workers in office towers to a massive work-from-home directive, which means literally millions of people who suddenly needed computers, and all the related peripherals, for their home offices, and retailers just didn’t have the stock.) Parents needed space and hardware to support children learning at home, while carving out space and finding hardware for themselves, to continue working.

There are several things that I was grateful for, as we all faced this unprecedented shift. First, my partner, our kids, and I are tech savvy, and we already each had our own computer, and most of the required equipment to support our working and studying at home. We had reasonably reliable Internet access (we have actually upgraded, but given that it took almost three months from making the call to getting the installation, I’m glad we had workable Wi-Fi to begin). Perhaps most importantly, we have a big house, and each person has plenty of personal space.

Wired in haste, repent in leisure

As a teacher, I have always been excited about using tech to support my practice, so the idea of teaching online wasn’t as daunting to me as it has been for some. I definitely had concerns, though. The mindset in the spring was “let’s just get through this.” As individual instructors, and as an institution, we did our best to finish the term but made it pretty clear that as long as students demonstrated a minimum of engagement, we would essentially give everyone the benefit of the doubt and grade accordingly. We had enough time to rethink final assessment scenarios, but we were close enough to the end of term that we could just limp to the finish line.

For the fall term, though, I had other concerns. I worried about how to structure prerecorded lectures, and how to make them available while not making them too available. I worried about retention and attrition—would students come back, after the confusion and panic of the spring, and would they stay in courses if they did? How could I create a sense of classroom community—in March, when we met online, we had already been meeting in person for several weeks. I knew their names, faces, and voices, and they knew each other. We had a rapport, and they had come to know my style. How could I recreate that sense of connection when we were online from Day One? How could I create trust?

What I didn’t know I didn’t know

Perhaps not surprisingly, there were also dozens of challenges that I didn’t anticipate. The biggest challenge at the outset was the steep learning curve when it came to the tech. I had spent the summer learning how to navigate Teams, and I attended several yoga teacher trainings via Zoom, and learned a ton of dos and don’ts for synchronous teaching and learning—breakout rooms are great, screen shares that hijack your screen are awful—so I felt ready for the fall term. I felt quite foolish when it became apparent in the first week or two that my students were not at all familiar with these platforms, and were overwhelmed trying to navigate them. It certainly didn’t help that different teachers were doing different things—in person, this is also true, but somehow when we moved everyone online, the different approaches just added to student confusion.

One indirect consequence of the tech learning curve and the different teaching styles was that students perceived their workloads as significantly heavier than a “normal” course load. This perception was validated by the fact that, in keeping with guidelines from our administrators, teachers were splitting large evaluations into multiple smaller evaluations. So, instead of two essays worth 50% each for a lit course, students were asked to write four essays worth 25% each. The idea was smaller assignments would be easier to manage, and more frequent assessment would encourage engagement. The reality was that students felt the same pressure for a weightier assignment, but had more of them, and had to figure out how to conduct research, work collaboratively, seek feedback, and submit work entirely online.

There were other, smaller, challenges that I had not anticipated. In my freshman Composition course, the default for students was to keep their cameras off. In my Professional Writing course, about half of the group kept their cameras off, while the rest had them on most of the time. I never insisted on having cameras on, although I did encourage them to turn cameras on for breakout rooms, and most of them did. Interestingly, this winter, there are many more cameras on; it seems that the need to feel seen and be part of a community now outweighs the desire to remain anonymous. Someone should definitely do a psych paper on this!

I’m glad cameras are more frequently on now, because one of the unexpected challenges in the fall was not seeing faces—not because I don’t like looking at all the black boxes, but because I rely on non-verbal feedback as a teacher. Are students keeping up? Are they interested? Are they confused? Bored? Asleep? (I have had at least one instance when I call on someone whose camera is off, only to discover that they’re just not there.)

I also felt a little lost without my whiteboard and markers. I use the board pretty frequently, both to record important concepts as I’m lecturing and to illustrate my thought process when answering questions. I’m no artist, but visualizing what I’m thinking helps me explain it. And the whiteboard thought process is really just part of the larger physical aspect of the classroom experience—I stand, and often pace, while I’m talking, and I wander through the classroom while students are working. So teaching statically, with no whiteboard, felt awkward and inauthentic. I tried a few hacks, the most ridiculous of which was a complicated stand to suspend my phone over the desk so I could write and have the camera record; ultimately, I got an actual whiteboard, retrieved my markers from my campus office, and bought a massive easel so I could move the whiteboard into position behind me.

scan of Maggie's whiteboard

I bought a set of four “beacons” that create a digital perimeter around the whiteboard, which allows me to cast the board to my phone, or even livecast it to a URL, refreshed every few seconds, so students can follow, and even save, my notes. I have ended up not using the board as much as that description warrants, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

Silver linings

While there have been myriad challenges in shifting, however temporarily, to teaching remotely, there have also been some genuine epiphanies. There are certain aspects of teaching “virtually” that have proven to be very effective, and some things I was already doing in person that have been improved and strengthened through being adapted for the online classroom.

I discovered early on that most students prefer synchronous sessions. I stopped doing prerecorded lectures after week four of the fall term, and now only do recordings of procedural things, such as a screenshare of how to set up formatting in a document. Everything else, we do in real time. I do keep class time to less than the scheduled time, generally, because I’m asking students to do a lot of collaborative work. Students work in the same small group for the term, and are responsible for determining the conditions for that collaborative work—do they meet once a week or more, or less; do everything individually or work on things simultaneously; use Google Docs or Teams; and so on. This more structured approach to group work is something I will definitely bring with me back into the classroom, and I’ll continue to give groups space in the virtual environment for collaboration.

One aspect of group work that works really well online is sharing results. So, groups go off into the breakout rooms to work on a task, then we reconvene, and each group has a chance to report on their discussion. More and more, students are sharing their screens with the class, so we can all see firsthand their notes, their process, and their results. I’m hoping to find a way to enable this sharing once we’re back on campus, without having to book all my classes into computer labs! Screensharing has also been really effective in one-on-one meetings with students. Holding office hours online is, I suspect, one of the aspects of the current situation that will stay with us post-pandemic. The online office hour is more convenient for everyone involved, and we can see a shared file without all the awkward tilting of monitors and shifting of chairs.

I’ve noticed that this term, there is a lot less tech stress. Most students, especially those who were in one of my fall courses, are now familiar with the different platforms, and have figured out their best home set-up, so we can get right into the course material without spending a week or more just navigating the systems and making sure everyone’s connected. For my Professional Writing students especially, crossing that online work threshold is something that will serve them well in the workplace, a benefit of which they are indeed aware. In fact, I’m working on incorporating navigating online platforms and collaborative work into the learning goals for the program. When the next pandemic drops, we’ll be ready.

Teaching in 2020, in full Pandemic Panic? Share!

Teacher Survey!

If you are a teacher, professor, tutor, TA, or any other kind of educator, I’d love to hear from you. I am hoping to write an article (or more than one) reflecting on how the pandemic has affected and influenced you as a teacher.

Responses are anonymous, and any details that might expose identity will be eliminated from any forthcoming publications. I have asked respondents to provide an email address primarily in order to discourage misuse of the survey; email addresses will not be shared, nor will I start sending you spam, promise.
If you have questions about the form, please send email to maggie.mcdonnell[at]
If you would like to invite other teachers to participate, please do.

Distillations, Part 1

For my Candidacy exam, I wrote two papers. The first of these explored some of the fundamental questions behind my research, namely

  • what does it mean to teach?
  • how do we develop a sense of ourselves as teachers, particularly in the higher education context? and
  • how does our sense of identity influence our assessment practices?

This post is composed of excerpts and distillations of that paper.


For teachers, Cégep can be an excellent opportunity. Most programs, pre-university or technical, require a Master’s degree or equivalent, rather than a doctorate[1]; furthermore, Cégep teachers are not required to conduct research, publish, or present, although many institutions support individual teachers who wish to pursue such endeavours. Teaching in Cégep is a largely autonomous affair; teachers are not accountable to parents, nor are they accountable to funding agencies.

At the same time, teaching at the Cégep level can present its challenges, not least of which is navigating the question of what level are we really teaching. Since there is no equivalent, the Cégep system has had to address this question – or ignore it – internally. Our students are 17-20, especially in the preuniversity programs, and they are not yet in university, so we might think of them as high school students, and ourselves as high school teachers. On the other hand, they have graduated from high school, and are now enrolled in specific programs akin to undergraduate programs in universities, so we might think of them as freshmen, and ourselves as university professors. Although Cégep programs are mandated as competency-based, that is, curriculum is developed around a concept of knowledge that includes social and academic skills, Barbeau argued that paradigmatic shift toward the competency-based approach has not been properly explained, integrated, or implemented by government, institutions, or faculty (in Doucet, 2016).

Teachers in primary and secondary classrooms also face challenges to their sense of professional identity, of course. In postsecondary education, however, new teachers must negotiate their identity as teachers as opposed to practitioners in their discipline – or, as Garnett (2013) argued, they must embrace their discipline-based identity within the institution and in relation to their students. In postsecondary education, teachers are likely to self-identify first as a member of their discipline, and must, consciously or not, develop a sense of themselves as teachers, both within the discipline and in the larger context of the institution.

Continue reading “Distillations, Part 1”

The Candidate

Shortly after I was accepted to the doctoral program, I ordered business cards, thinking that they would come in handy at conferences and the like. I filled in the form, and checked off the box marked “PhD Candidate.” After all, now that I was in the program, that’s what I was, right? A candidate?

Um, no.

It turns out there are designations, and that “candidate” indicates, typically, that you have completed any required coursework and have demonstrated – through comprehensive exams or papers, or both – that you have sufficiently immersed yourself in your field and are now prepared to take on original research.

The graduate secretary and the print shop were happy to accept my order, though, so I was the proud if confused owner of 250 business cards that erroneously identified me as a PhD Candidate.

When I told my supervisor about this mistake, she laughed and confessed that she had made the same mistake, introducing herself as a PhD Candidate as a newbie in her program. We’re actually working on a paper together now, exploring who makes what assumptions in the graduate context – because while the business card gaffe may be an innocuous blunder, there are assumptions made, by students, faculty, and institutions, that may have more dire consequences, or at least more embarrassing ones. Our conversation began with me relating the frustrating experience I had in applying to the program; the frustration stemmed from the institutional assumption that I (a) knew departmental faculty, (b) knew that I was expected to work with someone in preparing my application, and (c) knew how to remedy the situation if (a) or (b) were not true.

We all make assumptions, as teachers, as students, as parents, as citizens. As teachers, we may assume that students understand our instructions and know what to do with our feedback, for instance. We may assume that our colleagues share our beliefs about our role as teachers, and that our institutions will support us in our pedagogical choices. We may assume that someone will tell us that we’re not “candidates” yet, rather than signing off on a card order.

I think that a large part of the writing and dialogue I’ll engage in in the next few months will involve recognizing and challenging my assumptions – considering why I’ve made such an assumption, why it persists, and whether or not it’s valid. At least now that I have presented and defended my methodology and concepts papers, I can use those business cards 🙂

Maggie, PhD Candidate

Decisions, decisions

So I have finished the first year of course work in my doctoral pursuit. 1  I have four more weeks of teaching my Montreal Writers lit course, which thus overlaps with the course on assessment that I begin teaching this coming week.

I know that what I’ve taken on is huge, and, I’ll admit, intimidating and impressive. Full-time course work as a student, full-time workload as a teacher (including work on implementation of our new policy on assessing student proficiency in the language of instruction, and work on the English Exit Exam committee), teaching at the university, part-time yoga instruction, my own fitness training (working to improve my 10K time, and maybe get to a half-marathon this year), and all the domestic stuff, as a wife, mother, and dog/cat lover. It’s a big list. Yet, day-to-day, I’ve managed to stay on top of everything…

…or so I thought.

Mid-March, my husband and I managed to get away, just the two of us, for a week of scuba and sunbathing in Cozumel2  I figured that week would be the reboot I needed to face the end of term in my doctoral courses, and power through the end of semester at the college. But a week after we got home, I was exhausted. So I took a long, hard look at what I was actually doing 3  and realized that while I might feel in control of my workload on a day-to-day basis, the bigger picture was that I was really, really, really busy, and maybe I don’t need to be. After all, as I keep telling my yoga classes, we need to listen to our bodies – and mine was tired. I had no energy for running. I wasn’t doing yoga on my own. I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t waking up well.

So, I sat down with a lovely person in our human resources department, and found myself just babbling at her about everything I was doing, everything I was about to take one, everything I was being asked to do. And I realized that I really needed to take back some control, and take back some time. I’ve dropped one of my yoga classes, so I’ll only be teaching three times a week, at least for the summer. More importantly, I’ve applied for a voluntary workload reduction, so I’ll only be teaching one course each semester. I’ll still be working on the Exit Exam committee, but the language policy team has been disbanded, so that’s off my list.

I’ve also reflected on what I want to accomplish over the next few months, and created a timeline for myself. I have actually added a few things (such as more regular blogging!), but it’s loose enough that I feel it’s a good balance between having set goals and having space to breathe.

At the beginning of the last month of the semester, I do an exercise with my students and get them to note every assignment, every test, every reading, every soccer game, every family gathering, every work shift, etc., on a one-page calendar that covers the end of the semester. Seeing all those commitments on one page first feels terrifying, but then feels empowering. As I remind the students, we’ve all survived an end of semester before, with just as much stuff to do, but the calendar gives us a plan. It gives us control.

So, that’s what I did for myself. I made my decision for the workload reduction, and I set up my timeline, and took back the control I almost didn’t realize I’d lost.
Maybe I’ll even have time for a nap.

  1. I feel I should specify “course work,” because, as I’m sure anyone else who is going or has gone through the process can attest, the non-course work – reading, writing, more reading, more writing, thinking, talking, reading some more, planning, more writing – somehow takes on a life and momentum of its own, so that even when you want to take a break, your brain won’t shut off and just let you focus on that trashy novel or mindless TV show.
  2. Hands down my favourite place to just relax and breathe, underwater or otherwise.
  3. In the midst of this reflection period, by the way, three different colleagues approached me to suggest I step forward as coordinator of the Liberal Arts program.

Not product placement, I swear

I recently attended a conference, and before travelling, I did some research on styluses for my iPad. I love the device, but I have long struggled with using it for taking notes, because inevitably, my hand-written notes look like a ransom note written by a toddler. So I thought I would look into a better stylus, and in my research, came across this actual pen.Livescribe 3

I bought one and used it throughout the conference, and I LOVE it. I can’t remember which of my doctoral seminar classmates said that writing notes by hand was much more in keeping with her/his thought process; I remember the discussion (I think with regard to reading journals) concluded with the idea that typing is ultimately better. What I liked about the pen was that I could write, using my 40+ year-old annotations and everything, but have notes uploaded immediately to my phone (or any device running the app). When your note-taking session is complete, the app converts the pages to PDF, which you can save anywhere. This is one page from my conference notes, saved as a PDF, which I mailed to myself:

2016-03-25 (2)

Furthermore, the app includes OCR, so you can eventually ‘translate’ your hand-written notes to text. One section of this note page was rendered as

-technology ⇒ and related social media
communities; digital cldoacyg
online social mores

OK, it totally messed up “literacy,” but otherwise, it got everything, so imagine how well it would do with better penmanship 🙂

Anyway, that conversation from this past fall kept ringing in my ears as I took notes at the conference, so I wanted to share my new find with everyone. The pen is NOT cheap, and does require special note paper, but if handwritten notes are a preferred method, it might be worth the investment. The special paper is available in everything from standard spiral notebooks to post-it style sticky notes, which could be very useful for reading notes.

PS: another conference tip I learned, with a much cheaper solution, was to pick up a cheap portable charger. I found one at Winners for $13, and it saved my phone on Day 2 of the conference.

Does anyone else have travel tips to share?


In closing…

Earlier, I posted about using a new lesson for teaching students about thesis statements. The plan was heavy on interactive feedback, which in turn was something I used more frequently this semester. As we got into planning and drafting the final essay, I came back to the thesis lesson a few times, and made sure to include feedback on their thesis statements when I reviewed their outlines for the essay. I was happy to see that overall, the theses were stronger and clearer, and the final outcome was a batch of pretty well written essays.

At the beginning of each course, as part of my overview and introduction, I ask students to think about what they expect from the course, and what they hope to achieve. I give some space in my course pack for them to record these thoughts, and at the end of the semester, their final assignment is a personal reflection on whether their expectations and goals were met. I also ask them, among other things, to discuss which aspect(s) of the course they found most useful.

Last night, I read the reflections of this semester’s class, and I was thrilled to see that several students discussed the thesis lessons in particular as helpful, not just for our class, but for their writing in other courses. Many discussed the emphasis on writing stages as very useful and, in some cases, a sort of epiphany about writing; but I’ve been using that approach for a while, and I’m used to getting that feedback in their reflections. The thesis lessons were new, however, so I was gratified to get validation of the new tactic.

Of course, the end of my teaching semester is also, more or less, the end of my student semester – I’ve officially finished my first semester of my doctorate. It was a great three months, and I’m excited, still, about moving forward with my research and my writing. So, not a finish, but a pause.

But first, a few days of baking and present wrapping. Happy holidays!