Writing During the Pandemic

By | May 13, 2020

This post was contributed by Dr. Leanne Merrill, Assistant Professor, Mathematics Department, Western Oregon University.

As soon as I saw the email – that all of our Spring 2020 classes were to be taught fully remotely – I knew my plans had to change, and fast.

A month prior, in February, before I’d ever considered teaching a single fully online course (let alone my entire course load), I received an OER Author Grant from Western Oregon University’s Textbook Affordability Committee to write a textbook for Math 110: Applied College Mathematics. This grant would finally give me the time and resources I needed to turn my haphazard collection of notes and homegrown classroom activities into a high-quality OER that students deserve, and that other instructors can use and modify for their own classrooms. Of course, I told myself, I’ll start working on this right away….once summer rolls around!

Fast forward to late March: after the initial shock and depression of realizing that I wouldn’t get to see any of my students face-to-face for a long time, I realized: I don’t have a textbook for my Spring 2020 Math 110 class, and class starts in two weeks.

Math 110: Applied College Mathematics was developed over the last three years at Western Oregon University. Math 110 focuses on creating authentic mathematical problem-solving opportunities in real-world contexts. The main topics are: using proportions, rates, and percentages to describe and quantify situations; developing a mathematical modeling toolkit; and analysis of elementary statistics in an applied setting. It is becoming the favored math course for many of our most popular non-STEM majors, including Business, Criminal Justice, Psychology, Exercise Science, and Interdisciplinary Studies, for whom this in-context problem solving is crucial. These students do not need calculus or the higher-level algebra that precedes it, but they do need the skill to model using elementary mathematics and statistics, which is not heavily emphasized in the typical algebra and calculus sequence.

My usual approach to Math 110 involves group work, guided note-taking, and hands-on activities. In other words, it is fairly dependent upon being co-located in a classroom, and does not have a dedicated existing textbook. My delivery of this material would have to change rapidly, and as of late March, I had absolutely nothing tangible to give my students their class in April. (Are pdfs tangible? I think so. But I didn’t even have a pdf.) The entire class existed in my head, with only basic scaffolding of the material written down. I had to start writing, so I did.

I have been writing for the last month and a half, and I’m more than halfway finished with the first draft of my OER. My deadlines are imposed by the fact that my students need the material, so I am writing as I go, as well as making videos and designing projects for my current students to complete. My rushed timeline makes me keenly aware of the amount of time I will need to spend editing. Nevertheless, I think that writing in the pandemic has made me write a better textbook.

I know that I will not go to campus tomorrow and see my students in a classroom. So, as I teach my students through my writing, I cannot rely on skills and qualities unique to co-located teaching. I cannot use facial expressions or body language, explanations or metaphors relying on emphasis and diction, or the sorts of back-and-forth exchanges that occur in a physical classroom. I have to anticipate student questions and resolve them as I write. I need to find a way to explain things, using just words, that my students will find both approachable and precise. In a lower-division mathematics course for non-STEM majors, this is challenging. I evaluate every sentence and ask: how would I explain this if someone asked me a question in class? And then I have to answer those questions, while striving to be concise. I would not have this kind of awareness outside the context of the pandemic.

Needless to say: a textbook is not a course. So, I’ve done my best to create videos and other resources to help my students learn, and I offer opportunities for one-on-one or group meetings to work on material together. And still, I know I am not teaching a high-quality online course right now, because developing such a course would take far longer than 2 weeks. But I am writing a textbook that my students can use, and for now, and that’s better than nothing.

My students have been incredibly understanding and forgiving throughout this process. (Perhaps some of their forgiveness comes from the extra credit they get if they tell me about errors in the book! Everyone wins!) But most of all, they have been remarkably motivated to learn, despite immense challenges in their lives. Their fearless spirit and hard work are my strongest motivators.

Additionally, I’ve benefited from the professional development opportunities available through WOU’s Textbook Affordability Program and Open Oregon Educational Resources, and have been learning about open licensing, backwards design, and open pedagogy as I go. And, it’s a family affair: my parents have served as (very biased) outside reviewers, though they often provide some of the best feedback since neither of them are mathematicians.

I know that there is a lot of work to do before my OER is complete, but writing during the pandemic is a surprisingly cathartic way to feel connected to students while we can’t be in the same place, and I’m convinced that it will make the final product more robust. Thank you to WOU’s Textbook Affordability Committee and Open Oregon Educational Resources for the resources and support they have provided faculty so that, even in this time of adversity, we can continue to serve our students.

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2 thoughts on “Writing During the Pandemic

  1. Jimena Alvarado

    great work, Leanne! way to go!
    I’ve been reviewing and refining and adapting materials each week so I’m right here with you. One of these days I’ll set aside the time to upload the new content to the site, but for right now, I’m just going to get through the reviewing process. I’m glad you’re seeing the progress as you go, you’ll have a great resource at the end of the term, much earlier than you expected and be in a great spot to edit and refine. Keep plugging along!

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