Sandi Connelly

Sandi Connelly

Fram End of Year Reflection

The last year in higher education has been described by many as unprecedented, unexpected, non-traditional, unimaginable, inconceivable, unrelenting, and constantly pivoting. Higher education has responded to all of the “un’s” with reevaluating, reflection, repopulating, rethinking, reopening, refunding, and reimaging. “Re” as a prefix implies “back” or “again”. So where does all of this put us one year after possibly the most universal shift that higher ed has ever seen? In many cases, right back where we began.

Yes, change happened. But as we prepare for fall 2021, the most common phrase heard around the almost empty halls is “I hope everything is back to normal in the fall”. What does that mean? What is normal? And, frankly, is that what we really want – or more importantly what we really need? Have we considered that we are not looking for “normal”, but rather “comfort”? Faculty are comfortable in the classroom. They are comfortable standing at the chalk board / dry erase board / smart board or in front of a screen emblazed with a PowerPoint slide. They are comfortable talking about their expertise, their craft, their life’s work. They are comfortable presenting information in the same way it was presented to them – Sage on the Stage style.

Now do not get me wrong – there are exceptions to every rule. If 2020 taught us anything it is that there are exceptions to absolutely everything (except perhaps the strong draw to buy and hoard toilet paper at the mere mention of the word “flu”). There are many faculty who threw out the notion of PowerPoint and lectures years ago, but it is not the majority. I will admit, I even find myself daydreaming about the days of just walking in to a classroom, talking for 50 or 75 minutes, with essentially no thought or prep, and then walking back out again – likely on my way to a boring meeting in a conference room with bad lighting, horribly outdated art work, and no air circulation. Sad. 

There have been glimmers of magic in the past year. There have been amazing conversations between all overlapping regions of the Venn diagram that includes faculty, staff, students, alumni, and families and friends of RIT. There have been faculty who have turned their courses on their heads with signature assignments, revitalized open conversations, and cultivated environments where sharing ideas is now the norm – and they are not looking back! There have been students helping students, faculty supporting each other (and their students) through every aspect of online-synchronous-asynchronous-split-blended-hybrid learning we have adopted, and staff giving endlessly of their time and talents to keep RIT’s ship right and true. All of this in a time of great personal loss, mental strain, and emotional turmoil. I would argue that we will come out of AY 2020-2021 stronger. But have we come out of AY 2020-2021 smarter? I am not sure.

I propose the following: we spend some real time and energy actually putting our critical thinking skills to the test as we ramp up for 2021-2022. In September 2020, I challenged everyone in my initial Fram reflection to consider the concept of applied critical thinking as “careful thinking directed to a goal”. This year has afforded us little time to do this. Looking back, it was a big ask in a year that brought more challenges and upsets than highlights. Apologies. But with vaccinations, relaxing of physical distancing, and a return of social / sporting / gathering events, at least in limited capacity, perhaps we will now allow ourselves to be reflective, to be thoughtful, and to be our best selves going forward. To do that successfully, critical thinking is the only thing that will light the way

The solution to our shortcomings and recurring complaints in higher ed is not more technology in the classroom, or more students with their cameras turned on in Zoom, or less students relying on Chegg for the answers to every homework problem known so that they can just “get it done”. The solution is out there – somewhere – hiding where only critical thinking can find it. It is not going to be easy. But the best things in life rarely are. What I can guarantee is that the solution is going to take all of us putting on our best thinking caps, thinking critically, and not choosing the path of least resistance. 

As you wave goodbye to the 2020-2021 school year, and run full steam ahead in to summer (however you choose to spend it), do me a favor? Pat yourself on the back. You have done the unimaginable with the unknown so many times this year, you deserve the biggest, shiniest award! And after you rest, recuperate, and recharge – spend a little time reflecting and answer the following for you:

  • What is one new thing I did in my classes this past year that I will continue to do forever?
  • What is one thing I did in my class preparation that made me a better teacher, and how do I hang on to that?
  • What is one thing that I want to change in my workflow so that I have time to be the critical thinker – and give my students the time to be the critical thinkers – that we all can be? (No pressure, but the world is depending on us to do this one!)
  • What is the one thing that I am really proud of from this year that I wish I could share with the world?

When you get to that last one – if you are willing – send it to me. I want to help you share it with the world!

I am not sure who needs to hear this today – but, whether we have never met, are best friends, or adversaries, I appreciate and respect you and everything that you do day to day. You are the reason RIT is what it is. You are the reason RIT will persevere in the post-COVID era. You are the reason that students will still want to call RIT their second home – or first real home. You are the one who will make such an impact on a student (or a few!) that their lives will be forever changed. That is all YOU and your critical thinking, your spiRIT, and your “never say never” attitude. You make a difference every day to someone. And I hope that someday someone makes that difference for you. Rest well – you deserve it! Be well – because we cannot overcome the next challenge without you and your critical thinking prowess!!