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How to Prepare for This (totally normal) Fall Semester

The start of a new academic year is a thrilling and exhilarating moment! Professors and students come together to explore new topics, investigate complex issues, and continue down the path towards personal enrichment!

Of course, some semesters get off to a rather auspicious start that can place the entire educational endeavor in a dark aura…but this is not such a semester!

By paying attention to the following guidelines and tips (culled from careful consultation with administrators) you should be able to ensure that the coming semester is a fantastic one!


Meet Your NEW Students

 Do not try to deny it: you have certain preconceived notions about your students. You may try to justify these stereotypes to yourself as being legitimate insights gleaned from firsthand experience in the classroom that have been reaffirmed semester after semester after semester – but this semester is different! You may believe that your average student is a relatively young adult consumed by the anxieties and longings that are common amongst this age group. Indeed, you may believe that your students place as much emphasis (if not more emphasis) on the social aspects of university as on the educational aspects, and you may believe that when they are not in your classroom many of these students like to spend their time in the company of other students. You may even believe that sometimes your students attend large gatherings (these are often called “parties”), or that some of them may have jobs that put them into contact with other human beings, or that some of them will occasionally go to places where there are other people, or that some of them occasionally find themselves in enclosed spaces with other people. All of those assumptions relate to the past, they are not accurate reflections of your students now!

Careful research by university administrators confirms that this semester’s students are not like the students from previous semesters. Indeed, every student returning to campus this fall has taken a sacred oath of chastity, of obedience, and has taken a vow of silence that shall only be broken when they are responding to something you have asked in the classroom. Your students this semester no longer have any interest in being with their peers, they have no interest in “going out” or “having fun,” they have traded their fraternities and sororities for the brotherhood/sisterhood that is found in belonging to a monastic order committed to scholarship and ascetism. Indeed, it is precisely a result of your university’s recognition that students this semester have changed that has allowed your university to reach the decision to reopen.

Do not worry about “college students being college students” – college students this semester will be different.


Dress Appropriately

Before the semester began you should have been issued a set of two, university branded, cloth facemasks to be worn while you are on campus. These masks are just like the types of cloth masks you can get elsewhere, except that these have your university’ name on them. While the university dress code has always relied on some unspoken assumptions that you know what it means to “dress appropriately,” you should recognize that this mask is now part of your required attire.

In addition to the mask, the university also recommends wearing:

  • Standard business casual attire
  • A face shield
  • A hazmat suit
  • Sackcloth robes
  • Official, university branded, apparel
  • The costume for your university’ mascot
  • A giant bubble suit
  • Safety goggles
  • A hairshirt (underneath your business casual attire)


Be Mindful of Your Classroom

Before the semester started, your university worked hard to ensure that your classroom will be ready for you and your students. As such, your classroom should now have stickers or markers of some sort that make it clear to your students which seats they may not occupy (you may need to apply these stickers/markers yourself). Furthermore, your university should have supplied you with a small bottle of disinfectant, a somewhat broken hand sanitizer dispenser, and half a roll of paper towel – though you have been assured that the (overworked and underpaid) maintenance staff is going to be cleaning every room between classes, you may want to be extra safe and sanitize the room yourself. It is up to you to make sure that you are doing a meticulous job of sanitizing everything, that’s why the university held a training session on what to do. Remember? There was a training session that was offered at 3 a.m. last Monday. Granted, the registration link in the email didn’t work properly.

Your classroom should have also been fitted with a barrier of some sort at the front of the classroom. These vary from a single barrier that is meant to stand between you and your students, to entirely enclosed plexiglass booths that you can teach from within. Depending on budgetary shortfalls you may find that this plexiglass barrier is in fact several sheets of saran wrap attached to the ceiling and floor with duct tape. Make sure that you keep this barrier between you and your students. You may have heard that the virus is airborne, but what you might not have heard is that COVID-19 is afraid of plexiglass and saran wrap – so these barriers will effectively repel the virus. Furthermore, should your students grow so frustrated at the situation that they decide to rebel and pelt you with rotten tomatoes (or worse) this plexiglass barrier should provide you with effective cover.


Don’t let the students get close to each other

 You should have taken steps to carefully mark off the seats in your classroom (or to arrange the seats) in such a way as to guarantee that there is ample space between your students. However, you must be mindful of maintaining an appropriate distance between your students at all times. All of the work of making sure they aren’t sitting right up against each other is undermined by them congregating around the door as class ends. You’re going to have to make sure that you are dismissing them in waves. Similarly you’re going to have to make sure that they enter your classroom at slightly staggered times lest two of them try to enter the room at the same time. And before you complain that this will further eat into your class time, and that students will just ignore your directives as they have to run across campus, just remember that this is on you.


Absolutely NO eating or drinking in the classroom

You know how there’s that sign in your classroom, the one that everyone always ignores, that says “no eating or drinking in this classroom”? Well, this semester you’re going to have to enforce it! The university just can’t run the risk of students pulling down their masks to eat, or drink. You might ask, does this include having a sip of water? Yes, this includes having a sip of water. You might ask, does this include popping a candy into your moth? Yes, this includes popping a candy into your mouth. You have to be absolutely vigilant on this! If a student needs to have a drink you have to send them out of the classroom, not just into the hallway, but outside of the building. You might complain that it takes students ten minutes to get from your classroom to outside, and another ten minutes to get back again—which just means that your students should have thought of that ahead of time.

And this rule applies to you as well. You may be accustomed to teaching with a mug of coffee or tea beside you, or a water bottle, so that you can periodically do something about how dry your mouth gets when you’re lecturing at length…but you can’t drink either! If you need to have a sip of a beverage you also have to go outside the building. Even if that means totally derailing your lecture.

Sure, this might be uncomfortable, and it might make the experience even more unpleasant, but that’s just a price that the people who aren’t actually running classrooms are willing to pay.


Your video must be perfect  

Regardless of your specific classroom situation, a situation may arise which will require you to record your lectures and post them online. In this case it is expected that you produce lecture videos of a quality somewhere between an extremely popular YouTube channel and an academy award winning documentary. Your students won’t pay attention to a static shot of you sitting in front of your computer, doing your best to lecture along with your slides! You need to bring some pizzazz! You are fully expected to invest in a green screen, to upgrade the webcam on your computer to a professional quality video camera, to spend the money necessary for a fancy microphone, and to purchase a variety of props (ranging from the amusing to the serious) to compliment your lecture. And, before you ask, no there is not an additional budgetary fund available to help you pay for these various things.

Furthermore, you should make sure that your lecture videos have been meticulously edited. The university cannot (at least not yet) intervene in your in-person lectures to make sure that you never say “um” or cough or briefly lose your train of thought, but your recorded lecture should be an unbroken stream of scholarly brilliance. Cut out all of those “ums”! Replace every cough with a humorous sound effect (you should also purchase a sound effects package)! And make sure to throw in some special effects!


[Bonus section]

What to do if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse show up in your class

There is a chance that you will hear the galloping of hoofbeats in the corridor outside of your classroom, followed by the door bursting open and four intimidating riders charging into the room. Contrary to what you may believe, they are in fact registered for your class this semester (they are registered for every class at every school this semester), though it is likely that they have missed the first few sessions. Should they arrive, university administrators recommend the following procedure:

  1. Politely welcome them to class (don’t let the other students see that you are surprised)
  2. Ask them to tie their dreadful steeds up outside the building, tell them that they are welcome to use the bike racks for this purpose.
  3. Once they return (without their horses), ask them to sit.
  4. Use the presence of these intimidating figures as an opportunity to remind students of various classroom/university policies – Famine (no eating or drinking in the classroom), War (let’s keep the discussion respectful, you can disagree with each other without attacking), Plague (keep your mask on, practice social distancing, and please be responsible outside of the classroom), Death (please make sure to notify the professor if you believe that something might occur that impacts your ability to complete your coursework).
  5. Proceed with your lecture as if your class had not been interrupted by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

 [Bonus section ends]


Master EVERY New Platform

Look, let’s be honest, there’s a good chance things are going to shift online (or you’re already teaching online, or you’re teaching in some kind of hybrid model). Therefore, it just isn’t enough for you to stroll into the classroom with your prepared lecture and your slides! You need to figure out which new platforms to use, and the correct thing to do is to use all of them. How else can you demonstrate to your students (and the administration) that you are on the cutting edge of all of the latest new tech tools? You should be using one platform for recording, another platform for conversations, another platform for marking up documents, another platform for marking up videos, another platform for debates, another platform for grading rubrics, another platform for letting students chat, another platform for recording (just in case that first one didn’t work right), another platform for getting student feedback, another platform for turning in work, and whatever else you can think of that might require a platform should probably have a unique platform of its own. If you’re only using one or two platforms it suggests that you aren’t taking this seriously enough! Use them all! And you’d better make sure that you are using them all flawlessly.

Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed, there are probably some videos floating around online that explain how to use these platforms. And your school’s IT department can also help—it’s not like they’re busy right now.


Don’t read that article in the newspaper about your university

Your students may be discussing an article that just came out in the student newspaper, or one of your colleagues may have just emailed you an article that appeared in a major periodical. You know the article. The one about how there are already reports of infections on campus. Or the one about how the number of infections is rising. Or it might be the article about how the university’s testing capacity isn’t really good enough. Or it could be the article about how the health experts who were consulted advised the university not to reopen for in person classes. Or it could be the one about all of the big parties happening on campus. Or it could be the one about how every other university in your city is only teaching online. Or…look…just ignore these articles. All they’re going to do is make you worried. And, the administration assures you, there’s nothing to worry about.


Make a version of your syllabus for every eventuality

Anyone who has ever made a syllabus knows that it is important to build in some flexibility. For any number of reasons, it may become necessary to change things, and thus it is essential to construct your syllabi with a plan for how to quickly make alterations. This semester it is particularly important to be prepared for the unexpected, you should make sure that you have devised backup syllabus plans that can easily be put in place for at least three of the following not impossible scenarios:

  • Your in-person classes have to be shifted online
  • Astronomers declare that a giant asteroid will strike the Earth next Tuesday
  • A “second wave” of the virus arrives
  • You get sick
  • Malevolent aliens arrive
  • The dead rise from their graves with an insatiable hunger for human flesh
  • A member of your family gets sick
  • The robots rebel
  • One of your colleagues gets sick
  • The birds decide to attack
  • One of your TAs gets sick
  • Benevolent aliens arrive
  • A divine spirit comes to you and instructs you to build an ark
  • The sun disappears from the sky
  • Due to financial problems your university suddenly (and immediately) closes
  • In the wake of a contentious election, unrest overtakes your society
  • Your university announces it is eliminating your department
  • There is an actual general strike
  • Sauron stops Frodo from throwing the one ring into Mount Doom

This is not an exhaustive list of all the scenarios you need to prepare for as you contemplate your syllabus. It is advisable for you to come up with at least five horrific scenarios not included on the above list, and to then prepare for those as well.


Wait, but what if there is major social upheaval in November?

[Section redacted – your university refuses to even contemplate this scenario]


Make sure you aren’t neglecting your own research

How many articles have you published since the pandemic began? How many book chapters? How’s the progress on your book coming along? Yes, many conferences have cancelled their in-person components, but this should just mean that you’ve had the time to speak at even more online conferences! How is your research going? What kind of public facing scholarship have you completed recently? How many books have you reviewed? How many journals are you editing? What impressive new organization have you started that is already fully funded? How many grants and fellowships have you applied for and received in the last thirty seconds?

This is no time for you to forget about your own work! Or, to forget the expectations about the amount of progress you’ll be making on your work. You need to get that dissertation written (if you are a PhD candidate! You need to be doing the work necessary to get tenure (if you’re on the tenure track)! You need to give the university a reason to consider rehiring you (if you’re an adjunct)! Don’t use the fact that teaching this semester is much more time intensive, and you have a host of personal constraints, as an excuse for not being as productive as possible!


Keep an eye on your phone

In past semesters you likely made it a point to tell your students to turn off their phones, and you likely modeled this behavior by turning off your own phone and putting it away. This semester you should make sure to keep your phone out and on. This will be necessary so that you can assure that you are keeping abreast of the latest important developments. Which residence hall has had a major outbreak? Which fraternity through a raging party over the weekend (a party definitely attended by infected students)? What other sign of the end (foretold in that unspeakable old book held in the library subbasement) has occurred? Which other universities (the ones where your more fortunate colleagues teach) have announced that they will be closing their campuses and going online? And of course, you need to have your phone out and on, as there is a fairly good chance that you will be in the middle of delivering a lecture when your university’s administration finally makes the call to close for the semester.


Start planning for the Spring Semester

Regardless of what happens this semester (and everything is going to be fine and normal), the spring semester will be a regular semester! Therefore, you should plan on it being a regular semester. And before you say “but wouldn’t it have been smarter if we had prepared for the fall not being a regular semester?” remember that these decisions are above your pay grade, and are best left to those who aren’t busy doing things like teaching classes.


Remember, we’re in this together!

Last, but most importantly, remember these are challenging times, and this is going to be a challenging semester! But we’re all in this together!

Unless, that is, you get sick.

In which case, good luck with that.


More advice of questionable validity:

How to move your books in the middle of a pandemic

What teaching online taught me

How not to get sick at the library

How not to ruin a book

How to read too many books in seven months

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “How to Prepare for This (totally normal) Fall Semester

  1. diamondbolt
    August 29, 2020

    Yawn. . . .

    On Thu, Aug 27, 2020 at 6:08 AM LibrarianShipwreck wrote:

    > Z.M.L posted: “The start of a new academic year is a thrilling and > exhilarating moment! Professors and students come together to explore new > topics, investigate complex issues, and continue down the path towards > personal enrichment! Of course, some semesters get off ” >

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