“Fostering an Intellectual Community Online”

Faculty Senate President Dorothea Herreiner talks to Mairead Sullivan, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies, about her course “Women’s Bodies, Health, and Sexualities” and the transition to teaching in an online environment. Professor Sullivan is a current Mellon Emerging Faculty Leadership Fellow, and one of LMU’s 2020 Ascending Scholars, an award created by the Provost’s Office in 2019 to recognize excellence and promise in faculty scholarship.

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Mairead Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies

Dorothea Herreiner: What is WGST 2200/HEAS 2998: “Women’s Bodies, Health, and Sexualities” about and what are your goals when teaching the course?
Mairead Sullivan: This course is about ideas about race, gender, and sexuality that both shape and are shaped by ideas about bodies, health, and medicine. The course is rooted in reproductive justice, which is a framework developed and practiced by Black and women of color feminists that emphasizes every person and communities’ right to health and flourishing.

DH: What are important disciplinary-specific aspects of this course?
MS: This course requires bracketing what we think we know in order to see the mechanisms of power and social values that inform systems of knowledge. In other words, we, as a class, struggle together to read sophisticated texts and to think critically about the world as it is given. Such an endeavor is necessarily intimate and community building. My biggest concern in shifting to remote learning remains building that sense of community without being in the same room. I have learned a great deal from the disability community about building community through digital means. Many disability scholars and activists have long been experts in using technology to increase accessibility especially for building communities.

DH: What are some main lessons you learned this spring, summer, or before about teaching online?
MS: I have long used a variety of “digital technologies” in my courses. Indeed, I often joke that simply using internet-based apps does not make an online course. The most important challenge to me in the switch to remote learning was and remains fostering an intellectual community with and among my students. I give all credit to my spring semester students who rose to the challenge of maintaining community through discussion boards and Slack channels.

DH: What are some main differences between teaching this course in person and teaching it online/remotely?
MS: There are a number of in classroom activities I do that require fast-paced responses from both myself and my students. For example, every semester I walk my students through an exercise where I assign them a character and they have to set out to determine which health insurance plan they will sign up for through their employer. The activity, by design, results in a lot of confusion as students shout out questions such as: “What is a deductible?” “What is the difference between co-pay and co-insurance?” By the end of the class session we have a whiteboard filled with definitions and students have both a deeper understanding of the nuances of health insurance and, I hope, are better equipped to make their own choices when the time comes. In the remote environment, it is hard to replicate this fast-paced exercise. Nevertheless, my students and I used a chat-based forum (Microsoft Teams) to do the exercise. I assigned each student their character and set them about the task of determining which plan they would choose and then explaining why they chose that plan. I prompted them to post to the message board at any point where they had confusion or questions in the endeavor. Unlike in the classroom, students did not, in fact, post questions about deductibles and co-pays. Rather, students jumped ahead and posted their choice of plan and their justification. Typically, students chose the plan with either the least up-front costs or the plan that appeared to have the most flexibility. I was then able to push them to see the additional costs they may incur — sure, a PPO has great flexibility, but can you manage that 20 percent co-insurance with your salary? In the end, the exercise looked much different in the remote setting but the outcomes were the same. This was a great lesson for me in flexibility.

We talk a lot in the scholarship of teaching and learning about backward design, that is starting with the learning goal and building lessons to reach that goal. At first, I thought I would have to scrap exercises that seem uniquely suited to the classroom but with a little flexibility I was able to achieve the same learning outcomes.

DH: What are some new elements that you introduced into the course in the online environment?
MS: One new element that I introduced into my courses is a weekly reading accountability assignment. In a typical classroom setting, I often use pop-quizzes or in-class activities to assess which students have completed the readings. Students shared with me that they were worried about falling behind without the classroom setting to hold them accountable. The weekly reading assignments have been a great success. They not only help me gauge what students have taken from the reading, but since students have the question before they read, they also serve as a kind of study guide. This is one aspect of remote learning that I will be bringing back with me to the live classroom.

DH: What are you most excited about in this course this semester?
MS: I am not teaching this course in the fall semester, but I am teaching a related course, “Sex, Science, and Society.” This course is First-Year Seminar, so I am most excited about introducing new students to the thrills and challenges of courageous inquiry.

DH: What new opportunities does this new teaching environment provide?
MS: I have become a champion for chat-based programs like Slack and Microsoft Teams. As of this fall, all LMU undergraduate have a Microsoft Teams account. I was thrilled to be an early user of Teams with my class this summer. In all of my courses, students learn a new piece of software or technology that will be helpful to them in their future studies and/or future careers. Programs like Microsoft Teams and Slack are used in a wide variety of workplaces. I have loved using Teams with my students to build and maintain community. The chat-based functionality allows me to quickly check-in with them and mirrors how we use chat-based communication in everyday life (including emojis). Students are able to engage in dynamic conversations in the class channels and to develop friendships outside of the class platform through direct chat. Teams has been a game changer in my teaching and in my students’ engagement and experience of the course. For better or worse, having Teams on when I am working is the remote equivalent of being in my office with the door open. I love when students or colleagues ping me in the chat. Teams is less formal than email and thus lends itself to developing community and feeling like you are in an actual conversation.

DH: What would you like to suggest to your students on taking courses in the fall?
MS: My top three pieces of advice are: 1. Set a schedule for yourself every day; 2. Get to know your professors. We are in this with you and can’t wait to be back face to face, but Teams and Zoom help us stay connected; 3. Students worry about time management, but I worry about feeling like we have to be constantly working. Take time away from your studies!