That’s what UMW History’s department chair, Jeff McClurken, told one of his classes the other day, and I’m reminded of it after last night’s mad scramble to figure out what to do about the snow.

I have a senior seminar that meets once a week, on Wednesday nights from 6-8:45, and we already lost a week to the semester’s first snow day. That one was relatively easy to recover, since I was going to lead that discussion, rather than it being a student-led discussion, and thus a graded assignment. I moved that discussion online, and hosted it on Canvas, our LMS, monitoring the conversation from home and adding my thoughts as appropriate. That still let me model the advance post I was going to require of student discussion leaders, how I’d like them to participate in discussions, and the summary I want them to write afterwards.

That was the first time I had run a complete discussion online (I’ve had students post, but that in my absence, and I’ve summarized after rather than being involved in the ongoing posting), and so I turned for help to my significant other, Darcie, who recently completed her MLS through Rutgers University’s online program. She had lots of tips for refining what I was asking students to do, and how to explain it to them, and the whole thing seemed to work out fairly well.

Last night promised to be a different story. With impending severe weather, administration announced between 3 and 4 pm that campus would be closed and classes cancelled after 6pm. I’d been madly scrambling all day to be ready for class (6 hours of scheduled classes on Wednesdays), meet with students (two advisees, a potential thesis student, a current thesis student), and polish off an abstract for a conference panel proposal (which I felt obligated to do, since my collaborators had already spent time on theirs). Nonetheless, it was not a relief to return from my 3-4 class to discover the email announcing the cancellations. Now what was I supposed to do with my evening class, which would be missing another week, this time a student-led discussion of a great book?!

Luckily, I had the earlier online discussion to work from. I talked with a colleague to think it through, then modified the earlier discussion guidelines. This time, students would work from the advance post their classmates had shared, responding to prompts as well as to each other, and the student discussion leaders would check in and add their thoughts as the conversation progressed. I also told students to expect to spend the first hour of next week’s class revisiting the online threads, and addressing topics the discussion leaders felt needed additional attention. I emailed everyone, posted the plan on Canvas, and stuck around to make sure no one showed up for the start of class–no one did (I’m sure they were checking their email diligently every couple of minutes until the announcement came, but they may not have checked since).

I’m not sure I could have brought that together as effectively if I hadn’t done it already earlier in the semester, and perhaps more to the point, I’m not sure how fair it would have been to students to ask them to pivot on such short notice and expect it to go smoothly without them having had earlier practice. And I’m also absolutely positive that even the ability to move things online wouldn’t have been so plausible just a few years ago–other LMS’s I’ve used have been less user-friendly, the format would have been less familiar, and at my last university a shocking (to me, anyway) number of students didn’t have home internet access (lived in very rural areas, truly couldn’t afford it, etc). Nonetheless, I still wonder about whether my email and posts–all I can really do at the moment–made it to everyone, since some people likely don’t watch their email for that kind of information (perhaps deliberately), and could have gotten the announcement via other channels, like the UMW website, university announcements via text message, or Twitter.

And then I realized there’s a downside for me to all this. As I dropped files into Dropbox and added notes and reminders to the Notes app–both of which sync to my phone and are accessible from the laptop I often have with me–it occurred to me that there’s no snow day for me, either: no excuse not to write that letter for a student’s internship, keep up with the conference proposals and other writing, set up my grade book in Canvas, etc. And maybe those students who don’t check their email after the snow day is announced are on to something.

I know none of my thinking here is revolutionary, but I think that is telling in itself.

5 Thoughts on ““Digital History means no more snow days”

  1. Pingback: Teaching BitTorrent through Metaphor | bavatuesdays

    • As much as the experience irritates me, I’ll get better with time, and hopefully find ways to take advantage of the situation like you did, with the requirement that students build in snow to their videos. Great idea for incorporating something fun that reflects the moment.

  2. I’m also mourning the end to snow days. Back-in-the-day, I just took snow days as they came with a quick email to students to read a chapter or an article or work on their projects. When I went all out, I’d spend an hour or two making an extra lab assignment for them to work on. But now I feel obligated to carry on with class in the digital realm regardless of the weather. It’s lovely to be “all caught up” in terms of course objectives and content, but snow days have lost more than a bit of magic for me.

    On one of the recent snow days, I got up at 5am to record my content and get everything setup online before my 10:00 class. Then I spent a good part of the day fielding email questions from students. Most of the emails concluded with the closing “enjoy your day off,” which had me suspecting that their own snow day experiences were significantly different than my last-minute-scramble followed by time shoveling the driveway.

    I did a quick poll of my students after the first snow day and they said that very few instructors were using digital media to “make up” the class time. I wonder if that changed once we added a few more snow emergencies to the calendar. I should ask them again this week.

    • Dave Toth on February 23, 2014 at 1:25 pm said:

      So I have to say I actually resent snow days! Having taught in New England at a college that almost never canceled classes, having one snow day a semester was nice and non-destructive. You wrote off the one day and that was it. The students enjoyed the day off and you could shovel and get a little caught up with other things. Losing 1.5 weeks of class due to snow days this semester here at UMW was brutal! I can make up 1 lost day without issue, but not 1.5 weeks. I have started to turn snow days into “online” learning experiences like Karen, but I have also found it very time consuming. It actually takes me longer to create my online content than to fo teach a class because of my style of teaching, and because I teach 8 AM classes, it adds a lot of time pressure. And many students think a snow day means a day off and therefore don’t want to do the online lesson. I don’t think I can teach 8 AM classes anymore in the spring semester at UMW, which is a shame. It helps out a couple of my colleagues, by freeing up time slots in lab that they need and helps our students by avoiding conflicts with classes they want to take.

  3. Yep, they’re a huge pain to recover when they build up. I also think students see them as a day off (as you point out), and therefore don’t check emails/Canvas/whatever form of communication we have. They definitely don’t take advantage of the open time slot that would have been class to accomplish whatever online alternative has replaced the class meeting (I have made sure I’m online and interacting with message boards etc during that time, because I still feel like it’s my class’s time, but I’m the only one there). It’s been frustrating, though I’m also learning that I need to preemptively establish that contingency plan, and have provisions requiring students to accomplish different tasks in different time-frames, rather than just asking them to post their thoughts etc.

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