This post originally appeared on Defining Moments Canada
My greatest insecurity as I prepared to teach during Fall 2020 was how to create a sense of community in the virtual classroom for a course that had never before been delivered online. In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 caused a sudden pivot to online classes, camaraderie had already been built – my students and I had spent months establishing trust, laughing together, and breathing the same air. From my hastily created home office, I assured students via online announcements that we were all in this together, as we collectively refreshed our news apps again and again. We stumbled across the finish line, bemused and relieved.
While I knew that I was not going to become an expert in online pedagogy over the summer, I nevertheless devoured articles concerning MOOCs, course design, technology integration, and applying Universal Design for Learning principles to assignment building as I reimagined Anthropology of Health as an online offering. In my previous discussion, I outlined one such assignment: the unessay. This term was first introduced by Dr. Daniel O’Donnell1, who asked students to use their own framework or focus to approach a topic, to toss out the rules of essay writing, and to approach the prompt in a medium of their choosing. Speculative projects like the unessay harness students’ creativity, encouraging students to find their personal way in to an assignment. Other academics2 have written about the challenges and successes of the unessay in their classrooms, expressing their delight at the results. This semester felt like the right one to take such a risk.
Anthropology of Health is a foundational course in the innovative Anthropology of Health Stream at the University of Toronto Mississauga. This class is a prerequisite to further health-focused courses and generally attracts second-year social science students, many of whom are anthropology majors, though students with double-majors in psychology, biology, and sociology are frequent attendees. The enrollment leapt this past fall to 102 (in Fall 2019 it had been 61); this population expansion, coupled with the new online delivery fueled my desire to build flexibility into the course.
Students were presented with the following prompt, about which they could craft an unessay or tackle an academic paper:
Consider the discovery of insulin, the individuals involved, and the history of diabetes prior to and after the discovery. Select three key events, people, objects, etc. that you think best illustrate/celebrate/explain the discovery of insulin. What led to this discovery? How did this discovery change the world? Continue reading