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Dr. Pamela Cobrin, PhD

Senior Lecturer in English at Barnard College; Director of the Writing Program at Barnard College; Director of the Speaking Program at Barnard College; Co-Director of the First-Year Seminar Program at Barnard College

Dr. Cobrin teaches First-Year Seminar, Writer’s Process, Rhetorical Choices, and Early American Drama and Performance courses at Barnard College. These courses are typically taught in-person, and rely on an engaged seminar structure. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Cobrin had to rethink the seminar environment for fully online and hybrid spaces. Dr. Cobrin met the moment by recognizing the humanity of each person in the room, creating community through collective intellectual knowledge production, leveraging technology to engage students outside of the class, and engaging in transparent communication with students. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Cobrin did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. 

Creating a Seminar Environment 

All classes I teach are seminars; I’ve been at Barnard since 2002, and I’ve never taught a lecture. I’ve only ever taught seminars. By default, that’s become my specialty, my object of study. One of the things I learned from pandemic teaching and learning was to really think about how to create a seminar environment: if I set up my material correctly, and create the right vibe in the classroom, we get a seminar environment, and I make sure everyone is talking. There’s a way in which the pandemic forced me to examine that process and the pieces that create a seminar environment–to tease them out individually. So I came up with four elements that ended up being what I focused on most, because those four elements were challenged in a virtual environment, all of them. Those are the four things that make a seminar: recognize the humanity of each person in the room; create community through collective intellectual knowledge production; leverage technology to engage students outside of class; and engage in transparent communication with students. 

Recognize the Humanity of Each Person in the Room

It was easy for students not to understand their individuality in the class, not to understand what that was like when you’re a two-dimensional small box. So one of the things I found is that, in order to tap into that part of a student’s humanity in the class–to bring in some of that outside humanity, from the outside world in. We started class by asking: “what’s one thing you saw or experienced from last class to now?” Or, “what’s something you plan to do today?” We’d go around the room and start that way. It could be anything. It was like, “I had a smoothie.” But just that little piece actually made a massive difference. I could see that they started seeing each other, and the connections they could make across those kinds of little moments did not come with the pressure of having to make an academic connection. In other words, it’s different for me to say, “Oh, I got the same interpretation you did from Foucault” versus, “Oh my gosh, I love those smoothies.” Automatically, it changes the dynamic and sets up a system where, this isn’t the person who read Foucault, who is either going to or not going to contribute to the conversation. Instead, this is a person who eats breakfast and has a smoothie–who in another world, I might have been having a smoothie with outside of class. So that was important. 

This is something I still do today. In some ways, it’s been even more useful today. For example, last year when we started meeting in person again, what I should have expected but didn’t was that my sophomores were anxious and terrified to be around each other even though they were in person. And so that exercise–asking students the one thing they did or something they’re going to do that day–became one of the more crucial parts of the class for them to find their way in as humans. That’s what I call it: entering the classroom as humans–let’s enter the classroom as humans. Some of the comments I got were things like,  “As a science major, I don’t feel like this part of me is important. And this is a class where I feel like that is valued.” That made me think about the ways in which the classroom can connect with all the stress culture; it does not acknowledge the humanity of the student.  

Create Community Through Collective Intellectual Knowledge Production

I never really considered the collective and collaborative aspect of teaching as carefully as I did during the pandemic, and that has definitely carried forward. Some of those practices have actually been more effective post-pandemic than in the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, when I would teach, I always used small groups; small groups are huge for me for all the reasons that small groups are awesome. When we went online, part of my frustration (or jealousy) during small groups was I couldn’t hear what students were saying. They were having conversations without me, which was great! But what about me? I think that my ability to see what was going on in those conversations, which is very selfish but is good for the class, actually led to this use of Google Docs when students were in small groups because we had no choice. What happened from that were a few things that I both expected and didn’t. I expected: I can see what everyone is talking about and where they’re going, and that helps me prepare for the next part of the class. In this way, I don’t have to gather information and then improv and figure out where to go next–I had a better sense of what was going on in the small groups. 

What was unexpected was that the Google Doc record of small groups ended up leading to a collaborative class notebook. Instead of (or in addition to) everyone taking individual notes, there was now a collaborative notebook as a class. A seminar for me is about the ways in which students create a class text by speaking at the table. The primary text of any seminar is what is created at the table from the text that we give them–the subjects we give them and the conversations that we inspire. It can’t be replicated anywhere, and it can’t be read anywhere. What this did was put that in writing; we created an archive. Moving forward really made visible, and thus gave value to, what that text was. 

I currently have a student from each of my classes out with Covid. So just today, I said to my students: “We have a student who’s not here due to illness. This is going to happen throughout the semester. I would like to think about how as a class we support each other, dare I say, we care for each other, while maintaining a rigorous learning environment.” I think that students often can see those things–care and rigor–in opposition. I explained to them this is why we’re going to now create a shared Google Doc and notes for this class: “Think about this for yourself as a set of notes, and think about it as what kind of notes would you want taken for you if you weren’t here one day because of whatever reason.” It’s this idea that the seminar is a cohort, a community. It may not be one they’ve chosen–this isn’t a club that they’ve chosen to join–but rather, it’s a required class they have to take. Even if they chose to take my section, they didn’t choose everyone else in the class. So how can we intentionally create a community and care for each other? 

Leverage Technology to Engage Students Outside of Class

The technology of Padlet was very useful for me. One of the things I learned, because I tried all kinds of things, is not that Padlet is the best technology. Rather, as an instructor, in much the way that I have my own style of teaching that is really, really specific to me–there is technology to match my style and technical expertise. For me, it’s Padlet. Padlet has this creative element to it which helps combine students’ creative inflection or engagement with the topics. It aligns with my goal of carrying the creative engagement with material out of class in a way that matches what I value–using a technology that I’m comfortable with.

I don’t necessarily think that Padlet is great for everybody. But I think finding what works for you is important, because the technology we use should be reflective of the classroom environment. It can’t be separate. We have to be able to articulate that to ourselves. Part of that is being able to say to yourself, “what is important to me? What are systems that I can tap into students’ innovation?” 

Engage in Transparent Communication with Students 

Before the pandemic started, I had been playing around with how to create scaffolding and practice around things that we don’t necessarily think students have to practice in order to create relationships. 

I have something in my syllabus called the self-advocacy project, where in the first two weeks of class, students are required to come to office hours, and they could come in with an interest, a question, or a concern. I wasn’t going to make the appointment for them, and I wasn’t going to tell them what to come in with, but they had to come in with something. This was for my first-year seminar, so it was about onboarding our first-years. What does it mean to voluntarily, do it yourself, make an appointment and go to office hours–and what is it like to have to come up with a reason to do that. So no matter what the class, no matter how involved or not involved you feel, you can see the benefit of what that might look like. During the pandemic, this became particularly important. 

Another thing the shared Google Doc did was last spring when we were hybrid, there was a moment of burnout for so many students and they just had had enough. They were overwhelmed–it’s a pass-fail class, and I’m asking them to do difficult work. There was a moment in class where I asked students, “Are there any questions you want to ask about this class? Because I feel like people are disengaging a bit.” And one student responded with: “Yeah, why do we have to do all this reading? It’s supposed to be a class about speaking at a seminar table. Why do we have to do all of this reading and writing?” So I told them here are the requirements of the course, but then I used the Google Doc and I told them to take 15 minutes and make the class better. Suddenly, instead of just complaining, they became accountable to what they have to get done in the class, and how they confront the things they were saying they don’t like in an accountable way with peers. It was a really fascinating exercise, and a really profound moment to have them go into these groups. What I saw on the Google Doc was they would write something out, and erase it.  Write something out, and erase it. They came up with stuff, but they really, once they had to think about putting themselves in the place of being in responsible for their own classroom, it changed their perspective.  

Most of what they came up with had to do with me personally. They commented on how we talk about and theorize about language and power so much, and yet I stay to some kind of very narrow path of formality in the way I talk with students. They commented on how I ask them to take intellectual risks; they wanted to know if I would take intellectual risks. So I asked them what they wanted me to risk. My students asked what it would be like to my authority if I cursed, or if I said something less formal. So I said, “Okay, let’s try it. I’m game. If it’s important to you, and it doesn’t do anything that impacts my personal beliefs, ethics, or morals, sure.” I think they really wanted to see my humanity. 

Another thing that I got from the pandemic was, especially during hybrid, there was less of a sense than ever that I understood how students were experiencing the class. I felt really destabilized and couldn’t figure it out. So I started instituting regular anonymous feedback forms and then bringing those into class and talking about them. I would ask what was working, what was challenging, and one other thing they want me to know. During hybrid teaching, I also had really specific questions that had to do with being in person or being online and the experience of that, because I worked really hard to create connections between the online and in-person people, and so it was really important for me to understand what that was like for them. On evaluations, those feedback forms become one of the more powerful places that students commented. For students it was sometimes one of the first times where they could see that their feedback actually changed what was going on in class. 

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Reframe perceptions of students’ humanity. 

I think my advice would go under the category of humanity of the student, and questions the idea of what does rigor look like when we reframe perceptions of students’ humanity. I think the conversation of students’ humanity has been framed in ways that can make that conversation really difficult to happen. In other words, oftentimes, our students’ humanity is framed in “My student doesn’t come to class because they say they’re having a bad mental health day.” Or “I need to give my student 52 extensions because…”. In some ways, that has become the conversation about students’ humanity; it is about their suffering, and how it impedes the rigor of the classroom. I use the word rigor in my own way. I don’t think rigor means they have to write 15 pages. I think rigor applies to the ways in which we are challenging students to think in new ways and grow as learners within our community. That forward momentum is what I consider rigor. 

We need to think about students’ humanity in a different way. Right now, the way it’s happening is that it’s always happening in opposition to something else. So we need a way to talk about that, to consider that, and to conceptualize it so it’s not always about what do I have to sacrifice in order for this to happen, but rather, how do I make my teaching grow out of this. And grow in ways that don’t feel inorganic.