Emergency Teaching and the Power of Networks

August 11, 2020

How do we deal with an emergency?  We rely on our networks — family, friends, and neighbors — to see us through.  The same, it turns out, is true in academic life.  What I didn’t understand until this spring and summer is that our professional networks expand when we engage them during a crisis.  I learned this from the German Studies Collaboratory.

Like many academics, my semester took an unexpected turn in March of 2020.  The coronavirus hit New York — and the state school where I teach — hard and fast.  One week I was traveling to campus each day to teach three seated classes, sitting in circles with my students discussing texts in crowded classrooms.  Two weeks later I was sitting alone at a desk in our guest room at home, talking to students through a laptop perched on top of several thick cookbooks.  This was a teaching emergency.

Networks become visible when we need them most.  Like many other academics this past spring, I turned to friends and colleagues to address the challenges of the moment.  A colleague in my department sent me the entire template for his online course.  Another helped me understand how to use our remote learning platform.  In virtual meetings and training sessions at my college, the overwhelming feeling was: we can do this together.

That same spirit infused my other professional networks, which suddenly began to expand in unexpected ways.  My colleagues in the German Studies Association (GSA) Teaching Network began asking how we, as an interdisciplinary network, should respond to challenges of teaching in the pandemic.  Could we somehow share our pedagogical resources and ideas?  We had already done so with some success in a series of seminars at the annual meetings of the German Studies Association, but these involved only twenty people at a time.  How could we scale up the power of our network?  We didn’t know it at the time, but other colleagues in German Studies were asking similar questions.  Jen Evans hit on the idea of combining the power of several interdisciplinary networks in German Studies — the GSA Digital Humanities Network and the Diversity, Decolonization, and German Curriculum (DDGC) collective — to create a digital repository of materials for teaching and scholarship.  She gathered us together (virtually) to create a supercharged network of networks, the German Studies Collaboratory.  Suddenly, I was meeting new people, sharing laughs during our Friday afternoon Zoom calls, and working together on an exciting new project.  The experience made me understand that I was part of networks that I hadn’t even realized were there.  The crisis both made them visible and expanded their scope.

In this spirit, we invite you to think of the Collaboratory not just as a website, but as a network to which you already belong.  The critique of networks, of course, is that they can remain exclusive, often reproducing hierarchies of power and influence.  With the Collaboratory, however, we have the opportunity to build a community that is truly open, inclusive, and expansive.  The crisis of the last few months was the original impetus for the site, but the Collaboratory has already become something more than a response to pandemic teaching.  It is a space where we can share ideas, swap materials, cultivate interdisciplinarity, and, most important, even transform the fields in which we teach.  In this moment, when we are rethinking so much in higher education and the wider society in which we live, we have the chance to foster new kinds of professional networks as well.  Since engaging with the Collaboratory, I no longer feel like I’m alone in our guest room, talking to a stack of cookbooks.  The power of networks is immense, and if we engage this one, it will only expand. 

Andy Evans, SUNY New Paltz