General Education

Can Apollo 13 Beat COVID-19?

Can Apollo 13 Beat COVID-19?
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John Tures profile
John Tures June 18, 2020

How You Can Help Colleagues, Students, And Your Own Teaching With Inspiration, Creativity, and Perseverance

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Not a day goes by where some article about higher education provides plenty of gloom and doom, predicting the demise of colleges and universities thanks to the onslaught of the pandemic. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re a teaching assistant or get to be a class instructor while serving as a graduate student, you’re going to have to dig deep to summon that inner strength you and your students need, instead of digging a hole to bury your head in the sand on this challenging coronavirus world.

When the news was announced that our college was closing down in-person classes, and shifting online, one student remarked “This is going to be the worst disaster our college will ever face."

I held up the class before they left. Quoting one of my favorite lines from the movie “Apollo 13," delivered by Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris), I promised “With all due respect, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour."

It may have seemed just as hopeless for us as for NASA that day, as their astronauts hurtled through space, short on oxygen but long on hope. It turns out Baltimore is using Apollo 13 as a metaphor too. A combination of ingenuity and a can-do attitude helped them save the intrepid crew, and may help you in your graduate teaching responsibilities during the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu, the toughest economic times since the Great Depression, and the greatest racial strife since the Rodney King beatings.

You Need To Be Optimistic For Your Students

You’re Whipped. So Are Your Students.

The first solution is to admit that there is a problem. You were probably were caught off guard. It’s difficult when you’re used to regularized schedules, deadlines and due dates, understanding the situation when it comes to in-person classes. Moreover, colleagues have told me they found Zoom meetings, Google hangouts, and similar means of communication all day to be personally draining.

Moreover, there are technology issues to consider. If you’re like me, you might have to share bandwidth with a family, or a group of roommates. My wife is a teacher and both kids were students, it was hard to juggle bandwidth in our rural area, to say nothing of several simultaneous audio conversations under one roof. There’s the stress of graduate students, T.A.s, new instructors often having to master new technology, and new systems, adjusting to a new form of teaching.

And if you have to be a T.A. or instructor for a laboratory, a performing art (theater, music, art)

and for my sister-in-law, a physics professor, there’s trying to figure out how to manage a laboratory online. It was a similar story for friends of my who are instructors in theater, music, and art. Some classes are just hard to teach online.

Your Strength Will Give Them Strength (And Vice Versa)

The most important quality you can have is to display a sense of optimism, even if that positive quality is in short supply. Biographies of those astronauts and the NASA men and women will reveal a can-do attitude that pervaded the entire program, leading to many stunning achievements. When times are tough, I try to read some inspirational true stories, or watch movies about them, from the aforementioned space-based Apollo 13 and “Hidden Figures" to sports (“The Rookie," “42") to politics (“Amazing Grace," “The Post," “Bridge of Spies," “Argo").

You’re more than just a dispenser of knowledge and tactics. You’re the source of inspiration, whether you’re a full professor or a graduate student teaching assistant. The students are looking to you for cues. If you provide that, you may be surprised how their resiliency can be infectious too. My students were excited to jump into their research projects and assignments; their excitement would get me inspired enough with my own work. It became a positive feedback loop.

Why You Need A Short Memory, And An Open Mind

You’ll Make Mistakes. Put Them Behind You

I remember watching a game with a then-young Green Bay Packers player Tramon Williams  years ago. The defensive back struggled some in the game I saw, but an NFL commentator remarked “His greatest asset is a short memory." The football analyst explained Williams didn’t let making a mistake go to his head; he would return the next time, having learned his lesson, ready to make a difference. Sure enough in the 2010 season, Williams made three interceptions in four playoff games, a key player in the team’s run to a Super Bowl victory.

Similarly, while struggling to adapt, you undoubtedly made a number of mistakes. You probably experienced a number of technological glitches, forgot about an online meeting, and probably lost your temper with more than one student. It wasn’t an ideal situation. But like that football cornerback, it’s best to have a “short memory," learning the lesson, but not let a mistake get you down. The students seemed to understand “that’s life," and moved on, because I did. By the end of the semester, we remembered the best parts of the class better than the worst ones.

Develop Some Creative Ideas For Your Converted Online Classes

At our college, our student learning outcomes are creativity, critical thinking and communication. Creativity may be the toughest to quantify, or assess. But in this era, you’ve got to employ it, and encourage your students to do so, to problem-solve a little in the class.

For example, my International Organization class usually end the semester with our college students leading local high schoolers in a Model United Nations simulation. Well that tradition wasn’t going to happen this year, with both sets of schools closed, and converted to an online format. Rather than admit defeat, I thought about those “Choose Your Own Adventure" stories while my daughter was cleaning out her room in preparation for going to college, and showed me one she hung on to. I had my college students design a realistic “Choose Your Own Adventure" story on powerpoint for the high school students to play, for their scenario, on trying to stop an India-Pakistan conflict from occurring. Though we struggled through the assignment, eventually the students grew to appreciate it, and we got some nice feedback from the teachers that we sent it to.

There are plenty of creative ideas for teaching assistants to utilize with their one discussion sections, or graduate student instructors to work with their virtual classes. From our business sports management students putting on an online gaming tournament to raise funds for COVID-19 relief, to our stage crew students building swords and Avengers gear for their stagecraft instructor, to an English teacher asking her students to pick which literary character would be good to be quarantined with, and why, to a physics professor using her own kids do motion exercises for her own students to replicate in order to teach them scientific concepts, there is no shortage of ideas to employ to do what you do for your students, to make the assignments memorable, and able to be remembered for exams and papers.

The Changes You Make Will Be Worth It

Forced Improvements To Improve Your Class, During And After COVID-19

As I noted before, a combination of creativity and being forced to adapt will make your online classes or T.A. discussion sections better in the long run, even after the pandemic subsides. Think of this coronavirus as forcing you to do the change you always wanted to, and probably needed to.

For my education majors that I teach, I had always wanted to show them the “Kahoot" system, but never had the time to redo quizzes to use their program, until Spring Break during COVID-19. With the extra time, I got my students to learn how to take, and give, these new online quizzes. These online practice tests will be a part of my class even after the pandemic power subsides. I recommend them for you graduate students who have to serve as teaching assistants, or when you get your own class. Teaching research methods in the Fall of 2020 will be a huge challenge, given that I typically utilize a computer lab, work closely with students, and learn how to calculate the statistics. This summer, I am teaching myself how to use an online version of the same program, so students can use it even if we have to go back into quarantine, or perhaps the lab won’t be workable due to social distancing. But long after the coronavirus is tamed with a cure and vaccine, these new programs are going to be a fixture in my future stats classes. For those T.A.s with statistics or math classes, or graduate student instruction, try these out. Be The Leaders. Share What You Learn With Colleagues. Finally, once you’ve got your classroom mojo back, inspired your students, overcome past mistakes, developed some creative solutions, made some changes due to the pandemic that enhance your classes, there’s one last thing to do:

Help your colleagues.

From teaching assistants to graduate student teachers, many of your co-workers are going to be struggling too, just as you have been. They’ll need your ideas, and inspiration too, so once they’re back in the game, they can give you an idea or two as well. Not all of your fellow graduate students are going to be so tech savvy, or know what an LMS is or a Discord party is, much less Zoom or Google Hangout. If you’re the leader among the students earning a Master’s or doctorate, your professors will take notice.

Nobody ever said it was easy. But as I tell my son and daughter, “History is being made as we speak, and future generations will look to you and ask ‘What did you do during those tough times?’ What will you tell them?" Hopefully, you’ll have a story to tell those who ask later what you did during one of America’s most trying times.  Whether you are a professor, or cutting your teeth as a graduate assistant to one, it’s time to prepare for your own Apollo 13, to inspire students or colleagues, now and in the future. 

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His views are his own. He can be reached at His Twitter account is JohnTures2.


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