Pandemics, packing, and Penn Press: A story about higher education right now

Today we have a guest post from Sean P. Cunningham, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Texas Tech University. Here, he tells a story about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted his teaching, and how Penn Press was able to help.

We could all see it coming, but when it finally happened … everything moved so fast.

Spring Break was less than a week away, but instead of daydreaming about sun and surf, everyone on campus seemed far more concerned with swirling rumors about what might await everyone after the break. Some universities were already shutting down in response to COVID-19—sometimes with definitive news about the rest of the semester, sometimes without.

My only class this term met on Tuesdays/Thursdays at 9:30am. On the morning of March 12, without yet knowing what our administrative leadership was planning, I braced my students for the probability that I might not see them again for the rest of the semester. There were audible gasps from some, stunned faces everywhere, and a curious shock that we might be facing a set of unprecedented uncertainties. I lectured that morning, as planned, but finished early to take questions about “next steps.” My students did a great job anticipating some of the complications that might arise in a fully online environment, especially one cobbled together on zero notice midway through a traditional face-to-face course. I answered their questions as best I could, and in several cases, incorporated their advice into my own designs. We talked about how we’d handle upcoming assignments, quizzes, exams, and make-ups. Eventually I left class strangely confident that we’d covered just about everything.

Unfortunately, I forgot to remind them to pack their books before leaving campus. Some of them remembered, but in the rush of uncertainty, many did not. Soon enough, it was clear that many of my students were in a bind. They had a book quiz coming up, but most could not get back into their dorm rooms or Lubbock apartments to retrieve what they’d forgotten to pack. I didn’t want to cancel the book quiz, but I wanted to be sensitive to those who couldn’t access their copy. I was torn on how to proceed.

Thankfully, Penn Press stepped in to save the day. With one simple email, I arranged access to the last assigned book of the semester—Donald T. Critchlow’s Republican Character: From Nixon to Reagan—for any student who needed it. Penn worked with my students quickly and professionally, patiently and politely, and made it possible for all of my students to tackle their last book quiz of the semester on a level playing field.

I have mixed feelings about how all of this will reshape the future of higher education, but it is reassuring to know that the best publishers in the business will be ready to help instructors when needed. Thank you, Penn Press. You made my life easier this semester!

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