The faculty mentors helping faculty members thrive online

by Philip Cox

Sara Humphreys and Janni Aragon Zoom portrait
Humanities online teaching mentors Sara Humphreys and Janni Aragon.

Two Humanities instructors are being widely praised for a dynamic new mentoring program that led the Faculty through the difficult transition to online learning necessitated by the pandemic earlier this spring.

With over a decade of online teaching experience between them, Assistant Professors Janni Aragon, who teaches in Gender Studies, Political Science and Technology & Society, and Sara Humphreys, who teaches in the Academic and Technical Writing Program, have worked tirelessly to support faculty who are less comfortable or experienced teaching in an online environment.

Fast forward to today, the two have launched a robust and highly effective mentoring initiative that offers Humanities instructors one-on-one support, on-going tutorials, and access to an online repository of teaching resources that includes ready-to-use course shells with plug-and-play functionality.

“I can’t overstate the value of providing mentors for faculty. Having supportive mentors who help you make challenging decisions, affirm that you’re doing a good job, and remind you that it’s OK to be imperfect help promote faculty’s confidence and productivity, which translates directly to good teaching and research.” – Assistant Professor Katie Stockdale (Philosophy)

Moving the Faculty Online

Although online teaching and research initiatives are not new to the Faculty of Humanities— English Professor Emeritus Michael Best launched the esteemed Internet Shakespeare Editions website in 1996; and former Humanities Dean Chris Goto-Jones designed and operates one of Coursera’s top 20 MOOCs (or, Massive Open Online Courses), for instancethe size, scope and context of the transition this year was completely unprecedented.

“Every single course offered in the Humanities at that time had to move online at a moment’s notice,” says Surridge. “It was difficult to support all of our instructors because our entire staff was transitioning to remote working conditions and grappling with the then-unknown aspects of the pandemic.”

Recognizing the challenges ahead, it was then that Humphreys and Aragon stepped up and volunteered to share their knowledge and experience with instructors preparing for the next semester, which would start just a few short months later in July.

As part of a series of virtual teaching workshops organized by Surridge, the two e-aficionados provided faculty with a carefully guided tour of course sites that were already up and running, offering suggestions for best practices and providing a valuable hands-on experience for instructors.

“It was during Janni and Sara’s workshop that I realized these two had more than just technical skills. They also had the ability to explain to a general audience what they had done when organizing their online courses and why they had done it,” Surridge explains. “Understanding technology is one thing, but being able to communicate it in accessible terms is another.”

“I am incredibly grateful for Sara and Janni’s knowledge and experience in providing guidance on how to set up an online course that is student-centered and enacts best practices, yet is still doable for a novice. The resources and advice they provided have been critical for me in designing my courses this fall and next spring.” – Assistant Teaching Professor Suzan Last (English)

A Star Program is Born

Having received overwhelmingly positive feedback from across the Faculty, along with a commitment for financial support from the Office of the Vice President Academic and Provost (VPAC), the Dean’s office nominated Aragon and Humphreys to work in collaboration with Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation (LTSI) on a mentorship program that would enable all Humanities faculty members to thrive online.

Formally launched in August — though informally continued since spring — the pilot program they developed is both inclusive and effective, offering teaching strategies and resources that save time for faculty and promote students’ learning and growth.

Resources that Aragon and Humphreys have developed and compiled for this program invariably adopt a student-centered approach. A technology survey intended for the first day of class, for instance, asks students what type of device and internet connection they have so that potential problems with connectivity can be immediately identified and addressed. Although it may seem simple, accessibility standards such as these ensure that all Humanities students have the technology required to fully participate in the course throughout the pandemic.

Ensuring that no instructor is left behind, Humphreys and Aragon also offer personal audits of existing courses, logging on as students (that is, without administrator access) to see the site as students would see it, then offering feedback and suggestions for improvement. This gives instructors confidence that their course site is organized effectively, enabling them to maintain focus on the course’s content and structure.

Such broad and privileged access to the Faculty’s collective efforts gives these two mentors a unique vantage point from which they can identify emerging patterns and trends that could become problematic. This feedback is then shared with the Deans of the Humanities, who relay it in turn to the University’s Online Learning Committee and central administration so that adjustments can be made and solutions found pro-actively.

The importance of such efforts is hard to overstate.

Learning all the nuances of online teaching platforms has been time consuming. Janni and Sara have helped with this by being super responsive, patient and kind. They each have a robust toolbox of strategies to help problem-solve any issues that arise.” – Assistant Professor waaseyaa'sin Christine Sy (Gender Studies)

“The fact that I have no disaster stories to share is a testament to how hard Sara and Janni work to support Humanities faculty and students. They are always there for us when needed. I have never been left in the lurch or needing further assistance; they have always made sure everything is satisfactory before moving on to help the next person.”  – Sessional Instructor Gordon Lyall (History)

A Learning Opportunity

Although it has become a popular refrain in public discourse that 2020 is a “lost year” because of the pandemic, Surridge sees the trials and tribulations caused by COVID-19 as valuable learning opportunities for the Faculty.

“We would never want Humanities at UVic to be a fully online Faculty,” she explains, “but we’ve now seen the benefits that online- and blended-learning models can provide. Some people will want to continue using some of these techniques when social distancing is no longer required, and I’d love to see that happen.”

Individuals learning an additional language, for example, can watch a lesson delivered in person and then re-watch it again later on video. Guest lecturers from across the globe can be televised in lecture halls on campus, while students unable to make it to campus can still participate in class remotely. Online learning agreements that connect students from universities on different continents can be established, and so on. In all cases, digital course content and delivery services can enrich the learning experience, increase accessibility and enhance connectivity for Humanities researchers and students.

“These are fantastic possibilities that we did not fully understand before the pandemic but will carry forward in the future,” says Humanities Acting Dean Annalee Lepp.

“Janni Aragon and Sara Humphreys are really blazing a trail by guiding us through this period of change and helping us to see the possibilities that it created. I believe their legacy will reside in the many ways that students and instructors will have benefited from their leadership.” 

Sara Humphreys and Janni Aragon pose for a Zoom portrait
Humphreys and Aragon.