If this were a normal Spring, I would be writing you as the Midwest PSA conference gets under way. I would be sending some updates, notes about publications and promotions, the state of the graduate program. It turns out, we didn’t get to catch up with each other in Chicago, and these are not normal times. So rather than dedicating the whole letter to the department’s many accomplishments, I thought I might spend a bit of time telling you about our shared experience transitioning to online learning this Spring. I’m sure you all have similar stories.
Our department has some experience with and exposure to online learning; and many of you, no doubt, have the same. But none of us would have anticipated what we did just one month ago, transitioning quickly and completely to our new, virtual classrooms. We were very fortunate to have access to exceptionally helpful resources here at Texas during our transition. Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) has led the whole campus through the transition, creating and maintaining a Faculty Course Guide, and making sure Gov faculty were well taken care of. In addition, the Faculty Innovation Center created and maintains an Instructional Continuity site to give faculty some guidance. While we all – well, most of us – miss seeing each other in person, our department’s faculty have met several times over Zoom, first sharing tips for making the transition, and since, sharing our experiences, collaborating in unprecedented ways to help everyone make the move. We have also been fortunate to receive expert guidance from some of our seasoned online instructors. You can read their insights on this post by Bethany Albertson and Sean Theriault, and in this piece by Rob Moser, Pat McDonald, and Sarah Reed.
More recently, again led by LAITS, we fielded a survey returning nearly 1,000 student responses about their experience moving online with Government Department courses. The survey showed that nearly all our students have access to the technology they need to transition online. At the same time, however, many students are having some difficulty managing the transition. In particular, students are experiencing high levels of anxiety and uncertainty, not just about their classes, but about their finances and their future.
The survey and our response to what we learned from it are part of the approach we have taken throughout the crisis; from the beginning of this forced experiment in online learning we have tried to put the students first. The University, the College, and the Department have all worked to help those students most in need and to ensure our (virtual) classrooms remain accessible to all, accounting for the diversity of experiences and challenges our students face finishing this semester. Acknowledging that many students will have difficulty with internet connections, being able to meet at set times, or finding the right space at the right time to learn, we have encouraged either on-demand modules or recording of live sessions, in conjunction with relaxed attendance policies (for live courses), a move to low-stakes assessments, and maximum flexibility in grading options for the semester. Even as we, faculty, for the most part found the transition to be a little easier than we expected, we understand this transition is most challenging for students – and especially for students facing socio-economic or demographic difficulties. We will continue to do what we can to help students meet these challenges, while continuing to uphold our high standards for instruction and learning.
I sincerely hope all of you are staying healthy and finding some silver linings in your own virtual experiments. I would love to hear from you about the resources your universities have provided, the approaches you and your colleagues have taken, and your experiences thus far. I’m sure there will be tales of triumph and tragedy, before this is all over. And I hope we soon get to gather, trade stories, and celebrate our accomplishments.
I can’t let this opportunity go by altogether without celebrating some of our faculty’s recent publications. Gary Jacobsohn has published a new book on constitutional revolution; Daron Shaw has published a book on turnout myths; Shannon Bow O’Brien published “Transcending the Veil: Barack Obama’s Rhetoric and Strategic Racial Representation” in the new issue of National Review of Black Politics (with Natasha V. Christie); Cambridge University Press has just accepted J. Budziszewski’s Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Divine Law (his fifth commentary in the series); Jeffrey Abramson’s article, “Faithless or Faithful Electors: An Analogy to Disobedient but Conscientious Jurors,” will appear in vol. 69 (April) of the Emory Law Journal; and Zeynep Somer-Topcu recently had an article accepted for publication in theJournal of Electoral Studies (with Margit Tavits and Markus Baumann) — “Does party rhetoric affect voter perceptions of party positions?” I made my own small contribution with an introduction to a special issue of Humanity, entitled “Human Rights and Economic Inequality” (with Karen Engle and Julia Dehm), which includes articles by several prominent human rights scholars.
In final news for this edition, I am very happy to report on one promotion and two new hires. Beginning Fall 2020, Bob Luskin will be promoted to full professor, and two new assistant professors will join the department: Hannah Walker, in American Politics, and Nathan Gilmore, in Theory.
I wish you all the best in these unprecedented times, now and in the coming months. I know you are doing the best you can for your students and your institutions. I look forward to hearing from all of you about your experiences, the next time we are together.
Daniel M. Brinks, J.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Comparative Politics and Public Law
Chair, Government Department
University of Texas at Austin