Instructional Highlights: Christopher Walker

‘We can’t go back:’ How the pandemic transformed teaching and learning for one professor

photo of christopher walkerIt’s been a year of considerable reflection for Professor Christopher Walker, a faculty member of the Dance Department. With the pandemic moving so many people further online, he has observed changes in the way art is created and consumed globally, in the way he teaches, and in the way his students engage in learning.

Many of the changes, he believes, are irrevocable, and to his mind, can also be transformative.

“We can’t go back,” Walker says. “We need to recognize this shift in the world and use the knowledge we’ve gained to do better. One of the things I’ve learned during this pandemic is the positive potential of online engagement. I know I won’t return to the way I’ve taught in person in the past.”

In his online lecture classes — Dance 318 West African Dance/Music in the Americas and Dance 265 Western Theatrical Dance from The Renaissance Through The 1920s — he’s been struck by the way students tend to shine. The virtual format, with its multiple ways to engage, allows students considered shy or introverted to stand out.

In Walker’s 318 course, students watch an animation of the transatlantic slave voyage and go into the slave voyages database and select data points from each century. They reflect the story back to the discussion group. They also submit an original post reflecting on an assigned reading, and respond to a peer’s post, which yields 100% participation in the discussion.

“When you read students’ journals, reflections and posts on discussion boards, where they’re more comfortable speaking, you see their engagement and how they’re paying attention,” he says. “You get to hear voices that you wouldn’t normally hear.”

Class discussions in general, both synchronous and asynchronous, have been richer and deeper, Walker says.

“Maybe it’s because they’re reading more. They definitely have to write more, because that’s how they often communicate in an online space,” he says. “One result is that they are sharing more of themselves, they are connecting in a more personal way with the content.”

Like many instructors, Walker has been dividing his classes into smaller groups for discussions and projects, then having the groups present to the entire class. He’s noticed that students are more at ease online than in person.

“There’s something about the face-to-face environment that has nerves attached to it,” he says. “Online, that’s nonexistent. Each group has had everyone speak, and I’ve seen a general sense of confidence across the groups and within each group.”

Walker’s teaching approach has evolved.

“It’s a matter of shifting the methodology to take full advantage of the possibilities of the online environment, not its limitations,” he says. “There’s a radical liberation that people feel when they approach online learning — I can find it myself. I can dive into these rabbit holes.”

Walker tapped this inclination by altering his lecture approach. Instead of a single lecture that is theoretically focused, he might introduce the subject with a short talk and then show a YouTube video on the topic or a dance clip or an interview with an expert. For example, in discussing minstrelsy in his 318 course, Walker shows the music video “This is America” by Childish Gambino, asks students to read news reports of blackface in American popular culture, and has them watch historical videos along with the supplemental reading and lecture material. Students then are asked to find other examples and break down how African aesthetics are present in the work. They often bring back examples of music videos and performances that become part of the shared learning environment.

“By the end of the course, the students are the ones introducing new content to me because they’ve found new resources online,” he says.

His role in the classroom has shifted, he says.

“I’ve allowed myself to sort of step back a little bit as the authority on a subject and really listen to the multiple voices in the room,” he says. “At times, I’m more of a facilitator, instead of feeling like I have to lead the class. It’s all about creating a community. That’s one of the things that an online environment can do really well. Going forward, I’m going to continue to positively lean into that on behalf of my students.”

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at  instructionalcontinuity@provost.wisc.edu.