Professor Audrey Truschke and child
Toggle caption Photo by Willa Rehn

Pedagogy & the Pandemic: Professor Audrey Truschke Meets the Moment

A Series on Teaching During Covid-19

When Covid-19 struck mid-way through the spring semester this year, SASN professors had to turn on a dime and get creative about how to teach remotely—no small feat, given the novelty of the virus and the unprecedented situation the world found itself in. Necessity being the mother of invention, the college’s faculty have found myriad ways to adapt to this new learning environment. In this new series, we’ll examine some of the solutions professors have come up with to tackle remote learning and maintain the high level of engagement and academic rigor SASN is known for.

In mid-March, when the coronavirus wave hit the U.S. and Rutgers University–Newark switched to remote learning, Professor Audrey Truschke, a leading scholar of South Asian cultural and intellectual history, needed to think fast on her feet. With three children suddenly homeschooling, she felt overwhelmed and distracted like most of us, and needed to engage her students effectively while juggling her added responsibilities. So she turned to an unlikely source, the popular social-media app Tik-Tok, to finish teaching her course, History of South Asia 2.

“Tik-Tok videos are limited to 59 seconds, and so they were all short. I used them as an asynchronous means to explain key moments, figures and events in South Asian history,” said Truschke. “My idea was that all of us were really distracted by the pandemic exploding around us, and so I thought the brevity was appropriate to the moment. Also, it seemed to be a way to meet students where they are, rather than do lectures on Blackboard or Canvas that nobody was in any mood to listen to at the time.”

Most of Truschke’s videos are voiceovers with slides containing, maps, photos and other visual aids. Others include her voice reading questions or statements written out onscreen. In one particularly humorous video she’s on camera herself, alternately nodding yes and no in unison with a rap song as she answers a series fact-based questions that appear in print; the final question asks, “Will this be on the final exam?” to which she nods an emphatic yes.

She also used the videos to request student comments about current readings and discussions: For instance, she had students use Tik-Tok to tell her one thing they remembered about how British colonialists dealt with religious conflict in India, or to discuss one feature of Mahatma Gandhi's approach of non-violent resistance that they learned in their reading. Truschke then responded with quick feedback to individual students, which was something she realistically could do during a pandemic without childcare. It also allowed her more personal interaction with students than she'd had previously in her large lecture course.

While Truschke wouldn’t choose this lecture format necessarily, she made great use of the medium: The videos are snappy and effective without dumbing down her subject, and they fit the bill during those tumultuous, early days of the pandemic.

My idea was that all of us were really distracted by the pandemic exploding around us, and so I thought the brevity was appropriate to the moment.

This semester Truschke is no longer using Tik-Tok but is nevertheless meeting the moment creatively. She’s teaching a course titled “Archiving COVID-19,” where graduate students, undergraduate honors college students and Truschke herself are documenting the pandemic they are living through in real-time and creating a usable online archive for future historians, which will be housed at Rutgers University Libraries.

Some of the students are located in Newark this semester, but more are located elsewhere in New Jersey, while a few are scattered across the U.S. and the world, including Istanbul, Turkey. They represent a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities and life experiences and range in age from late teens and early 20s to their 40s.

Truschke set up a website for the course, which features a section devoted to journal entries and another containing oral-history interviews, personal accounts, and assorted online artifacts such as online memes of college seniors dealing with the pandemic along with a graph of worldwide Google search trends for the German term 'Schadenfreude' when President Donald Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19.

"It’s hard for us to get our minds off Covid. You can’t think of anything else,” said Truschke. “This fall I was set to teach History of Hinduism, which is a standard subject for me. I have spent 20 years of my life studying and researching Hindu traditions. But our current moment in life is anything but standard. I decided that since I find it difficult to focus on little else, I should teach a course documenting and exploring the lived experiences of life during the Covid-19 pandemic and that is how this archive course came about. I will teach History of Hinduism in spring 2021.”

Truschke is also teaching a History of South Asia 1 course this fall term, which covers about 2,600 BCE until 1,526 CE. Her major innovation is that she's bringing in guest speakers nearly every week, about a dozen in total from all over the world, to expose students to a superstar lineup of South Asia historians.

“My idea is to harness one advantage of online teaching: namely, that I can easily bring people in who would normally be unable to guest lecture in Newark, since it is all virtual,” said Truschke. “And that’s been really great.”

Truschke clearly has been thinking hard about how to offer enriching experiences to her students during the pandemic, and having the summer to plan her fall courses was key, something she talked about at the beginning of the semester when she was a featured panelist on an episode of the YouTube series COVIDCalls, hosted by Drexel University Professor Scott Gabriel Knowles, a historian of worldwide disasters. The topic was teaching and pedagogy during Covid-19, and it was a wide-ranging discussion among three academics and a student on their experiences thus far.

"The pandemic is still raging around us, and its contours and implications for our lives change daily,” said Truschke. “I remain flexible in my teaching and devoted to trying out new things in the classroom that may make remote learning during the pandemic dynamic and relevant to our lives."

Above photo taken by Professor Truschke's 4-year-old daughter, Willa Rehn, with 2-year-old Luther by her side.