Teaching HyFlex: It’s a Genre Problem

I came home from my second day of teaching my “HyFlex” class (some students in the classroom and others on Zoom) utterly discouraged. Despite my efforts at planning activities that I thought would be engaging, the students were mostly silent and distant (literally!). It was so difficult to know how things were going when I could only see a few student faces at a time on Zoom over my screen-shared slides. The students in the classroom, behind their masks, did their best, but it wasn’t the classroom I was used to, and I felt drained. Worse yet, I felt like a bad teacher.

As I had a shaky conversation with my husband that evening, I realized that I had invested a pretty good chunk of my identity in being a “good teacher.” And it was this sense of failing as a teacher that had me feeling completely unmoored. What was wrong with me?

Of course, “Covid teaching” has shaken all of us, and I knew I needed to give myself a little grace. But I had approached the fall semester feeling ready for the challenge. I’ve taught some of my classes in completely online formats (asynchronously) for four years. I’m no newbie. Over the summer, I participated in several Zoom workshops and virtual conferences. I also lead a week-long virtual writing workshop for high school students. I was starting to feel pretty comfortable in Zoomlandia. But this–a revolving door of students in the classroom AND on Zoom–this felt utterly foreign to me.

Happily, I teach writing, and recently, our class started to look at the concept of genre. Genre is a way of talking about repeated forms or categories of texts that come with their own expectations, rules, and structures. I push my students to think broadly about writing genres like resumes and even cereal boxes. In class, I talked about what I call “genre problems.” Often, I suggested, problems with writing are actually genre problems. A piece of writing seems “bad” to us because it doesn’t fit our expectations for a given genre. I find that the concept of genre helps shift students’ mindset about writing. Just because this piece of writing failed doesn’t mean you are a “bad writer.” It usually means you didn’t fully understand or address the conventions of the genre. If it’s a “genre problem,” then you can do something about it; you can study the genre more carefully and learn how to adapt your writing to the genre expectations.

That’s when it hit me, my problem with my hybrid-flex class wasn’t that I was a bad teacher. It was a genre problem.

I had assumed that my experiences teaching in the classroom, online, and on Zoom would prepare me for this fall’s teaching situation. But HyFlex wasn’t just a combination of all of those methods (although it does borrow from all of them). HyFlex was a new teaching genre, and I needed to investigate this genre and address its limitations and possibilities.

We are all new to this genre. Even those few teachers who have been using HyFlex for years were not doing so in a context quite as “flexible” as the current situation on many campuses. So, I propose that we all further investigate this new genre. In that spirit, here are some things I’ve learned so far:

  1. “Interactive” looks different. I have found the Google suite to be extremely helpful for interactive work in my HyFlex classroom. I use Google docs, slides, and Jamboard daily to discuss readings and do group activities. I’ve taken to setting up a Google Doc ahead of class with a table of questions for discussion (rows are pre-labeled with student names). I can see exactly who is participating in real time. (Side note: I set up a shared Google Drive for our class. This makes it possible to make new Google Docs or Slides on the fly during class if necessary and have them immediately accessible to all students in the class).
  2. Community looks different. I make a conscious effort to speak directly to students attending virtually as well as those in the room. As I see them sign into Zoom, I greet individuals and chat with them. One of my in-person students mentioned how surprising it was to hear me apparently talking to no one before she realized I was speaking to a student on Zoom. She appreciated that the class is not split into “participators” in the classroom and “observers” on Zoom.
  3. Group work looks different. I like to use Zoom breakout rooms, but the in-class component adds complexity. I’ve kept my pre-assigned breakout rooms, but I added a fifth breakout room just for in-class students. I manually re-assign this group each day based on who is in class. Those in the classroom can talk directly to each other, making the most of the in-class context.
  4. My role with groups looks different. In the classroom, I like to move around and interact with each group. With HyFlex, this is more difficult. I’ve had to give up some control over the groups (I can’t “see” them in the breakout rooms), but I’ve found that the Google collaboration helps me keep tabs on the work they are doing. If I assign each group a Google Slide in a shared slide deck. I can have the slides open on my laptop and can see at a glance which slides the students are looking at and what they are writing. I’ve also built in more time for each group to report out, and I use that time for the kinds of probing questions I would normally ask during the group work. The whole class benefits from our interactions in ways they probably missed during previous in-person semesters.
  5. Connecting with students looks different. After my disappointing first week, I arranged to meet with each of my 25 students individually in 10-minute time slots on Zoom. It made a world of difference in my own attitude. Those short, one-on-one conversations helped restore some of what I was missing in my HyFlex classroom–the opportunity to get to know students and connect with them. I realize not everyone can do this, but perhaps even in larger classes faculty could meet with students in groups of five or six. For me, it was an important way to preserve one part of teaching I find most satisfying.

My most important lesson so far has been to recognize this as a genre problem. I don’t have to feel that all my teaching experience has betrayed me. I can change my mindset to become a student of this genre. I can look for what it makes possible. I need to be careful of assuming that what works in other teaching genres will work in the same way in this one and be prepared to make adjustments and even try new things. And that makes it easier to come back into the classroom (and log into Zoom) each day.

Maria Bergstrom, PhD, is a lecturer in the humanities department at Michigan Technological University. She teaches writing, professional development, and literature and also serves as the undergraduate academic advisor for her department. She is particularly interested in questions of teaching and learning related to online teaching, active learning techniques, and the use of reflective practices in the classroom.