Like thousands of professors around the country and the globe, I suddenly find myself conducting all my personal and professional affairs through my computer screen. Stationed on my couch as my classroom, office, and Kanopy ‘n Chill station, surrounded by potato chip crumbs, with my cat wondering why his underlords are crowding out his space, I run Zoom classes, facilitate online discussion boards, meet with colleagues for online happy hours, and endeavor to maintain a socially distanced social life of my own.* Time has become a blank continuum: I struggle to differentiate the day from the night and now wear yoga pants to the “classroom,” glimpsing the home lives of many of my students and admitting a much higher degree of exposure to my own domestic affairs than I’ve ever permitted in a campus setting.
Amidst all the sundry advice for transitioning to ‘distance learning,’ the bottom line must be flexibility. We must be flexible with our policies, with our expectations, with our handling of deadlines and requirements, with our demands. Students cannot possibly be expected to put their education first when their aunt or grandmother who helped raise them has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or when they are spending hours and hours a day on hold waiting to get through to an unemployment agency. Material necessities and physical health remain paramount; dissecting the nuances of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 72 is not going to sit first on the list of priorities. I am appalled when I hear, from a number of my students, that some of their professors have actually assigned additional work, assuming their students are home more often and thus able to complete more assignments. We may disagree on the exact method of transitioning to remote teaching (asynchronous or synchronous, As for All or As for Many), but one thing we should absolutely be united in is our understanding that this semester is not normal, a semester shot through with crisis. Assigning more work rather than less is simply unconscionable and downright inhumane.
In fact, during this time of greater blending of professional and personal lives than ever before, we as educators might have to be open to a high degree of emotional labor in addition to the intellectual demands we place on our students and classrooms. It is confusing to me when I encounter official advice sanctimoniously reminding us of the stressful lives our students maintain as well as their own mental health issues without any acknowledgement of the genuine human connection and value derived from face-to-face models of classroom discussion. Students are trapped at home with family members, sometimes spending all their time caring for other people, perhaps grappling with domestic violence and abuse, and in other cases just alone in their apartments, dealing with a flurry of worried phone calls from loved ones around the globe and wondering if a trip to the grocery store will result in a hospital visit. Some students have spent their own lives learning to define authority figures (like us) as the enemy, heartless robots who reduce their humanity to the cold metric of a final grade. Even an A for All policy, while seeming to address the exigencies of our current moment and alleviate some understandable anxiety around grade impact, is only an empty letter if a dialogue is not opened for communication around how this crisis is impacting the lives of our students and how best they can learn the course content that will allow them to continue on through subsequent classes and programs. For those of us who work in Humanities disciplines, we should be hearing and feeling this call for connection and some kind of pastoral care especially urgently. Along these lines, one of my students (who just recovered from COVID) has written that “Sure we all may pass with an easy A, but we won’t have the base for success in our next, harder course. My Astronomy professor just posts once a week on Bblackboard. He doesn’t return emails and hasn’t updated any of the syllabus information for the new online teaching. It is extremely frustrating as a student trying to keep good grades for scholarships to not know how the course will be graded or applied during a test.”
Many of us fear the acceleration of a neoliberal higher education model, and there is already talk of shifting Fall 2020 online: securing remote teaching certifications and signing over the rights to our content to university administrations. Face-to-face distance learning models such as Zoom (with all its flaws and privacy issues) help resist this shift and entrench the value of a real, dynamic, shifting conversation within the folds of the learning process. A student described to me how “hav[ing] a standard meeting time for our Literature class and my Art History class gives me some sense of stability through this pandemic as well as a better learning experience than my other two courses.” Holding an asynchronous discussion online is of course possible, but also creates the risk of flattening discussion to a single lecture-and-response model that entrenches the professor as the authority figure to whom the students must answer rather than developing their own complexity of thought. And, let’s be real, how many professors use asynchronous models as a means of justifying their own pedagogical laziness?
The chat function in Zoom offers a new modality for communication and gives shier students a chance to speak up and engage in animated discourse. At the end of each class period, I’ve had each student type up a sentence or two highlighting the points they thought were most salient from the day’s discussion. We end up with a class archive of each conversation and a way to look back to review what was discussed in previous conversations. Another recommendation is to ensure students click on ‘gallery’ rather than ‘speaker’ mode, activating a Brady Bunch effect that downplays hierarchies in class discussion. While it is certainly not possible for all students to turn on their webcams – and some professors might have legitimate privacy issues in this regard–I like to encourage them to uphold this as a future goal as they gain confidence in their own voice. It’s hard to have a raw and energizing conversation with a black rectangle.
Last week in my ‘Introduction to Literature’ course, my students recited selected passages from Shakespeare’s As You Like It over Zoom, explaining why they found each passage significant and optionally relating them to their own lives. One student chose Jacques’ “seven ages of man” speech and described how it resonated with her this week, because her neighbor whom she’s known since childhood passed away from COVIDovid. In this speech, Jacques outlines a typical life cycle, moving from mewling infant to begrudging schoolboy to sighing lover to stern solder, and eventually returning to the existential oblivion of the grave. This speech became a reminder to her and to us that our lives are all interconnected. Rather than treating each case individually, we should remain united in our struggle and view the suffering of others as our own. The other students made use of the chat function to send their own condolences and expressions of sympathy (one wrote “we are all here with you”; another wrote “I’m very sorry for your loss, this is an instance when connecting literature to real life isn’t great”). Their expressions of care for one another, in addition to the student’s own tragic story and vulnerability, made us all a little weepy.
While Shakespeare isn’t going to be the top of our students’ list of priorities, positioning the online classroom environment as a space of lenience, communication, empathy, and community becomes a meaningful collective antidote during a time when it is damn near impossible to locate broader horizons of hope. And let’s be real: our bosses, when it comes down to it, don’t actually care that much about the quality of our pedagogy. The work we undertake (or don’t) in the remote classroom is not going to stem the tide of the shift to online learning; but the connections we make with our students might.
*Kanopy is an on-demand streaming video platform for libraries and educational institutions. Zoom is a remote videoconferencing service that allows for remote meetings and collaborations. Blackboard is a multifaceted online teaching platform.
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