Dear fellow students,
Does anyone remember the episode of the children’s show Arthur where the roof of Mr. Ratburn’s home caves in and he needs to live at Arthur’s house for the week? Arthur is mortified at first, but he learns that his third-grade teacher is capable of liking cool things like cartoons, cake, and magic tricks. Meanwhile, his sister D.W. learns that teachers don’t live at school. Her response? “The world seemed so simple before this moment.”
Last summer, I received an amazing opportunity to lead a writing workshop for children, but I backed out when it became apparent that it would have to migrate online (along with the rest of our lives). Teaching kids through Zoom? Fighting for their attention when they’re surrounded by an endless number of distractions? I was already nervous, and this seemed like too much for me to handle.
And then classes started up again, and I realized that the thing I was too scared to do is exactly what our professors are doing for us.
In a blog post from last semester, I asked students to share their feelings about remote learning. I wanted students to feel connected to one another through our shared struggles. Then something happened I didn’t expect: a number of professors came forward to tell me this blog post allowed them to feel connected to what their students were going through.
Then I thought: what about remote teaching? Surely, that must come with its own equal, opposite hardships. I was curious, and I thought some of you would be, too.
So allow me to step out of the way and present you with my scholarly sources (ha!): professors in the English Department who have shared with me their experiences with remote teaching thus far.
I hope that as you read you will be reminded, in the words of Arthur, that “teachers can be sort of almost normal.”
What do you miss about in-person classes?
“The obvious, I guess: I miss seeing people and putting names to faces. I also miss in-person office hours and students stopping by for some help and a chat. I would be curious, though, to talk to other introverts who need to pretend to be more extroverted when they enter a classroom about what the Zoom experience has highlighted about the virtual and physical spaces.”
“I miss seeing the faces of students, getting a feeling from them that what I’m saying makes sense, and hearing their insightful comments during discussion times, which always make me think about the texts in new ways.”
“I miss face-to-face interactions, class discussions, and non-verbal and emotional responses to lectures and to students’ comments.”
“It’s almost impossible for anything spontaneous or funny to happen in an online class. I miss the feeling of shared experience that makes such things possible.”
“The sort of spontaneous conversations that just emerge out of nowhere and go in unexpected but exciting directions. The serendipitous encounters. Real office hours where I sit with a student at a desk with a real pen and we look at the student’s paper together, marking it up as we go. The smell, sound, and feel of the classroom, the anticipation before class, the sounds of boredom during class and, equally, the sound when that boredom eases and you can hear students paying attention. I guess it must be their collective body language but it’s a lovely part of teaching and hard to replicate online.”
“I really miss the sense of community that happens so much more organically when we’re f2f. It’s much harder to judge how students are responding to information and requests online where the distance is greater, and the image is flattened. It’s harder to see facial expressions and body language, so gauging the feel of the ‘room’ is more challenging. When we’re f2f I tend to move about the room a lot, and of course I can’t do that rooted to a chair in front of my computer.”
“I actually really enjoy writing and delivering lectures and devising activities for class discussion. It’s fun and exciting to deliver that material and see how it goes – even if it seems to fall flat (which is rare, because our students are so great), you learn something. I miss that back and forth. I miss talking about something that I think is really important, and getting that look from students that tells me that they agree it’s important! And I miss their questions, miss the gaps in my knowledge being opened up.”
“I miss spontaneity—the question or comment that comes out of nowhere; the student who brings Grandma Lamarre’s lacy tuile cookies to class; the chats about Anne Carson (what is she on about?) that happen after class or on the way to Rooster’s during a break.”
“The fact that a classroom is already set up so technology is not such an effort to manage when one wants to vary the types of evidence one is presenting (video clips, audio clips, images of text on doc camera, images from the web) and so the switching between tech equipment does not take up as much time as it does from home; being in a space devoted to learning in community (the classroom).”
“I miss all the non-verbal sounds of a classroom—students’ throats clearing, shuffling, binder snapping, yawning, their phones going off, small talk with each other, laughter at my dumb jokes. It is so weird to teach to a soundless void.”
“I miss the energy of the classroom and the sense of community that grows in a course over the 12 weeks of the term.”
“A fuller sense of engaging the students in the class as a community, being able to get to know students more fully, and really celebrate the culmination of the learning journey with a potluck or treats at the end of term.”
What’s going well right now?
“As a time of existential crisis, it’s a great opportunity to get in tune with what’s important.”
“Some students have already started sending in their responses to my ‘Welcome to my Class’ sheet and I love reading them. Every student is a special, wonderful, fabulous person with a life and dreams and interests beyond the classroom. So… what’s going well is that I’m reminded how much I love teaching and working with students.”
“The tech side of teaching seems to be going well.”
“So far, all my tech is working. I have lived in mortal fear of technology (even though I use it all the time), but I’m learning to relax about that. I find the students are pretty forgiving on that front.”
“I have found that the breakout rooms were much better than I expected for facilitating group work and discussion.”
“I was amazed that students seemed eager to discuss and engage as much as they did in the Zoom room. Also, I was a bit happily surprised that I seemed to find ways to adapt to using tech because I thought I was a luddite (success due in no small part to stellar support from the teaching and learning support folks!).”
“I’ve been teaching asynchronously and using a discussion board format to facilitate discussion. I’ve also been offering alternative assignment structures so that people don’t have to write essays unless they want to. I think these have been good. The discussion boards have been fascinating to read through, I really feel the conversation has been rich. I like that everyone is automatically included and people can overcome any reservations they might have in person or even on video. And with the essays, I feel like the people who feel they can write essays well are usually correct, and those who self-select out of the option are also right! So the quality of work I have received has been great.”
“It’s great not to struggle to get to campus, damp clothes steaming, elevators over-taxed, juggling books and papers and gloves and winter layers. Zoom is a million times better than I imagined. And the new format forces me to rethink how I teach which is also a good thing.”
“Having my students show up on my screen at the scheduled class times still amazes me every time it happens. My students, in my home study, ready to listen and learn—magic! I love the solidarity and the sense of mission that these times have fostered between me and my students. One student offered to monitor the chat function; another offered to remind me to record my lectures; another offered to take over the ‘admitting’ of students as they tune in. It’s been a truly collaborative effort in running my online courses and my students simply stepped up to the plate and made it smoother, less onerous for me. This ‘online’ year has also given me a window into my students’ lives that I never had before. I see them in front of their unmade beds; I get to see their parents making themselves coffee in the margins of their screen; we all get to see pets demanding a caress while their owner struggles to formulate a complex argument.”
“More students, on submitting their final exams, than I ever expected said how much they enjoyed and appreciated the course. Should I believe them under the circumstances? What else would they say on submitting the final exam? Well, nothing was also an option. Professors are often the last to know that anything good has come from their efforts, and largely by innuendo. So it might have been OK after all?”
“I heard a radio show this fall—an interview with a mental-health expert. She implied that I’m doing well—’succeeding,’ she said—if I get out of bed each day and make my bed. By that standard, I’m positively thriving.”
What are you struggling with?
“Keeping up! There’s more of everything somehow. And the timesaving aspect of not commuting is eaten up in myriad other ways. This is the first year of my many years of teaching in which I really haven’t been able to keep up. I’m sure it’s psychological too.”
“I must say that the summer months brought panic at the prospects of going on-line simply because I was technologically so far behind. With chagrin, I admit that I was, then, a professor not only without laptop, i-phone, or tablet (I grew up fixing Harley Davidsons, working on printing presses, and once made a rug-weaving loom for myself out of scrap wood behind the barn), but also without microphone, webcam, or adequate lighting at a commercial moment when store access was limited and an emerging world of fanatic zoomers was snapping up every specimen available for weeks into the future. Thank the skies for my well-connected offspring, who can neither weave, nor fix presses or motorcycles, but who know how to procure techno-stuff through underground trade routes measureless to man.”
“Zoom fatigue from doing every single meeting, as well as teaching, on Zoom.”
“I am struggling with feeling like I’m doing enough actual teaching. I mean, should I be chiming in more? Should I produce more video content? I have a year-long first-year seminar and it is hard to know if I am giving them the right amount of material to engage with. It’s also just hard not to really know the students, at least a bit. I feel like they are getting to know each other though – I know they have an Instagram chat group! – and that is more important to me ultimately.”
“Uncertainty. Interruption. Crappy attention span. Loss. Capitalism.”
“Isolation. Some days are more difficult than others, and I’m hearing from students and colleagues that the sense of isolation hits us all at different times and in different ways, but the feeling of being bereft of community (whether this is accurate or not) weighs me down some days. I imagine this feeling is similar to what the character of Oskar describes as ‘heavy boots’ in the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
“Not seeing friends, colleagues, and students is very difficult. Also, not seeing unmasked human faces when going about my day. And I really miss my work sessions in coffee shops, surrounded by other people.”
“I am struggling with the isolation and lack of feedback from students. It seems that I am broadcasting a radio show from the dark side of the moon.”
“The idea, which I encounter almost everywhere I go, that things must get back to ‘normal,’ that a vaccine will make things ‘normal.’ I struggle with the idea that the experience of this pandemic will not fundamentally alter the way humans live on this earth.”
“All the extra work/hours/time marking takes online; the extra time of managing CULearn; the deluge of student e-mails; supporting students (feel like I can’t do enough and people are falling through cracks); managing student behaviour in breakout rooms; a sick child with a learning disability trying to do online school during a lockdown on top of my higher workload because this year is virtual; lack of quiet space to teach/think (I wish I had a home office with a door!); lack of energy to do my research (it invigorates me intellectually and makes me a better teacher); frustration with government school closures and lack of preparation for second wave; frustration with government inability to get vaccines rolling; separation from extended family and childcare assistance.”
“Putting any limits on the number of hours I work in a day / week.”
“Assuming that I can be perfectly frank, I would say that I am struggling with the fact that my kids (who are, of course, in online classes) spend most of their time threatening / attempting to kill each other.”
What is something not related to school that has brought you some joy?
“I have enjoyed the fact that teaching online (and thereby doing away with commute time to the university) clears up part of the day for other pursuits: walks, reading, workouts, cooking, etc.”
“Being locked down means less time spent in the car and in airplanes, which for me has somehow translated into greater joy in the small details of everyday life, which I’m finding in the books I’m reading, new recipes I’m trying, jigsaw puzzles I’m doing, board games I’m playing, birds I’m watching, walks I’m taking in my neighbourhood. I also LOVE giving stuff away on my Facebook Buy Nothing group and getting to know more of my neighbours that way.”
“As always, music is a great source of joy. I’m particularly taking solace in David Dean Burkhart’s playlist on YouTube (shout out).”
“I’m taking time to think each day about one thing I noticed that was interesting, unusual, striking, beautiful, ugly, and I try to write this thing down.”
“Spending more time with my child at home, to be honest. We always spent a lot of time together and are very close, but with everything closing down we have been made to find new patterns for daily life and in each other’s company, and it has been lovely to realize that even in these close quarters we get along very well, and take care of each other more often than we get on each other’s nerves (though we do that too!).”
“The news that one of my sons and his wife are having a second baby in June.”
“I’ve been devouring the archived theatre productions that companies like Complicité, Stratford, and the National Theatre (UK) have shared for free. The NAC has worked with companies across this country to develop short performances called Grand Acts of Theatre and these are available on the NAC website. I love seeing the creative responses to the issues of performance and distance in the pandemic. People are so indefatigable!”
“I haven’t managed to get out with the camera since October, but on the weekend after classes ended in December, I went back through photos from previous years and found images to create three new photo cards. (The Carleton Print Shop does a great job of printing greeting cards, by the way.) Going out with the camera calms me down; photo-editing lets me play with colours and textures; seeing the prints—in this case on the cards—just makes me happy.”
“Walking in nature —I try to break up my day by getting out for walks.”
“Finding a green space in walking distance of my house that I did not know existed before Covid; cross-country skiing from my house.”
“I love going for walks and imagining how the world might be different—better—after the pandemic is over: more justice, less pollution, more contact with our neighbors.”
“Two diametrically opposed things: walks outside when I am alone; and weekly Zoom ‘meetings’ (this is the wrong word—I need something else) with friends and family. A group of about 20 or so friends in diverse geographical locations meet for a Happy Hour twice a week. We didn’t do this before the pandemic and now we do and it’s great. And I have family dinner once a week with my extended family across Canada—another thing that I didn’t do before the pandemic. Plus: whiskey sours, red wine, hot apple cider, black tea.”
“Watching English premier league football. Go Spurs.”
In one word, can you describe how this semester feels?
“In the fall term, I might have said unsteady. This term feels more manageable / navigable.”
“Like skating. (I paused when I came to this question wondering what word would capture it. From where I’m sitting I can hear people skating, blades on ice. I also hear pucks hitting the wood of hockey sticks. And I thought that’s it: I love the sound of skates on ice. But the ice is also precarious and one can fall and there are holes and cracks—lots of them!—that you can’t see. Sometimes goals are possible but more often the puck goes flying into the bushes or skids across the ice to hit someone in the shins. So there’s that! But it’s also beautiful and collective and full of promise. That’s not one word! But that’s my extended explanation 🙂 I might fall—I will fall!—but hopefully there will also be some moments when the semester will be like skating on a bright winter day with the wind at one’s back. Okay, I’ll stop with this metaphor for now!)”
“Tiring (but hopeful). I know we’ve just started the term, and many things are better now than they were last term when online teaching was new to many of us, and I’m happy for that. At the same time, I feel like I haven’t not been tired for a long time, and it’s a bit wearing. That’s more than one word, but I’m an academic!”
And there you have it. While we miss seeing our friends in class, our profs miss our lively chatter. We want to feel connected to our program, and our profs want to feel connected to us. We’re tired; they’re tired. We’re making the best of what we’ve got, and so are they.
I hope this leaves you feeling a little more connected than you were.
Pandemically, your student blogger,
Jaclyn Legge is a 3rd or 4th year student returning to full-time student life after completing Co-op. She spends her free time calling to the muses for inspiration in her writing, drawing, and shower dancing routines. Her poetry has been published in Bywords.ca. No, she doesn’t want to be a teacher; she considers herself a student in every aspect of life.