Today is the last day, I hope, of my Zoom teaching year.
I have all my end-of-semester portfolio conferences, except for one that happened yesterday. So: 47 meetings. Five minutes each.
And then I’ll wrap up the semester, Semester 2.5 of pandemic teaching, all online.
The classes, both of them, went well.
Students had fun. They learned. They enjoyed coming. Many have told me—voluntarily—that these classes were their favorites of all that they had this semester, even with many of their others in person.
And from what the students told me during our optional in-person meetings two weeks ago on campus, they feel that we’ve gotten to know each other. Some of the teaching folks call this “teacher presence” but I really don’t want to emphasize this. I call myself “coach.”
I’m just a person, alongside them. Bringing as much of my full humanity to the encounter as possible, inviting them to bring as much as they want. No forced disclosure. No putting anyone on the spot. No mandatory cameras-on policy.
We’ve made it work. My WiFi failed only once this semester, knocking me out of the class. I did utter a “shit” when I realized that it was my freezing, not theirs.
For all the goodness--and there was abundant goodness--it has depleted me.
(Here I acknowledge all the ways that my life was far easier than most people teaching, in higher ed or in K12, from teaching load to housing conditions to racial privilege to economic security to class size to health to the pandemic-year blessing of my children being adults.)
Every class took enormous preparation and concentration.
Fighting interactive instincts.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways we interact on teleconferencing platforms, as have many others, and comparing it to fully embodied interactions. All communication is mediated—what in my field is called semiotic mediation—from speech to writing, to texting and more.
But in person, we recruit all our senses, and there are probably some we don’t even entirely know about: we notice a body flicking a hair away as someone coughs, and we feel the energy, the tension and the joy. We see and feel and hear and notice. Some people are facing forward and some are sitting side by side muttering out of the corners of their mouths. Simultaneity is the joy of being embodied together, precisely what is impossible except visually on Zoom. The inhalation in a yoga class, the gasp in a science class, the sitting up to see something….all the bodily recruitment is something that we, as animals, are exquisitely attuned to, just like the deer who wander by my front sidewalk early in the morning and look to see if I’m turning my head, wondering about the reflection from my glasses.
But on the screen, we have to focus intently on the visual, on the full-frontal faces staring. Are they smiling at a video they’re watching? Are they nodding at something someone said? If we’re attuned to people’s reaction, we need evidence, and if the only evidence is from looking at the very tiny faces arrayed in those little boxes, or maybe in the words in the chat, then our eye-mind is getting a strenuous workout. We don’t get any extra information from all the other bodily sources.
A year ago, when I was settling in for a wait that I never expected would be this long, I saw almost nobody in person, in body. When I did, I was afraid I’d be overwhelmed with the complexity of the presence of other beings. There was so much to watch!
But now, fifteen months later, I’m ready.
I want to feel the energy in the room, to note a raised eyebrow and hear a couple students quote a show in unison and evoke loud, unfettered, unselfconscious laugher—something that interrupts the signal on Zoom.
I want all those too-subtle bodily awarenesses to help me out.
I want my eyes to get a bit of a rest.
I want to relax my vigilance (Am I missing something? Did someone want to speak?) and just be another body in a room, alongside others, on a shared learning-and-being adventure.
Forty-seven zooms to go.
As my anniversary of absence from the physical classroom has arrived, and as chatter about returning to that space in fall 2021 increases, it’s a perfect moment to reflect on what I have learned, and even treasured, about this year. Like many others I had never taught remotely despite a three-decade-long teaching career in higher education. So the transition was abrupt, terrifying, and transformative. As someone who had spent a lot of time thinking about pedagogy even before this moment, and having already transformed my own classroom structures from conventional teacher-centered-learning to student-centered, I may have been in a somewhat better position than many others to confront the new situation.
This also coincides with the publication of my edited book, Ungrading, which led to my giving a set of talks and interactions and podcasts and workshops on this subject.
In this moment I am assembling a quick off-the-top-of-my-head list of positive things about this year. Most of this year I’ve opted for “microblogging” on Twitter instead of writing blog posts, but I think this requires a little bit longer post. I am mostly writing about higher education, but much of this also applies to K-12 schooling.
I’ve learned and learned and learned, exhausted even when it goes really well. I’ve spent hours preparing for things that take just a moment to enact. I’ve created new plans on the fly. I’ve probably done a third less in each class than I used to. I’ve second- and third-guessed myself.
But as I contemplate the end of this strange period, I realize that there are many good things, and I need to appreciate, convey gratitude for, them.
I don’t know if I will ever get to Part 2 of this list, but I am leaving open the possibility. The curriculum of blogging, like in my classes, is open.
As many faculty are focusing more intently on our syllabi for the fall--after mulling them over all summer--many people are trying to figure out what to have students DO. Should they write term papers? Five-paragraph essays? Compare and contrast pieces? [The answer is NO.]
There are lots of exciting ways students can engage actively with their learning, both to further their understanding and to convey that understanding. (Writing is for thinking, ideally, not just for following a safe recipe.)
The key is to figure out what the ultimate goals are--really going back to fundamentals--and then start from there.
If students are supposed to draw connections between the course material and the rest of the world, then allowing them freedom to explore is appropriate.
If students should master a particular, real genre, not necessarily a "school genre," then having them understand the conventions of that genre is helpful.
If students are supposed to become expert in a spinoff topic, then giving them free rein is appropriate.
If students are to become lifelong writers who have options about how to best convey their message to particular audiences, then having them figure out what's appropriate in diverse moments prepares them to think it through.
If students are supposed to achieve perfection in academic-style writing, following every arbitrary (it seems that way to students, believe me; I've asked) instruction, then it is asking for corner-cutting, imitation, going through the motions, and dread.
There are lots of colleagues all over the place engaging in, well, engaging assignments. Some fall under the general container of "unessay" (here and here).
Here is a list of what my own students have produced, just in the last year:
Nobody could argue that the authors and creators weren't learning, or that they were not putting in effort.
Some of the work was brilliant, inspired, amazing! Some was a first, brave, risky effort at trying a new format, genre. A football player wrote his first poem since middle school. A doula created a series of paintings depicting different food prohibitions during pregnancy, having interviewed people of different ages and from different countries. A student made a mosaic; another made a cartoon of the ways personhood remains the same and changes over the lifespan. Someone created a food-waste brochure. One student wrote a letter to his younger self. I welcomed this experimentation. I learned a lot, and ENJOYED, what my students were doing. They did too.
Learning, writing, doing don't have to be painful drudgery to be worthwhile.
Comment below with your own ideas, if you like!
Untraining Helplessness: Questions that burn in students’ souls, communication tools, and working to undo the training for helplessness that we have fostered
The Culture of College
Out with the Old! What Students Need Now. A Review of Cathy N Davidson's The New Education