The Last Day of Summer, and the First Day Back in the Classroom
Dr. Andy reflects on the joys and challenges of the era when we taught with Zoom.
(Photo credit goes to Andy’s wife, Kate. She took this in the UC Davis Arboretum on the morning of September 21st, 2021)
Because I start teaching my fall class tomorrow, I suppose that today is my last day of summer. And as I start teaching in person tomorrow, today is arguably my last day of quarantine. My imagination has yet to catch up with our new reality.
Having read Shakti Gawain when her book Creative Visualization was first published in 1978, I’ve been visualizing success in this fall’s journalism class, but often I forget to update what my imagination predicts for the face-to-face era. Such visualization comes in two parts: Doing the research, and imagining the class activities. Because my journalism class concerns current events – we discuss and then decide what local stories are worth writing about – I’ve been conducting even more research than usual, considering what topics in politics, environmental law, social justice, technology, poverty, literacy, and economics are worth understanding thoroughly so that I can provide sufficient context for the articles that my students write this quarter. We will also focus on what filmmaker Ken Burns in an NPR interview earlier this year called the three viruses we face as a nation: Covid-19, white supremacy, and misinformation.
So I am feeling increasingly ready when it comes to course content, but what about the act of teaching? I have to admit that when I’ve been imagining teaching this writing class, I’ve pictured myself sitting in my ergonomically-supportive office chair at our 19th-century dining table at home, rather than standing in front of 25 students in a computer classroom in the basement of Olson Hall at UC Davis. Am I ready to make the transition back from abnormal to normal? Or will the new normal of perpetual mask-wearing and fortnightly testing soon seem automatic to us, with some sort of coronavirus mitigation protocol accompanying us throughout the rest of this decade?
One of my favorite colleagues, Distinguished Spanish and Portuguese Professor Emeritus Robert Blake, sent me this tweet from Spain this morning: “You may come to miss certain aspects of the Zoom culture. :-). Bob.” He has a pithy point. For example, I’ve enjoyed teaching barefoot for the last 18 months, as well as the other benefits of staying at home while working a 40+ hour a week job. During some of the classes I’ve taught, my French bulldog Margot remained in my lap, just off camera, leading one of my students to ask, during a lull in the conversation, “Do I hear snoring?” Feeling compelled to reveal the snorer to the class, I lifted my diminutive dog into the frame, at which point another student wrote this into the Zoom chat: “GREAT CONTENT.” That’ll never happen in Olson Hall (unless we buy Margot one of those GUIDE DOG vests, but the excitable pup will think that all the students have gathered merely to entertain her).
Even submitted student essays reveal how much what Professor Blake calls “Zoom culture” has permeated our lives: Students don’t bother to capitalize “Zoom.” From a professorial point of view, many of us will miss seeing names perpetually attached to our students’ faces, because we love to call on students by name, but we won’t miss seeing a white name on a black background instead of a student face. I taught a few students who, either because of insufficient hardware, unstable network connections, a chaotic or “embarrassing” learning environment, or perpetual shyness, never revealed their faces to me over a ten-week quarter. Teaching a room of such nametags is like hosting a call-in radio show (something I have also done).
On the other hand, some students were boldly familiar with their classmates and me, participating in class discussion in their pajamas, or even from bed. Some laughed uproariously with their roommates while eating breakfast cereal (only we could not hear the uproar because of the perpetual mute button), while others seemed to be arguing with their younger siblings about who got to take which synchronous classes from the best locations at home.
Speaking of familiarity, rather than emailing me, one journalism student would send me videos of herself explaining, in significant discursive detail, why this promised article would also be late. In one of these videos, the student’s three year-old nephew wanted to say goodbye to her before taking a long trip, so he climbed into her lap. My student “introduced” the toddler to Dr. Jones, even though he could see only himself being recorded on the screen of her laptop. I appreciated this child’s systematic narration of what he saw in the perpetual portal of Zoom, making me think that his aunt should have deployed similar use of detail in the body paragraphs of the articles she submitted that quarter.
Despite all these oddities of the era where we find ourselves, Professor Blake is right that I will miss some elements of teaching with Zoom. Calling on students when they unmute (a pandemic-era verb, if ever there was one) makes a professor feel like a mind-reader. The Zoom chat enabled students to share class resources with each other without interrupting the flow of a class. And the randomly-assigned breakout rooms gave students an opportunity to strengthen small communities of inquiry and support at a time when students felt isolated or even reclusive.
Once this year, a student in our class showed us all the view across the Hangzhou Bay from his apartment balcony. Another time, during a break in a long summer class, a student played a song for us on her family’s grand piano. While I look forward to returning to the classroom tomorrow, to see if my students know how to properly wear a mask, or if I remember how to use a wall-length whiteboard, I will miss these opportunities to better know my students, their environments, and other aspects of their lives that are rarely shared in office hour visits.
Although I will not see my students’ entire faces this quarter, I will hope to find clues in their expressive eyes. I hope to see in their eyes looks of comprehension, looks of realization, and perhaps even looks of gratification that they have come out of their homes and once again stepped bodily through a portal of connection and discovery.
P.S. Here are three trivia questions, with some bonus commentary:
Energy. According to the International System of Units, what SI unit do we use to measure energy? I measure my own energy by miles covered in my walks. I covered 10.5 miles yesterday. I will miss being unhurried!
Books and Authors. First name Gustave, who wrote Madame Bovary? I’ve talked to a number of reader who guessed “Gustave Bovary.” That’s incorrect.
Film. In what year was the film 1917 the second-highest grossing film of the year, domestically? Think this through before you guess the first answer that comes to mind.
P.S. In honor of my friend Bobby Nord, to whom I have often gone for the answers, I offer a quotation by this newsletter’s now third Bob, Bob Dylan: “If I wasn't Bob Dylan, I'd probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself.” Happy birthday, Bobby!