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The Strange Unmooring of Virtual Instruction

October 26, 2020

The sequence of events is blurry, but I believe it went like this. Spring semester was moved online for safety; forty million Californians were ordered into a coronavirus lockdown; posts debated a possible “hybrid plan” for Fall semester; and one long “I-Got-You-Babe”-Groundhog-Day later, Fall was shifted to remote instruction also. At some indefinite time during those several upside down months, I heard that our usual course days and hours were scrubbed completely from the University website. I felt a little vertigo, so I opened a window and stared unblinking at our workshop-sized, community-centered, previously in-person classes, now floating-in-the-Cloud tethered-by-mere-pixels.

I’m one of countless teachers around the globe who constantly reevaluate their pedagogy, most especially when pandemic-induced distance learning dislocates not only institutional time, but also embodied communication, the freedom of shared physical space and social rituals, and the individual identity that flows from a place of strong community. I was reflecting on this dislocation’s ramifications, and by reflecting I mean fretting, when our director Maggie Sokolik emailed CWP lecturers Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and James M. Lang, who describe a “bleak scenario” (xvi) where students arrive in an online class only to find a baffling, unwelcoming cyber version of “the lights are out and no one is in the room” (xv). To avoid that, they encourage starting mindfully: “Paying attention to the small, everyday decisions we make in teaching represents our best route to successful learning for our students, in almost any learning environment we can imagine” (xxii).

This advice changed my approach from how-can-I-100%-redesign-my-pedagogy-overnight to finding quotidian ways I can make online connections and ground my teaching. I went back to basics. Planning a six-week July-August public speaking class, I wondered what impact the pandemic was having on my students and their families, what students thought about our erased class times, and how best to go asynchronous since these sophomores and juniors all had jobs. I was also studying how Coronavirus harms Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities disproportionately. That avoidable, lethal fact came to mind often as I built out modules on Canvas. I can’t forget the Black Death brought the most pain and loss of life to those who plowed, sowed, harvested, and paid taxes, that is, fourteenth-century essential workers, but it made the rich richer (PNAS, BBC, 2020).

Facing our existential reckoning, and my own anxieties, I chose to do my summer class preparation as a form of meditation. I fixed my attention on “small, everyday decisions” (xxii) that might make a positive difference for my students, and tried not to drift into fixating on an unchecked pandemic, daily death counts, a wrecked economy, and like many others, my own uncertain future as a pre-six Lecturer. I concentrated first on getting the lights on and someone there to greet students on Canvas. I put on my dark blue-and-gold Campanile Falcons t-shirt, ignored as best I could how I’ve never liked seeing myself photographed, or on film, and made a five-minute Welcome video that also showed students around bCourses. It only took five tries. I posted it on our class Homepage. Then I emailed them that URL, the video, and an invitation to a 20-point Canvas discussion forum for week one, modeled after my colleague Mary Grover’s work.

How do I create an online community?

This “Meet-and-Greet” began with a confident tone intended to cover my nervousness at teaching a pioneer asynchronous public speaking course: “Welcome to 10A! I'm glad you're here! Public speaking is as much about building community as it is about practicing and improving your speechcraft skills! Every engaging speaker stands up out of a strong community, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did. Please introduce yourself and start building our community.” Students could share what they wished. They could describe their favorite people, place, or activity; post photos; share areas of expertise or accomplishments; then comment on three classmates' posts “in an engaging, friendly, kind, and personal way.”

Next I reconsidered how screens flatten multidimensional, face-to-face kinetic interactions. That motivated me to renew attention on how I word feedback to build a virtual teacher-student relationship and facilitate meaningful communication. I studied a chart made from a thread @jackiantonovich, where educators shared that slight word changes created significant engagement differences in online instruction. Rather than “Do you have any questions?” they tried, “What questions are there?” “What questions do you have for me?” or “What surprised you about the reading?” For “office hours,” one suggested “student hours.” Another recommended not confronting missing work with “When will you be done?” but “How’s it going, and how can I help?” or “What can I clarify for you?” One praised students for their diligence: “I can tell you really worked hard on this. Thanks for giving it your best.”

The disappearance of time

But when I thought about Fall, and by thought, again I mean fretted, the outsized challenge of preserving institutional norms for brand-new first-year students loomed. In a world of vanished course times, how would I encourage active reading and recursive writing so teenagers pass the department read? How would they be motivated to Zoom our intensive 6-unit course? Discuss a novel and memoir? Revise repeatedly?

The last time I felt this perplexed with teaching, I was a first-year graduate student at the University of Georgia, rising at dark-o’clock daily to prep in my tiny basement office for an 8:00am Composition 101, never sure what to expect. Community helped then and now. UGA had a required Teaching Composition course; its seasoned professors gave me tips on marking essays. This go round, attending pre-Fall, cat-rich CWP meetings from home, I was grateful for a collegial community who shared ideas like screencasting essay evaluations (David Wiese), using free Screencast-o-matic (Michelle Baptiste and Chisako Cole), and making digital sticky-note walls with the free Padlet app (Teri Crisp and Margi Wald).

Searching for the next step forward, I revisited my goals for CWR1A. The main one is helping first-years see they belong at Cal, by building a class learning community honoring their diverse voices. With that in mind, I decided to try anchoring my no-time, no-space sections in optional synchronous meetings. I sent thirty-two teenagers a Doodle Poll, and waited. Labyrinthine data trickled in, and by trickled, I mean drop by glacial drop. A week later, I was emailing nonrespondents daily: “Please take this Doodle Poll,” as Pink Floyd’s “Is anybody OUT THERE?” rang in my head.

Eventually, most answered. Doodle Poll’s top times seemed MWF 10am-12pm and 4pm-6pm, but with no clear consensus, I vowed, Even if they can’t come, I’ll show up then. I hoped regular optional synchronous meets could create a sense of a familiar place, like homeroom in cyberspace. During Fall’s first months, one timeless method of phatic expression still works for strengthening the social fabric—awkward small talk before class. I log-on ten minutes early. At first I emailed students, “I’m in the Zoom Room. Come by if you want to chat.” Now I just show up and they do too. I value this chit chat more, especially as our shared human experience becomes increasingly dangerously polarized, as if we’re all living in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

For each synchronous meeting, I also make an asynchronous “Class Plan, Notes, and Activity” for first-years who can’t attend because a) they’re moving to campus on a staggered schedule throughout August and September, b) they have a Covid test, c) they’re transferring from one quarantine room to another, d) they’re calling housing to locate some sheets and a pillow for their new quarantine room, e) they must leave class for a fire inspection in their dorm room, and the list goes ever on.

Another concern was making outside-of-class time visible for teenagers. Without the usual physical movements demarcating our mornings to middays to evenings, the quarantine normal is that we all wake up and wonder is it Tuesday or Saturday. In one pre-Fall meeting our director mentioned from experience teaching edX MOOCs that it might be useful to have students map out their hourly schedules. The idea resonated, especially when my colleague Kaya Oakes asked, “What even is time anymore?”

“Your Weekly Hourly Schedule | Map It for Success!” a 5-point Canvas assignment, gave students a template for planning their hours in as much detail as they chose, or they could upload a screenshot of an existing Google Calendar. I hoped this would help them instill the structure needed to succeed as the pandemic repeatedly upends schedules in strange ways, and maybe help them visualize the University-expected twelve-hour weekly investment for CWR1A.

These calendars showed how some are contorting the local rhythms of biological time to conform to a version of institutional time far away, in what now appears to be a globalized experience of education, an odd version of time-space compression. Several mapped their class schedules onto California time, though their home clocks and Pacific time are a day or more apart. Breakfast on one student’s schedule is at 6pm-7pm Berkeley time. A CWP email thread revealed that many of our international students made this diurnal reversal. In order to get an education from thousands of miles away, they’re sleeping during their home’s light-hours and going to school in starry darkness.

Witnessing my students’ attempts to navigate our new normal motivates me to focus positively on everyday teaching tasks. I hope these accrete over time and empower them.

The disembodiment of the online experience and how to create virtual connections

I also seek low-stakes ways to help my first-years make their identities more palpable in a period when so much has been taken from them that once defined who they are. One bCourses assignment, a “Student Questionnaire,” lets them share their pronouns, if they want; the pronunciation of their names; information about their pets; their favorite color, music, author, movie, or TV show; their languages and writing backgrounds; their strengths and hopes for improvement in CWR1A; an achievement they’re proud of; and a worry they may have for Fall. When a student writes that he has a Labradoodle named Reggie, and before class one day I ask how Reggie is doing, it builds bridges when later an email lands with a snap of a cute Labradoodle in a yellow Oski shirt.

For these many reasons, I’m thankful for virtual connections, but as a newly tapped cyberstructor, I’m ever aware of the Ouroborean ways it’s unlike in-person teaching. One freedom I miss is pre-pandemic small-group discussions. They’re replaced by Zoom Breakout Rooms, where I can’t overhear or quietly see what’s happening. We lose non-verbal cues of who’s participating and who’s not, who looks comfortable and who doesn’t, who seems to have read the work and who seems lost, who might be given to too much talking and could benefit from active listening, and who could be encouraged to honor their voice and speak up more and feel heard. Instead, I lurch in and out of Breakout Rooms, feeling like a less-poised mid-air Mary Poppins, umbrella and carpet bag in hand, before descending into them.

Before Covid, I also held required student conferences during the first weeks. For 5 points, they encourage students to locate early on our CWP Harry-Potter-under-the-stairs-like mezzanine-level offices squeezed between Wheeler’s first floor and basement, see I’m accessible, and come back with questions.

This Fall, I worried students would have no time or inclination for these in digital form, so I scheduled half of these during the last fifteen minutes of a few classes. I ignored how awkward it must have felt for them as it did for me, to converse as a small group of virtual strangers mediated by flat screens. The third day of Fall semester at one conference, four Orwellian rectangles lined up across my monitor’s top. The first three had course-related questions, which happily felt normal.

Then the last unmuted herself, apologizing, “I don’t have a question about class if that’s okay.”

I nodded, hoping the glare on my glasses didn’t seem unfriendly.

“What’s it been like for you as a teacher going from in-person to online teaching?”

“How kind of you to ask,” I said after a pause, thinking, It’s been like a surreal dream, a cheerful game of checkers morphing into a 3D contest with stacked boards, special unicorns, and pawns for an intergalactic Space Chess tournament on Saturn, announced for a third Tuesday in any month at 2:23½pm, and we’ll get there on a rocketship we’re building in the air, while wildfires rage and everyone’s go bags are packed, . . . if by checkers we mean democracy, and by Space Chess, necropolitics.

I said none of that. Surprised by the question’s unexpected thoughtfulness, I veered into teacher-mode, listing specifics: I tweaked the summer public speaking course for asynchronous delivery to accommodate my students; most had two or three jobs, other classes, labs; one had the responsibility of taking care of a sick family member; many work to contribute to family expenses. I heard myself rambling and stopped.

“I’m inspired by my students,” I told these new Cal Bears, and in saying that, and seeing them nod, I realized how true this is.

My students teach me dialogue has never been more essential to pedagogy, listening empathetically is more important than the latest best practice or app, finding small ways to pay attention and be kind as a teacher must be what I return to each day, and, moment-by-moment, we must reevaluate,

How can we respond graciously to our oddly disappeared relationship with time and space that shifts our lives significantly from the physical that makes us human, to a strange virtual environment? How do we redefine ourselves as educators when the world is enduring a collective shared mourning and a massive loss of normalcy? Finally, how will the ivory tower alter because Black Lives Matter and Achille Mbembe’s words are now wholly impossible to ignore?