Online Fall

The trees have stared changing their bright-green color, and a new semester has slowly crawled up to us. Here we are – September, 2020 – the year of Covid-19, quarantine, and online studying for everyone involved in the education. In Canada, most schools resumed in-person classes while the universities opted for online education for the whole semester. The decision about Winter semester has not been made yet, but I feel that Covid-related cases will soon go up and the second lock-down is very real in the near future.

Last week was the first time I used Zoom after two months of a summer break. I was nervous to meet up to 200 students online – I am teaching five different courses at two universities this semester. It is such a strange feeling to see my students as little boxes of moving faces instead of me standing in front of the audience and reading everyone’s body language, hearing the tone of their voices, and feeling the overall atmosphere of the room. Even though the first impression can be wrong, seeing someone in person gives you the much-needed information to establish a healthy relationship – compared to meeting a person behind the screen for the first time and trying to catch as much emotion as possible from a tiny square in which everyone is enclosed. It is such a fragmented sense of people and environment.

What I noticed right away this semester is that if before, the students would come to my class and rarely talk to each other to make friends as all of them were from different departments, and they met together in this classroom only for the required English course – if before it was like that, now, I guess, after months of no social contact and isolation, they are really hungry for communication, thirsty for any human contact. I noted this right away. They told me they were happy I chose Zoom (not asynchronous type of teaching) to meet regularly and discuss the material. They did not mind turning on their cameras. They wrote 100! messages in the chat (one of Zoom options) during our first class to greet each other and exchange their social media information. And you know, I am happy that my class can contribute, even a little bit, to the students’ feeling of belonging, sense of community, and healthy communication in these lonely times.

So, here we are – Fall semester. Cameras are on, volume up, zoom in and zoom out. It is new. It is weird. But at least we are all in this together. So, let’s get the best of this year and have maybe-the most memorable semester in our life. Zoom-zoom!

zoom, zoom, zoom

My last class. My last zoom meeting with the students this semester. I turn off the camera, mute the microphone, relax my face, lean back on the chair, and finally put my feet on the desk – something I could never do in front of my students on zoom. It is such a liberating feeling to once again be completely yourself in your own office at home. No more worries about how messy my room looks (in case I forget to tidy it up the night before the class), how sleepy and a bit swollen my face looks because I have woken up literally 10 minutes before the zoom class, how ridiculous my sweatpants look underneath the desk as my students can only see a nice blouse on top, if the students can hear my boyfriend talking (very!) loudly on a business call in his office next door, if the WiFi is going to work through the entire class, if everyone has their cameras on and you are not just staring at yourself for two hours straight (very uncomfortable feeling, I have to say), if the planned seminar can be effectively delivered online or if it is a total disaster and I should definitely rethink the online lesson plan — all those if’s and how’s.

This sudden switch to online teaching has been a hell of a ride. Nobody was prepared for that. I remember on March 13 (three months ago already!), at 6:30 am I heard the usual, slightly annoying alarm sound, opened my eyes half way, took my phone and saw a message from my friend: on the radio, it was announced that all classes were suspended due to the pandemic. It was Friday. Everyone was happy to have an extra day off, but I had an anxious feeling that things were going to change drastically at the university (my sixth sense maybe). And next week, on Monday, the universities announced we had to deliver the rest of the Fall semester online. O-N-freaking-L-I-N-E.

I struggled a lot with this move. I was terrified to switch to online teaching. The rest of the Fall semester I taught offline, giving students writing assignments and refusing to organize online meetings. I have always struggled with the fear of public speaking, but I have managed to control it over the last 5 years of my university teaching (I still sweat every time before the class starts, but I am more used to that now). During my years of teaching, I have polished my lesson plans, teaching strategies, and techniques. I knew what I was doing, so my fear of public speaking subsided. Until the pandemic hit and the online teaching became a new norm. And the fear of something new and unknown hit me to the bottom. I remember I was angry for this switch. I was frustrated. I was completely lost. I cried a bit. I could not sleep at night. Anxiety just went 150%.

To be fair, everyone was stressed. Everyone at both universities where I am teaching. The first thing students and instructors noticed was how the universities started bombarding us with emails: every single day we would get a bunch of messages from ALL the departments imaginable about ALL sorts of policies and rules, next steps and decisions, suggestions and assumptions, pieces of advice and recommendations. Sometimes these messages were contradicting each other, which made it even more confusing for students and professors. Apart from that, as I am teaching at two different universities, I got conflicting, drastically different emails from them: one university would go this way, and the second would go another. Completely different strategies, procedures, regulations. I felt so exhausted by simply reading these emails every day.

And the students, poor students. Not only did they have to deal with the sudden switch to online delivery, many of them also had to move from their residencies and go back home, wherever home was. I got so many emails from students who were on the verge of crying because of the whole situation. Somebody had to vacate the dorm within 48 hours. Someone had to leave the country and be quarantined in another country for 14 days. Somebody’s parents lost jobs. I got such emails every other day at the end of the Fall semester. My students were stressed and shocked, and completely disoriented.

And at that moment, I realized that this was not about me. It was about the students who struggled the most and needed the most help. I instinctively understood that the biggest thing I could do was to stay connected with them. So when in two weeks, the Spring semester started, and I was asked to teach two courses, I decided to embrace my fear and do everything I could to make the classes as close to the real ones as possible. In a period of one week, I figured out how to use zoom, bought the last available Logitech camera at Walmart (camera were sold out like crazy everywhere), reconsidered how to teach the 3-month course in a period of 1 month or even less via zoom. I had to overcome my own anxiety of seeing students for the first time via camera and creating the positive atmosphere to discuss literature. Every single assignment, activity, group work, task, discussion that I have developed over 5 years had to be restructured for the online format. I recorded video lectures for my students to watch offline. I met my students online every single day. I had virtual office hours. I put every activity into a new format without sacrificing anything or removing it from the syllabus.

But, most importantly, I was always there for my students. And I felt like they needed that. I saw a lot of them suffering from isolation, loneliness, and disconnection. I felt they wanted to meet online. And even though for most of them, it was a required first-year course, I felt that at this moment of our life, at this unprecedented period, it was literature that connected us. We read poems, novels, and plays about human suffering, survival, and traumas and got inspired by the tremendous perseverance, strength, will, and an incredible spirit people demonstrate in the face of adversity. Whether a book was about the Holocaust or slavery, AIDS epidemic or homophobia, they all resonated with the students and made the events happening in the world – be it Covid-19 or protests – so significant, so relevant to all of us.

I am writing this post at the end of Spring semester, 2020, when I said goodbye to my students and waved at them for the last time on camera. I met these people virtually for the very first and last time, but the connection we built was real, absolute, and 100% authentic.