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.

one student, many thoughts

I have one student in my class who comes to talk to me after each seminar. Literally, after each class. And what does he say?

During the semester, we are discussing different literary texts, dealing with quite difficult topics: the Holocaust, racism, discrimination, AIDS, homosexuality, religion, segregation, colonialism, imperialism … the list goes on. We analyze poems, plays, novels, graphic novels, and short stories.

And this student has something to say about each text, every character, every single topic. He comes to me at the end of the class (when everyone else is leaving for the next class) and starts the discussion without any prelude or ending. He would just say: “I find this character so obnoxious that it is hard to believe his way of thinking about gay people in the 1980s.” He would not ask my opinion or explain why he wants to talk about it. He would just come and blurt out everything on his mind. And then, when I get into this conversation and start analyzing with him, he would just silently agree with me with a nod and leave, almost in the middle of our talk. No byes. No closure. Just like that.

First, I found it a bit unusual. Maybe I said something wrong and he left, disagreeing. Maybe I did not answer his question. But gradually I realized it was supposed to be like that. This is his way of conversing with people.

After all, not all conversations should follow the standard formality: greeting, question, elaboration, and closing remark. Maybe some people think and speak in a different way. Maybe this is how natural and spontaneous thoughts should be expressed: without any warning or structure. It is like stream-of-consciousness, but out loud. Maybe this is the whole beauty of the conversation: you never know where it is going to start or how it will end. There is no polite small talk. No cliched phrases. Just thoughts and feelings, unstructured.

Now after each class I am eagerly anticipating this student. I never know what he is going to say or what is on his mind this day. I love how a book or class makes him feel: this need to continue talking about the topic when the class is over. This unrestrained desire to express himself.

It is just one student. But so many thoughts.

Stay humble

The semester is over. Exams are marked, and lecture rooms are empty. I am sitting inside the cafeteria and looking at my student’s card. She gave me it as a thank you for a wonderful semester. The card says one sentence: “I find you to be very humble and for that I thank you!”

I stare at this card and these few words. I have never been thanked for being humble before. Why would she think I am humble?

I have never had any special approach to this student. She was a bit behind some of the assignments and I helped her with that, but only because she was working full-time as a school bus driver. She was silent during most of our books’ discussions. She did not come to see me during my office hours. We did not have one-on-one time really. And, yet, she was the only one out of 30 students to find me after the final exam and give me this card. When she was handing me the card, she said exactly the same words as written inside: “I really want to thank you for being humble.”

Humble…this word can mean so many different things. Do I teach in a humble way? Do I speak too quietly? Some students complained about that before, so I always increase the podium microphone to the maximum. Am I teaching humble texts? Is it my behaviour, my words, or actions? I guess I will never find an answer to that.

Is being humble a compliment? In our society, humble often means having low confidence and not enough ambition. Many companies do not want to hire humble people. They want overachievers, assertive people with a high self-esteem. Nobody wants to be humble. Everyone wants to be perceived as brave and successful. Strong and confident.

But after some consideration, I realized that being humble does not negate achievement, passion, or even ambition. You can enjoy success and still be humble. You can be humble in the way you treat other people. You can be humble in the way you show yourself to the world. You can be humble in the way you think or talk about yourself. Humble means less self and more other. Humble helps you love the world around you.

Take a moment to reflect on the past year and thank yourselves for being humble in any moment of your lives. Stay humble.

PhD survivor

How to survive a PhD? Just follow these 15 simple steps:

  1. Choose the university that gives you the biggest scholarship for the longest possible time. Preferably, unlimited funding without deadline.
  2. Choose the supervisor not based on your common research interests or expertise, but based on the time it takes him/her to answer your emails. Track and measure it during Year 1.
  3. Do not make any attempt to find PhD alumni and ask about their post-PhD career paths. In fact, do not ask anyone at the department about that. The less you know, the better you sleep.
  4. Choose to live in the dorm close to fraternity houses. There will be many loud parties, and this will remind you to study harder to be able to finish sooner and finally have a life.
  5. Build your survival food system. In year 3-5, you will especially need emergency food. Fill your pantry or kitchen cabinets with instant noodles, canned food, crackers, nuts, peanut butter (lots of it!), and protein bars (brain food, you know).
  6. Start cutting all close relationships with people before Year 2. Your thesis will become your best friend, your partner … and sometimes your enemy too. The faster you cut contact with human beings, the sooner you will develop relationships with papers, articles, and books. This all will speed up the defence and graduation.
  7. Prepare to develop distaste for reading. In fact, stop reading anything a year before PhD. In this case, you can trick your brain into developing an interest for a new activity – boring reading.
  8. Do not spend money on anything. Save up and spend all your money on the best printer on the market and the most expensive chair. Office chair would especially be nice as it will give you an illusion that you are working in corporate business and making a difference in the world.
  9. Buy glasses and eye lenses in advance. Consult with your doctor on the possible trajectory of eyesight getting worse from year 2 to year 6 or 7.
  10. Apply for various grants and go to as many conferences as possible. Free travel, free food, free pens and note-pads.
  11. Visit the Buddhist monastery before starting a PhD and learn the secret of patience. You will need that a lot while waiting for the committee feedback on chapter 1,2,3 and so on.
  12. Buy a set of clothes 2-3 sizes bigger than your normal size. You will start noticing changes in Year 3.
  13. Buy subscription for all stupid comedy TV shows. It will be the only way to relax your mind and get distracted. Best mind therapy.
  14. Sign up for boxing classes. Stick the first page of your thesis on the punching ball and beat the shit out of it. It will help with anger management tremendously.
  15. And last, always remind yourself you will have a cool title “Doctor” at the end, even though you cannot really save or help anyone. It will still feed your ego and make you forget all the troubles you went through.

You can do it. I did it, so can you. I am a PhD: Proudly half Dead 🙂