Pandemic Diary #4 - Teaching in 2020

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Pandemic Diary #4 - Teaching in 2020

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Pandemic Diary #4 - Teaching in 2020

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02/01/2021

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My university had delayed the start of the spring quarter (or term) for two weeks to give us time to get our plans in order. The term started on March 25th, and I still had to work with the 24 students on their projects. 16 were Americans and 8 were from our host country. By the end of the term we had students in California, Texas, China, our host country, and scattered about the Northeast. Arranging meeting times was a lot of fun.

All I will say is that I wanted to make the experience, which was carried out entirely via Zoom and email, as good as it could be. So I put on a brave face, put a lot of energy into their work, tried everything I could think of to make it better for them. I even put on a trivia night for them, custom-themed for our host country, with expert input from my girlfriend on how to run such an event. I tried other things – like sending them emails about when the overseas country’s opera company was going to be livestreaming a show – and I will never forget the words of one student: “We appreciate what you’re trying to do, but we’re not interested in consolation prizes”. That summed up the attitude of a significant part of the student population. For my part, I focused on the projects much more intensely than I normally would so that I didn’t have to focus on anything else.

Teaching in the spring all came down to attitude: One team of students in particular took not being able to travel in stride, and did a good job on their project and seemed to have a good time. Their project was particularly complex, even if we had been working on it on-site, but they did an excellent job. Another team in particular did the opposite and remained bitter about not being able to travel through the entire term. They did lousy work and had a miserable time even though their project could have easily been adapted to remote work. The majority of students were somewhere between these two extremes. One thing that the pandemic has made very clear to me, and that I will remember for a long time, is that attitude and enthusiasm count for a lot more than any other qualification. If I ever get to hire anyone ever again, I’ll take a dummy with enthusiasm over a bored genius any day.

During the spring, faculty would have Zoom “happy hours” once a week where we’d talk about the challenges we were facing. Things were pretty bleak. We were all struggling to engage with students, or to structure the work that we were doing with them to be in an online format, and we were all dealing with the realities of the Pandemic in our personal lives. At the end of the term, I think the word ‘defeated’ would best describe how we were feeling. Of course, that wasn’t universal. I remember two tenured professors in particular boasting of all the great things they were doing, and how anyone who wasn’t thriving during the pandemic must just be bad at teaching. There’s always a minority looking to use any catastrophe for smug self-promotion. From a friend of mine, I understand that this is part of why the non-tenured faculty generally didn’t want to say anything one way or the other during these meetings. To be frank about any difficulties one encountered was to invite accusations of incompetence and put your job at risk.

I remember expressing unease during one “happy hour” about being strict with grading when students were struggling with the pandemic just as much as we were. How strict can I be when their family members are losing jobs, or coming down with the virus, and in the general atmosphere of stress and fear? The professors priding themselves on sticking to the rules, inflexibility with deadlines, and stringent grading criterion don’t seem to me to be the heroes of this story. One of my fellow professors lectured me at great length that I was being too emotional, that in normal times, we grade strictly even though students are at risk of losing loved ones to car crashes – and that students were at much greater risk of being in a car crash than contracting the coronavirus. The virus was bad, they said, but it would be nothing compared to the normal risks we all take daily. I haven’t looked at the death statistics lately, but I seem to remember hearing that virus deaths are somewhat higher than car crash deaths at this point. I wish that I was petty enough to feel some satisfaction at all the people smugly lecturing me being totally, totally wrong, but just like with the other professors scrambling to clean out their desks, when I think about this, all I feel is very, very tired.

After the spring projects, I taught two conventional courses totally online in our two fall quarters. One of the conventional courses was one I’d never taught before, and was asked to fill in at the last minute. So that’s what I spent all of July and August doing – preparing a lab class from scratch. These courses had large populations, and with the capacity restrictions (to enable social distancing in the classrooms), even if I had been given the largest room on campus, the classes would have been impossible just from a logistical point of view. With the exception of a ten-minute visit in August to get some equipment, I haven’t set foot on campus since March; and the earliest I will do so again is August 2021. I am sure being on campus would be of great interest to the historical museum, but that’s a story someone else will have to tell.

Anyway, over the summer the university administration was telling us that we had to teach in-person because the students didn’t want online classes, they wanted to be on campus; but when I laid out the logistical difficulties and asked for input from my students by email, the vast majority (~80%) said online was fine. As one of them wrote to me: “I don’t really care if class is virtual or in-person. I want to be on campus so that I’m not living with my parents anymore”. The University’s first plan, announced during the summer, was (as I recall it) that anyone who was “too scared” to teach in-person in the fall would have to submit a detailed reasoning, including medical records, to HR. They got a lot of pushback about it, and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive the narrative that not wanting to be on campus during the pandemic was solely a sign of cowardice. In the end, my department head kept pushing me to teach in-person, but when I finally said “I don’t see how I can do that, I’m putting my foot down, let’s just do 100% remote” he looked relieved and told me to do whatever I thought best. I was very lucky in this – I suspect that he felt obligated to push the company line, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Anyway, the day before the term started, I had a two-hour remote meeting with some people. I’d have had an in-person meeting with them if I had returned to campus. A day later one of the meeting attendees tested positive for the Coronavirus. I would have had to move online for two weeks anyway, had I attended that meeting – so I guess insisting on being online saved me a lot of last-minute scrambling!

What strikes me now, in retrospect, is how the courses in the fall compared with the projects I had advised in the spring. The spring was an extremely hard time, because it was a sudden shock and everyone thought that remote learning was going to be necessary only for a few months, that we’d have the pandemic in check by Easter. I remember hearing that specific date quite a few times! During the spring students felt that this was some sort of freak accident that had happened to them, to them alone, and ruined all their plans. By the fall, things got easier. Students understood that the pandemic was something that was much larger than just themselves, they’d had time to get used to it, and to be frank, faculty worked out a lot of the kinks of online instruction during the spring, meaning that the fall went more smoothly. Of course, not entirely smoothly. In the fall I structured my first course around videos that I asked students to watch outside of class time – it turns out they hated this format, because they’d put off watching the videos until ten minutes before homework was due, and then watched them at triple speed trying to pick up just enough to get by. One thing I learned during my second course was that when teaching in person, the students look really bored, and I fly through a lot of examples to try and keep them engaged. When I can’t see them, because very few turned on their cameras, I’d go very slowly and carefully. It turns out a few slowly-done example problems are much better than a lot of quickly done ones, so for that course at least, I can say the online experience was better than in-person!

Over the summer, attitudes towards the pandemic changed. The spring was absolutely miserable; but in the summer everyone developed a case of what I can only call Toxic Positivity. There’s a book about the AIDS crisis called “The Gentrification of the Mind” and maybe this is a better label – over the summer, a lot of minds were gentrified. In late August some faculty had a meeting where a couple of my colleagues put on a presentation of tools that could be used to engage students during online learning. The presenter was someone I had spent a lot of time talking to during the faculty “happy hours” in the spring, who’d had a lot of the same unsurmountable difficulties I’d had, who felt just as defeated as I did at the end of the term. We were equal in our misery. But her August presentation was about how great everything went during the Spring, how powerful the instructional techniques she’d used were, how much students really enjoyed their work. It felt like a betrayal of what we had been through together.

Somehow, over the summer, expressing anything other than unadulterated optimism, saying that things have gone anything other than totally smoothly, became an absolute taboo. To listen to presentations like the one my friend gave, or the monthly Town Halls that the university administration started putting on, you would think that the Pandemic has been the greatest thing that’s ever happened. The only attitude one is allowed to express where I work is that the Pandemic has been a combination of winning the lottery and inventing sliced bread, rather than an enormous, pointless pile of corpses and a total failure at every level of government and society. At one relatively small meeting we were talking about the grand success of our university’s testing regimen in keeping our community safe, and I said something like “We caught few cases when case rates in Worcester were low; as soon as case rates increased in Worcester, we started catching more, and we had to impose additional restrictions on campus. I’m not sure it’s clear what role our testing regimen has really played.” This seems like logical, sober analysis to me. Thank God in Heaven that I have tenure. I’d have been instantly fired otherwise, if not dragged out back of the gymnasium and beaten to death. In any event I still got read the Riot Act and it was “recommended” that at our next meeting I publicly apologize to the rest of the faculty. I'll eat rats before I do that. I still get the cold shoulder from a couple fellow faculty because of this.

Any honest historian will write the history of the pandemic in unnecessarily spilled blood. And yet since May, at every turn all I hear is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! We’ve moved the art of online teaching ahead by decades in just a year! We’ve developed such great materials! We’ve done such an incredible job of engaging with our students! If you don’t believe me, I’m sure we’ve left quite an electronic record of press releases and Town Hall recordings. See for yourself. If, just once, someone in a position of authority said “Guys, this sucks, some good things will come out of our experience that are far outweighed by suffering and horror, it’s alright not to be relentlessly happy” it would mean more to me than all the smiling reassurances in the world. Anyone who tells you that things went smoothly during the spring, or anyone that has anything uplifting and positive to say about the spring, sure as hell wasn’t saying so at the time. It was the August faculty meeting that made me decide to write these diaries for the historical museum.

In addition to the frustrations of teaching during this time, I would say I started to get something of a guilt complex. I have no children, or even pets; I live in a pretty comfortable house; I’ve got a little bit of cash in the bank; and I have a pretty small family that I rarely see in normal circumstances. I was suffering much, much less than all those around me. I suppose it’s like survivor’s guilt: I had the overpowering feeling that I couldn’t let myself feel afraid, or depressed, or sad, or frustrated, because what I was going through was so much less than what everyone else was going through.

Rights

Aaron Sakulich

Citation

Anonymous, “Pandemic Diary #4 - Teaching in 2020,” COVID-19 Chronicles: Worcester's Community Archive, accessed March 5, 2021, http://worcestercovid19.org/items/show/381.