What if you gave a Zoom class and nobody came? That was my nightmare come true when I tried to teach my first online class in March. Many professors had taught online for years, by choice. Not me. I was forced.
A Manhattan technophobe, I freaked out, worried that if I lost my students I'd lose my job. I didn’t have anyone’s phone numbers, just email addresses. Luckily, I'd set up my old 2012 MacBook next to a newer model for Zooming. That way I could see and lead my entire feature journalism class while simultaneously being able to read and critique their work. The back-up laptop had an added benefit—in my inbox I found 25 emails explaining they’d never received the Zoom invitation I’d sent, the syllabus, or course material.
“Gmail doesn’t like group emails with attachments,” said the IT expert I’d emergency texted. “Send in iCloud.”
I tried again and my class finally showed up, one at a time. Barbie, in pink lace, was front and center. I stared, confused. A jokester who knew I was a fan of the iconic toy had placed the doll in the Hollywood Squares–like screen. I preferred his shayna punim, I joked back (a Yiddish expression for a "pretty face"), and he appeared. I’d been warned about Zoom-bombing porn that never came. Other snags, however, did: I kept freezing mid-sentence, despite high-speed Wi-Fi. Someone obliterated everyone’s photo gallery by accidentally sharing her screen, swearing loudly until she got it turned off. After the 10-minute break for my four-hour New School class, an undergrad returned looking glamorous. Playing hooky, her avatar was faking me out. I only realized it after she didn't answer when I called her name.
Remote Teaching Turned Personal, Quickly
Despite spiking coronavirus cases on university campuses across the country, everyone I knew hated remote learning. I could see why. It has certainly been my weirdest work experience in a quarter-century teaching college. I worked on a computer all day, so I’d taken the professorship to interact with live humans. Needing my teaching job and unwilling to desert my students mid-term after they’d paid the tuition, I sucked it up and relaunched my evening courses virtually in the middle of the spring semester, as did my husband, an NYU professor. Between the tech glitches, pandemic, racial protests, and political upheavals, relocating large classrooms to tiny laptops seemed impossible and dehumanizing.
What changed the tone was asking everyone to say where they were now and how they were holding up during the turmoil. My classes often mixed undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education pupils of various ages and backgrounds. This time, and during the summer term, I had more national—and international—students who’d been sent home, zooming in from all US coasts, plus Belgium, Mexico, Canada, and Malaysia.
Mai, from Vietnam, said she rose predawn to make our 6 pm Eastern Time start, midnight for Paola in Pisa. Viewing their bedrooms, kitchens, and garages seemed intimate. Seeing partners and children, or cats jumping on laps, made us laugh and feel closer. I’d rarely been inside students’ residences or met their pets or kids in 25 years. Starting my summer term in June, I asked everyone to introduce themselves, say their location, and tell us what they were currently going through.
Prompted only by the question, "How are you holding up?" many in the class surprised me by revealing illnesses, joblessness, food insecurity, childcare obstacles, and other hardships I wished I could fix. For the first assignment, I recommended chronicling their pain, insisting that “art can turn your worst experiences into the most beautiful.”
By week two, they had, reading their short essays aloud: Sergio, a 20-year-old undergrad, had caught the virus twice but couldn’t get tested. Losing his Broadway gig, Kyle moved to his parents' Indiana basement. Isaac, a 17-year-old in San Diego, lost his uncle. Ian witnessed horrific anti-Asian slurs. Kimberly sheltered with seven relatives in a Miami two-bedroom. BLM protests triggered Ciaran about a racist attack he’d buried. Christina preferred mask-wearing to hide her chin deformity.
After hearing the pages, classmates applauded, typing “brave and poignant” in the group Zoom chat I hadn’t known existed. I encouraged the chatting, happy to read their kind, kooky ongoing commentary. Feeling powerless in the real world, sharing turbulence and trauma was empowering. I wondered if there was a variation of “How are you holding up?” that would transfer to live classes in the future.
Though everybody joked about not wearing pants for video meetings or donning sweats online, for each session I'd dress and groom nicely, as I would for normal meetings, as did my husband, since our classes and guests could see us. It seemed a statement of respect. I didn't care if students wore sweatsuits, baseball caps, or sunglasses, but I pushed everyone to use their video so I could put names to faces. When I offered one invisible local undergrad an iPad to borrow (fearing he couldn't afford good enough equipment), he switched to his own iPhone so we could see him. I didn't mind the few students in bed, driving, or eating, though someone yelled, "Mute when crunching on potato chips, Bob!" to a fellow student, and he did.
Mix Up Your Classes to Keep Everyone Engaged
Staring into the screen for four hours with only a 10-minute break was tough. Over the summer months, I turned up the air conditioning and placed cold water and a fan nearby, plus a hair clip, to cool me off and keep me from sweating on camera. I couldn’t stand or pace like I used to, for better blood circulation, but an ottoman under my desk allowed me to put my feet up as to not activate an old knee injury.
Having guest stars visit—even by laptop—added excitement. I asked luminary editors and agents from around the nation to Zoom in for brief Q&As. In the spirit of generosity in a global crisis, some were especially inspiring and refused the stipends my school generously offered. I had more choice of speakers than I did during my regular term, an unexpected perk.
I also noted the attendance for my seven-week courses was stronger than for live classes, near perfect. Because there was little else to do? (After all, social life, restaurants, theater, film, and sports were postponed indefinitely.) One mom (baby asleep beside her) said she could attend more since she didn't have to pay for commuting or childcare if I didn't mind her kid nearby. "No problem," I said, just asking her to stay muted in case of crying. A student with disabilities that made the subway hard to use found computer classes easier. As my husband recovered from surgery, he continued his TV writing courses from his desktop.
Suddenly I was grateful for this safer, more accessible alternative. Instead of focusing on the headaches, I started a gratitude list:
- Being able to keep our jobs with no commute.
- Connecting to people I'd wouldn't otherwise meet.
- Better access for some students and speakers with disabilities, childcare, geographical, and commuting limitations.
What also helped was muddling into multimedia. My husband shared TV and video clips his class discussed (with the help of a tech-savvy assistant.)
Normally, I was strict about office hours and boundaries: no calls, texting, or FaceTime, except in emergencies, so I could make my daily deadlines. Yet with time differences during a pandemic, I tried to be more flexible, staying up until 2 am to schedule office hours in several mediums to fit different comfort zones. It worked. Some opened up further when emailing, phoning, texting, Skyping, or FaceTiming.
I gave my home address to a woman who asked. She’d been quiet during sessions but sent me a long heartfelt thank-you card through our ailing post office. I offered to stay logged on to Zoom late for anybody with extra questions. Several stayed past the end and remained linked longer, needing a beacon—I gathered—for dystopian sadness. Over two semesters, they gained credit, clips, degrees, wisdom, and compassion. Some made offshoot meetups and workshops, staying in touch and cheering each other on social media.
The results were unprecedented. Dozens of students from my Zoom classes published timely chronicles. After Isaac’s essay, an Ivy Leaguer emailed him scholarship possibilities. Three emotional pieces led to book editors requesting longer projects. I was shocked. My writing classes were not only translatable, they were actually better online.
Remember to Give Back
The addiction specialist who'd long ago helped me quit smoking and drinking once told me, "If you take a lot from the world, you have to give back." My in-person classes had limited chairs (25) and insurance regulations. But relaunching my private five-week seminars online, I could see 50–or more–faces on Zoom. (Perhaps it's time for a bigger desktop or widescreen monitor?) That meant people who could never take New York–based classes now could. There was room to let those who lost scholarships and funding, as well as former students struggling through tough transitions, audit for free.
Of course, many working parents, kids in elementary, junior, and high school, and those in other fields abhor remote schooling–with good reasons. My niece, studying musical theater in Illinois, was frustrated with no stage interactions or live performances. My nephews taking a Michigan EMT course did high-risk ride-alongs to finish training. Those with inadequate computers or access to Wi-Fi are unfairly left out and need immediate state and federal support.
Moving my classes online during the pandemic lockdowns wasn’t my decision. Yet it taught me that learning doesn’t have to be limited by externals. With compromise and care, we were able to connect cables, heads, and hearts. After returning to my regular classroom next term, I hope to teach online too, keeping open this miraculous, fascinating window to the world on my small screen.