Finding My Students Over Zoom

"Zoom is alienating. Each of us is, quite literally, in our own little box. Each of us is missing a dimension, quite literally," writes Koechlin. (Photo: Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

Finding My Students Over Zoom

My Not-So-Terrible Experience With Remote Teaching

Today, I taught three classes over Zoom. Most of my students were somewhere on the Vassar College campus. A few others joined us from New York City, LA, Sacramento, Beijing, London, Kansas City and Seattle. Each of their little heads in a little box on my screen with their name across the bottom.

Teaching over Zoom is grueling and unnatural. It is not remotely like teaching in person (pun intended). Thousands of teachers and millions of students know very well what I'm talking about.

It is, in particular, a challenge to create a sense of intimacy, comfort, familiarity and trust in my "classroom"--something I've learned to do pretty well over many years as a liberal arts college professor.

In-person teaching, intense conversations, and the relationships that are at the heart of teaching have been a central part of my life for 30 years. Losing this has been (yet another) big loss during this catastrophic pandemic--for me, and my students.

My students are, mostly, glad to be "back." But it's not that simple. Many of them are struggling. Many are frightened, sad, uncertain, anxious, angry, claustrophobic, and bored. As am I. This all feels less intensely true than it did in March when everything was disrupted so abruptly. But it's still there.

But my classes have been remarkably not bad and, in some ways, pretty great. This is, in part, because this pandemic-induced disruption has forced (allowed) me to interrogate my pedagogy.

"As I prepared for my first remote classes in March--on Jane Jacobs and King Leopold's Ghost--I couldn't shake the sense that I wasn't getting it right. Something was off. I could feel that it wasn't going to work."

In the early days of the lock down (and the early days of remote teaching) I spent a good deal of time worrying about (and struggling with) the technologies by which I would "deliver my courses" over the internet. This was part of what I needed to do, of course. But it became clear very early on that this wasn't enough. In some essential way, it was not the point.

As I prepared for my first remote classes in March--on Jane Jacobs and King Leopold's Ghost--I couldn't shake the sense that I wasn't getting it right. Something was off. I could feel that it wasn't going to work. On one of my daily pandemic-era walks, this hit me: I was trying to teach as if nothing had happened. I was trying to approximate a "normal" classroom experience as well as I could. My focus was, to too great an extent, on finding a way to "deliver the course material."

A mentor of mine--a great liberal arts professor-- told me many years ago that one of his goals during a semester is to convey to each student, in effect, "I see you." That is, I know your name, I have a sense of who you are, I am listening to what you're saying, and I appreciate what you've brought to this class. In a larger class, we ought to aspire to convey, at the very least, "I am speaking to you, and I want to engage you." Great liberal arts teaching depends on building relationships.

So I did two things that, I think, changed everything.

First, I explicitly acknowledged (to myself and with my students) that we were living through deeply unsettling moment, and that we cannot proceed as if nothing has happened. I suggested that we should proceed with a recognition that we are living through a profound, scary, confusing, historic moment. And, largely by chance, we'll be living through it together. And so, I proposed, let's understand these few months not simply as a clumsy effort to "complete a course" but, rather (also), as an opportunity to make sense of all of this together. A bunch of smart, curious, unsettled, traumatized human beings trying to make sense of a confusing, frightening moment. And we should recognize and accept that we (each and all of us) will be better able to do that some days than others. They agreed.

I decided to worry much less about "covering the material" and much more about making space for an ongoing conversation about what was happening all around us (and to us). As it turned out, our conversations about the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the appalling inequalities and policy failures that they revealed connected organically and powerfully to "Intro to Urban Studies" and "Global Political Economy" (the two courses I taught last spring).

I have encouraged (and allowed) my students to write about things that matters to them--issues and questions about which they were confused by, curious, and/or otherwise drawn to. And I told them that they should not worry about their grades.

My students' comments and questions over the next few weeks were full of intelligence, emotion, exasperation, confusion and remarkable insight. A few of them wrote to me to apologize for losing their focus. One student left a class meeting early because her sister required her attention. One student teared up because a member of her family had tested positive. A few others commented that, while they hadn't spoken up much, they loved the class. And very often, during class, a student would say something and I'd think "I never thought of it that way."

Zoom is alienating. Each of us is, quite literally, in our own little box. Each of us is missing a dimension, quite literally.

How, I have wondered, can I get to know my students? How can I convey that I see them, and that I am ready to listen?

Last semester (and again this semester) I assigned several short, ungraded papers--assignments that were/are designed to allow students to tell me something about who they are, what they care about, and where they are coming from (literally and figuratively). Each assignment included this reminder: "I will not grade or otherwise 'evaluate' your short essay, but I will read it with interest and care, and I will respond in writing." These assignments allowed me to engage in a remote (but potentially quite elaborate) "conversation" with each student. They allowed me to get to know my students. And they allowed me to convey, in effect: "I see you, and I am interested in what you have to say."

The first assignment was to write a brief bio (or auto-biography). "Your bio may be very brief--a few sentences is fine--or, if you like, it may be longer. Please tell me whatever you want to tell me, but please do not feel any pressure to share anything that you don't want to share." And I've encouraged them to tell their story in any way that suits them. I've invited them, e.g. to write a poem, or do a brief podcast... or to write about a super-hero alter-ego.

These bios are absolutely wonderful! They've made me smile, gasp, laugh and cry. They've inspired me, and blown my mind in a variety of ways. They are a powerful reminder that people deal with all kinds of sh-t and respond to it in all kinds of heroic and creative ways. And it's a reminder that many of these students--who are 18-22 years old--are (in some instances at least) incredibly creative, wise and brave. And it has shown me that these remarkable students have way more than two-dimensions.

My students were/are very grateful to have been invited to tell their stories. And they are very grateful that I have taken their brief bios so seriously. They are grateful that I have taken the time to respond in writing.

Several students submitted brief, business-like bios. Fine! These were actually much more enlightening than I'd expected. "I'm Jack, I'm from Atlanta, I used to be pre-med now I'm a sociology major. I was a pole vaulter in high school and I play the oboe." That's actually a pretty rich picture of "Jack" (not a real human being). In about half of these relatively cautious bios, one of the things about Jack (or Jill or Jamaal or Juacinta) surprised me a little. When I see Jack's two-dimensional head in his Zoom box on Tuesday, I will have a significantly richer sense of who he is.

To my surprise and delight, more than half of my students went on at pretty great length. Their stories about their lives were clever, amazing, funny, frank, sad and poignant. Two submitted short films. Three shared a few of their poems. A few included family photos. They honored their ancestors. One student delivered a biography of her "dancer-self" (her dancer-self, she reported, is much more confident and extroverted than her student-self.) She choreographed and performed a dance (a video) about "staying centered in a time of pandemic." And collectively, my students--again, mostly born between 1998 and 2002--made allusions to Phil Ochs, the Bee Gees, the White Album, The Clash, "Blade Runner," Kurt Vonnegut, Che, Betty Friedan, Michael Harrington and Dizzy Gillespie.

I wrote a bio too, and shared it with them. (I did not share student bios with the class.) A few students thanked me for saying out loud that I'd found it really hard to write a short bio.

In the weeks ahead, I will ask my urban studies students to write a page or two or three, about their "home town" and/or their relationship to this municipality. And later still I will ask them to "educate me" about a work of art they love (a song, poem, film or whatever) that says something about cities, urbanization, and or inequality.

I am thrilled and grateful to have found some new ways to connect with my students (new for me, at least). And I am thrilled and grateful that they have so risen to meet me generously and magnificently!

I should have thought of this a long time ago.

After this half-semester experiment, I felt a remarkably deep connection to them. I found, as we said good-bye at the end of our last class, that I was tempted to tell them that I love them. (I didn't. But I almost did.) After two weeks, I can tell that I'm falling in love with my fall semester students too.

I am aware that I am in a very fortunate position. I have few enough students, few enough courses, and enough institutional support to make all of this workable. Most teachers, alas, don't have the time or freedom to engage in the sorts of experiments I've sketched out here. And I am aware that many seriously over-worked and under-appreciated teachers are connecting with their students in incredible and incredibly generous ways. And I am aware that there are all kinds of ways of facilitating a great class--in person, or over Zoom.

But this is a reminder to me of how powerful it can be to say to our students: "I see you. I am speaking to you. I am listening to you. I want to engage you. And I want to help you get what you need."

The fact that this is, for so many teachers, a pipe-dream and/or an unfathomable luxury, speaks to how much work we have to do. It speaks to the extent to which our priorities are out of whack. I speak to how poorly we've allocated our abundant resources. It's an appalling policy failure, and an embarrassing failure of imagination.

Relationships are at the heart of a great education. The "material" matters, of course. But so too does rich, engaging, deep, challenging, respectful, intense conversation.

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