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Thoughts Upon Having Reached Four Weeks of ZOOM Teaching – by Neil Baldwin

Posted in: Director's Essay

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Monday, March 23, the first time I saw my seventeen freshman seminar students’ faces arrayed on the screen, each in her or his little rectangular box, I laughed, and said, “You all look like Hollywood Squares!” They stared back at me, blankly, the retro cultural reference having sailed right over their heads; and, of course, I didn’t blame them. I  moved on to the subject at hand. A couple of days later, I asked how everyone was doing “on a scale of one to ten” – there were a lot of 5’s and 6’s – that was about as high as anybody dared go. We began talking about the assignment. About fifteen minutes in, I realized I was speaking very loudly and slowly, enunciating as if in a foreign language, as if they couldn’t hear me “through” the screen; and leaning forward, literally on the edge of my ergonomic chair, ankles twisted around the base, legs tightening up; the back of my neck beginning to ache, and my shoulders, and I reminded myself to take a deep breath. I turned the screen slightly to the left so they could see the window of my study and some books on the shelves, and told them I was doing this, and there was perplexed response. One day the following week, I went around the room, or “Zroom,” as I fancifully called it, picking on one boxed-in person after another. Occasionally, they would forget to unmute and start talking in silence. One young woman, sitting on her bed, who looked as if she hadn’t slept much, bunched up a pillow, leaned her head down, pulled a blanket up to her shoulders, and slowly closed her eyes. I decided to let her sleep — and so did everybody else in the class.  At some point during week three, I found my glance more and more often straying down to the lower right, where the time was displayed, and realized I was preoccupied with how much energy I was deploying per minute, and that It felt like twice as much as I was accustomed to put out during “real” class time; I mentioned this epiphany to the students. They all nodded simultaneously — “It’s not the same…,” somebody said, from a far corner of the rectangle — and I had to stop and ask who had just spoken, because I was listening to someone else, which meant I could not look at anybody else.  A few days ago, all anybody wanted to talk about was how “stuck” they felt, “sort of cut off,” and that some professors, on the assumption that the students had so much more time on their hands, were “piling on more and more work and assignments” and that was “stressing them out,” etc. etc.  This morning, it got to the end of the period, one hour and fifteen minutes had passed by, the discussion had been substantial and it felt good to me, like we were finally getting into a groove — and I was moved by this realization, and couldn’t help blurting out to them that it was a tough time, and that I was here for them, knew what they must be going through, and not to worry, one way or another, we would make it together through the rest of the semester.  “Then what?…” somebody, somewhere, called out.  Back in the other reality, a mere month ago, I would have looked at my watch, announced that the class was over, then waited as they put laptops and notebooks away, packed backpacks, put coats on, talked about where they might go to eat, and then file out of the room in small groups, saying “good bye professor, have a nice day., see you next class…”  This time, I said, “OK, everybody, I will send the Canvas prompt soon, and I’ll see you on Thursday.”

I saw my image wave to them, and their images waved back.

Then I clicked “End Meeting for All,” and they vanished.