Remember the snow holidays of childhood? A valiant teacher – the principal perhaps – made it in and somehow sent word that school was cancelled. Pipes froze and burst and with them rituals and routine were suspended. For days, a week if you were lucky, corridors and classrooms lay locked and forsaken as schoolbags were abandoned, awaiting the thaw.
March 2020 was a bit like that. The University where I teach reacted quickly, gave everyone a week to regroup and finish out the term – online – as best they could. “Online”? It turned out there were tools on the learning software that we’d never noticed or needed to notice. Suddenly, surrounded by our own schoolkids, we were teaching from the kitchen table or wherever we could find space. It seemed strange and slightly absurd, particularly since we were within walking distance of one another, but we knew the students and they knew us, and after all it was only temporary.
You could remember the personalities and call out a name in the digital darkness. One or two wrote text messages in response to questions. At first I thought these were sotto voce jokes. When I realised they were a sincere mode of communication I wasn’t sure how to include them. Did the other students read them? Would it be naff to read them out; did they mean them to be read out? Why didn’t students simply speak? Only later did I realize they were curtailed by limits of broadband or broken laptops.
Although well used to teaching, I was exhausted after an hour online, and relieved to finish out the term after a month. As we waved goodbye in June I assumed this brief emergency – like the frozen pipes of old – would pass and we’d be back at the front of lecture halls in Autumn.
The ‘first lockdown’ (as it shall be forever known) was a gift really. There was precious time to read and write, activities which define academic life but which are frequently pushed to the margins. The largely unused attic room could work as an office. I pushed back the sofa bed, an unused desk was purloined and paired with the spare kitchen chair. With no student or staff meetings, conferences, summer classes or indeed holidays to distract, I found focus and completed a long delayed project. I felt rejuvenated and then, as usual in August, set to thinking about the new term.
September 2020 would be my thirtieth year of teaching, the kind of statistic usually drawn down to emphasise experience, or perhaps a little disenchantment. An inkling of fatigue with the churn of students and the mounting demands of administration. Not me. After the long and pleasant summer and months of isolation in the improvised ivory tower of the attic office, I was eager to return. I sensed myself at the sweet spot of wit and wisdom, dispenser of information and inspiration, argument and advice.
The summer had been a stop-start procession of institutional meetings and communications; contingency plans made and unmade. Guidelines and best practice and reconfiguring of rooms and class sizes and consultation and deferral. A colleague re-did the timetable over and again. Room capacities were reconfigured and rebooked for 2m distancing; then again for 1.5m ‘centre to centre’. Speculative, quickly sketched contingency plans morphed into action plans of vaguely understood terms: “blended learning”; “synchronous” and “asynchronous” delivery; occasional small group teaching; “online breakout groups”. As the new reality took hold, unseen workers began Covid-prepping in still locked and empty buildings and corridors, installing hundreds of hand sanitizers on breeze brick walls (often alongside hand sanitizers left behind from some previous public health emergency), bright yellow posters, stickers and directional arrows set to regulate behaviour and traffic flows in often absurd detail and configurations. With the retrofitting and training as local Covid co-ordinator complete and PPE in situ (a visor and 3 masks for everyone in the audience), one final and fatal disruption to planning arrived when, on the very eve of term, it was announced by the new Minister of Higher Education that Universities would go 100% online. For the first September in my professional life, I would not be swinging into the rhythm and ritual of the new academic year.
This was hugely disorientating and, initially, I couldn’t quite grasp what it actually meant. I went into denial. Poised at the threshold I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. There was work to be done and urgently, but how to begin, where to make a start?
Denial is an involuntary reflex generated by the unfamiliar; it obstructs and obscures and insists nothing has really changed. There was a lot of change. Staff meetings would henceforth take place on ‘Teams’, a term more redolent of neoliberal faux-bonhomie than the chatty – often rambling – environment of pre-term refamiliarization. We’d also be getting Zoom but that would be for teaching not meetings. We would teach in the “virtual classroom” of the Blackboard package but we’d also need to download and learn how to use Kaltura to record and upload videos. We were instructed to consult teaching and learning webpages and training videos and attend online induction sessions. My reaction to this tsunami of technology wasn’t quite to stand back but neither did I feel able to lean-in. Things seemed to be shifting fast and I couldn’t quite align the familiar with the new. A younger, nimbler colleague helped me along, came to the attic office, and explained we would be aiming for “best practice.” This included not only a clearly structured breakdown of content into mini-units but micro and mixed assignments to keep students engaged, pre-recorded lectures, weekly online tutorials and breakouts. I listened, or seemed to, thinking I’d do more or less what I always had and would succeed as I more or less always had; through force of energy, empathy and enthusiasm.
Energy, empathy and enthusiasm are valuable commodities at the front of a room of new university students, especially those who have just emerged from the narrow learning style of the Leaving Cert. and have just left home. They lubricate and get the new term into motion which, like a return to exercise, is creaky for the first week or two. You wonder if you’ll ever move naturally again. Then you do. But in September 2020, energy, empathy and enthusiasm seemed redundant in the face of the ‘new normal’ to stay safe, stay home and get on with the content creation.
We were going with an “asynchronous” approach, a term which continued to seem counterintuitive to someone who had, as I say, been walking into classrooms for 30 years. Now we were to prepare and record lectures in episodes, including ‘tasks’ to be taken up in the tutorials, and uploaded the weekend before teaching. We would also source and upload readings (no more sending students to the library). I teach film studies which presented additional challenges. We could not, for instance have our weekly screenings and, respecting the limitations of students on laptops, decided to suggest films to view. In some cases this replaced a hard-to-find masterpiece of cinema with something from Netflix. Or at best hoping it might be available to stream on the burgeoning array of platforms and services I had to rapidly get up to speed on. This turned the whole discipline on its head. Or seemed to.
I had taught much of material before, but almost everything seemed suddenly new. While the courses were simply migrating to a different format, existing content itself was surprisingly ill-fitting; baggy and copious in places, not tight enough or mismatched in others. The absence of live interaction meant a shift from discursive to informative interaction. Without an audience, the Socratic method – the dialectical process between teacher and learner which has shaped western education for millennia – was largely replaced by a unidirectional, content-led approach. This seemed anathema to the humanities and those who value them, more so in the era of populist politics and rampant social inequality. Now, it seemed, the neoliberal economy had got us too and had turned us all – educators and students – into commodities, content and data.
As with anything, the new dispensation gradually acquired shape and rhythm. PowerPoint lectures were researched and composed during the early part of the week, then recorded on Fridays – or Sundays if I fell behind. I wondered how they would be consumed: on laptops in bedrooms, kitchens, phones; with headphones in private or with others, in bits or whole? There were teething troubles; forgetting to ‘make available’ one episode, then meeting a class to discuss an unseen lecture. The tutorials were nerve-wracking and I sometimes spoke too much, fearful of not getting any response or trusting the uncontrollable and frankly weird dynamics of the ‘breakout room.’ Where students kept their mics and cameras off and spoke in echoes between long pauses. I tried shorter, timed breakouts. This improved things. A sense of purpose and enjoyment began to slowly build.
As the term progressed, I asked students to contact class reps with questions and offered ‘drop-in’ sessions on Zoom. These were usually sparsely attended but as the term progressed people did at least turn on the cameras and I discovered what they looked like. This presented a new informality as, instead of my office, I was encountering students in their bedrooms, with posters, pictures and personal mementos visible. No background styling here: Hamilton; Pulp Fiction; Reg and Stimpy. I asked how they found the teaching; could they follow it? Responses were positive; they spoke of appreciating the ‘concise’ nature of the units. One student explained that she watched the lectures a first time to get the shape of the ideas and a second pass to pause sections and take notes. I’d never thought of that. They liked they could download the classes on their laptops and refer back to them for assignments. I asked if they found the tutorials weird – listening and talking into a blank space and the long pauses. One student said “no, it’s the highlight of the week – I know that’s a bit sad but I really look forward to it.” Well, no . . . It had become the highlight of my week too.
Lockdown levels came and went. I paid no notice; it made no difference. Occasionally, I attended conferences, events at film festivals abroad, public talks and interviews and co-hosted an international symposium. All from the same chair. The grind of content creation and delivery became more lubricated as the weeks clicked past and I got better at it; learned to ‘hear’ the rhythm of the lecture – where to insert clips, questions, digressions.
As we entered the final third of term, a slow thaw in the communication permafrost set in. In week 10, I had to call order in the chatbox as I arrived online for class and a group of students were not only early but “debating” the merits of Hitchcock’s silent film The Lodger (1927). All of them like it – I was delighted to learn – even though one admitted that he didn’t know Hitch had been alive in the silent era, let along making films. Another found its themes ‘very Hitchcock,’ while another was saying she preferred it to Vertigo and it was the best film so far. This was real progress, a sign of engagement and enthusiasm in an area – early film history – that is widely seen as arcane. Two or three now routinely turned on their cameras – they weren’t obliged to – which greatly enlivened the experience, even if it did mean they would now be called upon. Hair was longer than the last time we met. Students now routinely made comments or jokes in the chatbox – which I read out. Although, other times – depending on the day or the topic – there was a deathly silence, causing me to worry if anyone was there, anyone was interested or if I’d simply forgotten to unmute.
For the final week, I invited those who wished to do so to turn on their cameras/mics. I felt this might bring an earned intimacy to the classes. A few did; most still didn’t. I asked the first years how we should go about next semester. A majority requested live lectures (recorded) with cameras on. This they hoped, would increase a sense of community and participation. As I signed off my final third year class, I told them it had been an unusual but strangely fulfilling experience: I’d prepared a lot of new material but they had watched and read almost everything, filed weekly responses and showed up fully prepared for every tutorial. This, I said, had been probably the most fully engaged delivery of the module ever. Someone wrote in the chatbox: “we made the best of the semester,” then a chorus of others “thank you so much.” As I reached for the “end session” button for a final time, I shed an involuntary tear and sat for a moment staring at the silent black screen. It had been a term like no other. It had been a non-stop grind of lecture preparation, delivery and feedback from the attic room. I’d walked no corridors, didn’t handle a single essay nor visited the library. I hadn’t even seen most of my students, let alone met them. And yet by December I had never felt so close to them and their learning experience. Paradoxically, as the days grew shorter and colder, our online relationships grew warmer, the chill of remoteness and unfamiliarity thawed by a shared human curiosity to connect and learn.
Tony Tracy is lecturer in film studies and digital media at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway.