Never have I been so tired teaching! At my small residential university in rural Tennessee (University of the South- Sewanee), we decided to have all students (1,600) return to campus to begin our 14-week semester on August 17. We gave students the remote option too—which about 10% took. Part of the deal, though, is that on-campus students must stay here—indeed, they must get permission even to go to nearby cities and they certainly can’t go home. Almost every course has one or two permanently remote learners who “zoom” into class to learn synchronously. (This includes a student in Italy—7 hours ahead of us). The administration decided to do away with fall break—usually a long weekend in October—and no visitors are allowed on campus. (No visits by friends, siblings, guest lecturers, alums, etc.) We have the woods (Sewanee is located on 13000 acres, with loads of hiking trails), the classroom, tents (lots of teaching in tents, actually), and ourselves. The students have been pretty darn compliant (masks, social distancing, staying in the “Sewanee bubble”), and we have had very few cases. We test the students EVERY WEEK (at quite an expense) and have developed our own lab to defray costs. This has meant we can contact trace, isolate, etc. quickly. All good innovations!
We just finished week 9, and students are tired of being in the bubble. However, for me, it’s not really the isolation and the lack of engagement outside the “bubble” that have made me exhausted. Rather, it is wrapping my mind around the “future of higher education.” Many administrators and faculty say that once we have an effective vaccine (When? If? How effective will it be?), things will go back to “normal” at small residential, liberal arts universities like mine. That is, we will be back in the classroom, engaged in those small group discussions, mentoring meetings, Socratic teaching, informal banter before and after class--all without masks. There won’t be students “zooming in” or “zoom office hours” or “zoom faculty meetings.” But I’m not so sure. For me, this is a critical juncture for higher education, particularly for the hundreds of small colleges like mine that stake our reputations on the close, personal relationships and sense of community that undergird our teaching. Some such schools won’t make it financially; some may become even more driven to the model of students as primarily consumers. Technology—the students’ ability to “zoom in” to the face-to-face course—is here to stay, as is some form of remote teaching. Many schools have paid a lot of money for that technology. (Who doesn’t wish they had invested in Zoom?) In a student consumer marketplace, students like the convenience of “zooming into a class” even if their dorm is only a 5-minute walk away.
What exhausts me is not simply the technology--Which button do I push so that the students on Zoom can see the classroom? Why don’t the mics in the room work so that the students can hear me? And can you students on Zoom turn on your cameras so that we in the classroom can actually see you when you talk? Darn! I thought I was sharing my screen! In all actuality, I have gotten better on all of this!
No, what really exhausts me is the unpredictability: Who will be physically in the classroom today? Who will pop up on Zoom? (Isn’t that student supposed to be in the classroom?) Will the internet be good enough so that the students in the classroom can hear the students on Zoom when we discuss this reading? And that test I sent to the remote learners? We have the Honor Code, but…. I’ve never been so tired thinking about the mundane. It seems my mind has no space for thinking about intriguing ideas, theories, case studies, new methods, empirical findings, or teaching pedagogies.
Despite all this, as my daughter reminded me, when Pandora’s box was opened, hope remained inside. With hope, I remember that people are adaptable and flexible, and even old farts like me can learn to deal with the “new dispensation” that is COVID higher education. Every day is one more step in overcoming the logistical hurdles and technological hiccups to get to what I love: watching young people encounter new ideas and apply and communicate them in innovative ways.