One semester of Zoom U down, ??? to go! Completing a semester always feels the way I imagine it would feel to run a marathon: satisfying and relieving. This semester was a whole different beast. Suffice to say a few weeks off are absolutely necessary as I recharge for next semester.
This semester was atypical: I didn’t take any classes or teach in a “face-to-face” capacity. As I mentioned previously, this semester I moved into the newly-created role of Super TA for my department’s 6-credit required foundations course. I was responsible for a lot of behind the scenes administrative work, including working with students on extensions and accommodations, helping the TAs prepare tutorial materials, taking notes on the lecture content for the other TAs, working with the professor on making decisions about the shape of the course, and a little bit of grading. All of that boils down to… emails. So. Many. Emails.
This role really emphasized the need for flexibility, both in terms of how we delivered course materials (since as a teaching team we were largely learning as we went in terms of what worked and what didn’t) and in terms of how we dealt with students. Of course students’ personal situations will never be fodder for this blog, but suffice to say many students were dealing with various stresses – mental, physical, financial – as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, remote learning itself creates accessibility issues and stresses for many students. In general I do believe in teaching with as much flexibility and compassion as possible, and in this instance it was necessary to extend even more of both to help the students get through the semester with the knowledge and skills that they needed to move forward in their studies.
Something that was difficult for me was not having much interaction with the students. I don’t just mean because I did not have a direct teaching role. Attending Zoom lectures was strange, as students had their cameras off and communicated only via the chat function. This meant that it was really difficult to gauge their engagement and understanding of the course content – when teaching in person, I can glean so much from nonverbal cues. I communicated a lot with students over email, but that isn’t the same as making connections in person. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do a guest lecture sharing my research with the students, and it was very strange lecturing to a blank screen! However, there were some great questions from the students in the chat, which was gratifying.
I think this semester made it very clear that designing a remote class is a skill in itself, and it’s not possible to just port the content of a regular class into an online environment. Remote learning has its own considerations and limitations, and it requires careful attention to students’ needs. Designing an accessible course is necessary but sometimes difficult work, and when online learning can in itself be a barrier (although it can also increase accessibility for other students), it is a lot of work to put together and run a course that works well for the teaching team and the students. I think most of the students were understanding of the fact that this was unprecedented for the professor and the TAs, and I really hope that we were able to extend them the same benefit of the doubt.
This coming semester, I will be taking a graduate seminar as well as teaching again (that is, conducting tutorial sessions over Zoom), so my remote learning experience is likely to be quite different. I’ll also be defending my comps papers over Zoom in the spring – how odd! I’m sure I’ll have more to share about these experiences later.