Reflections on a semester of Zoom University

Progress Report

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.

How has COVID-19 impacted my PhD?

Progress Report
Like everyone else, my university abruptly shut down in mid-March. All of my teaching and learning transitioned to online formats. In the months since then, as I have continued with my own work from the safety of my own home, I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error as I have figured out how best to work and live in these strange times.

Communicating with networks

I am lucky to have a PhD cohort who is supportive rather than competitive and collaborative rather than individualistic. We have stayed in touch over WhatsApp, and having that community has been tremendously helpful, both socially and professionally. It’s important for me to have people to bounce ideas off of and to give me feedback about my work. I know I can go to my cohort for advice. We also swap cat pictures, which is a benefit in my book!
I also feel immensely grateful to have a fantastic supervisory committee – they are available for me, they are flexible and understanding, and they remind me that self-care is important. In a time when many of us are physically alone, isolated, and disconnected, having networks that support and care for us is essential.
FaceTime and WhatsApp are not exactly substitutes for real, face-to-face contact. However, they are far better than nothing, and I’m glad that I’ve prioritized staying in touch with my university networks.

Flexibility is necessary

There are certain resources that I simply can’t access, or that I have to access in a different format. I have had to be flexible and develop contingency plans. I had to change the way I graded at the end of the semester because I had no hard copies to write on. I had to change the way I communicated with the students in my tutorial sections. I had to compile my comps list almost entirely from sources available electronically. (Actually, the library has been very accommodating in scanning texts and ordering ebooks, but sometimes you just need a source immediately!) I’ve had to make changes as I go, either permanently or “until things go back to normal” (whenever that is, and whatever that means). This is something that I also tried my best to extend to the students in my tutorial sections – the pandemic was a huge disruption of their normal routines, and the move to online formats created potential accessibility barriers that nobody signed up for. Obviously, as a TA I am rather limited by the parameters set by the course instructor and department, but it was important for me to be understanding of my students’ changing needs and abilities in the face of the pandemic.

Disappointment is inevitable

I had visions of a summer of reading for my comps in cafés and parks, having study dates with my cohort, and exploring the many trails Hamilton has to offer. (As a recent transplant, there is much to discover.) Instead, I’m reading at home and planning study dates over Zoom. (Not quite the same – who can I share my new baking experiments with?) I was very excited to have a paper accepted at the Canadian Communication Association’s annual conference, which was ultimately cancelled. In the grand scheme of things, I am lucky to be able to continue with my work and to be healthy. But there are inevitable disappointments as we all rearrange our lives, and I think we need to be able to feel sadness about these disruptions while simultaneously acknowledging how important these measures are in managing the pandemic.

Routines and structure are essential

Everyone works differently, but I have always found that I need to build structure for myself when my work hours are flexible and self-managed. The pandemic makes time feel strange; often there is nothing much separating one hour or day from the next. Restrictions have eased in my area, but looking at the numbers, the science, and the recommendations from health officials, I’m taking a conservative approach and staying away from non-essential outings. So, when staying home pretty much all day, every day, for months on end, indefinitely, creating routines helps me keep on track and feel some differentiation between the hours and days. I know what time is optimal for me to start my work, how long I can work before my focus wanes, and how much work I can realistically get done in a day. That said, I do need to balance this with the need for flexibility, so my routines tend to be guidelines. Also, important parts of routines are breaks and leisure time! As much as possible, I try to take weekends off and to build in time for fun and frivolous things, such as watching old seasons of Survivor, playing The Sims, FaceTiming friends, and playing with my cat.
In general, I have been lucky that my work has been minimally disrupted. That is, I have had to make some major changes to how I work, but I am still working, and I am still on track with my goals. At this point, I am not anticipating that COVID-19 will lengthen the time it takes me to complete my PhD, and that’s because a lot of the work is solitary, flexible, and mobile anyway.

PhD Progress, Year One

Progress Report

As I prepare to enter the second year of my PhD, I thought I would post a brief update on what I have accomplished in my first year.

Firstly, I completed all of my required coursework, and right on time – the last month of my second semester did shift to remote seminar discussions, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to complete most of my coursework in-person with all of my brilliant classmates.

This year I wrote my short thesis proposal, which was accepted without revisions by the PhD committee.

I had two conference papers accepted, although I unfortunately was not able to attend either conference – one was cancelled due to COVID-19, and the other I was unable to attend because I had an emergency dental extraction. (Not quite as fun as a conference, I’m afraid.) I have also been working on preparing a paper for submission after receiving extensive (and incredibly helpful) feedback from some of my peers.

This year I was the TA for two required classes in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia. I did not have a TA role during my MA, so I have learned a lot alongside my students! Along with my TA role, I was able to take on a few different Research Assistant roles, including work in the McMaster Institution for Researching on Aging and the Pulse Lab.

Over the summer, my colleague and I organized a peer mentorship program for incoming PhD students – because of COVID restrictions, we aren’t able to have the typical welcome events that allow them to get to know their CSMM community, so this has been a great way to get to know the new students and to answer their questions. I’m happy to say that about 3/4 of current students signed up as peer mentors!

Looking ahead, my second year will involve my comprehensive exams. I will also start a diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research, which means more coursework. In the fall semester, I will be taking on the role of Super TA, a new position the department has created. As Super TA, I will be responsible for coordinating tutorial content and managing the other TAs to ensure smooth operation of the course. This is a large, required second-year undergraduate course, and with the move to remote learning I think having this intermediate role to deal with organizational and administrative functions of the course will prove useful.

Hopefully I will be able to post an update this semester about my experiences learning and teaching remotely.