Beginning Again

Beginning Again

After teaching my first emergency distance-learning class, I burst into tears.

My upper-level seminar class contained just eight students, so we met on Zoom as I thought it would do us all good to see one another. But the experience was nothing like I had come to know and love in a face-to-face environment. With mics muted, we couldn’t hear ambient noise, or laugh with one another, or quickly follow up with one another’s comments. Some students had tech issues and some had connection issues, and I talked for so much more of the class than I ever would in ordinary circumstances.

It crushed me to feel so disconnected. As I put together my courses over spring break I had been looking forward to teaching again, but now that I was teaching again, it felt alienating, not familiar. I knew I had to re-calibrate, but I couldn’t seem to get the shock of how bad that first class had felt.

Truth was, I needed to grieve the loss of the physical classroom, my office, and the right-in-front-of-me relationships with my students. I didn’t realize this, however, until I showed up for Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel‘s first set of office hours for educators (which you can read about in this lovely piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed.). There I asked for help in reframing my trimester as something other than a terrible loss. Jesse replied, in the chat window – “Isn’t it all loss right now?” and I almost burst into tears again. This time it was because someone affirmed that there was loss involved in switching teaching gears this way, and I didn’t have to put a cheery face on an experience that was disorienting and made me sad.

Jesse suggested that for him, it was easier to feel the buzz of a room through textual means rather than audio or visual cues. I’d already set up a Slack channel to communicate with my students, so I decided I’d make a channel for us to discuss books there, and give that a try.

It was a revelation. We couldn’t see each other, but people’s senses of humor came through in every gif deployed to sum up a historian’s argument. We could leave emoji reactions on each other’s comments, so even when discussion moved fast, I could affirm to everyone contributing that I’d seen their words and thought they were great. We could bounce ideas one off each other, and I could pull in documents and images from the web when the conversation took a new turn.

At the end of last week I polled my students to ask if they wanted to do Zoom or Slack, and they all said Slack. I felt profound gratitude and relief.

I wanted to record this moment because the stories I’ve seen circulating on twitter have mostly been success stories – stories about flawless switches to a new online environment and about loving students and finding purpose in being with them. I am 100% behind everyone who’s had that experience; who wouldn’t want to celebrate that? But I also know I’m not the only person who must have had major hiccups in trying to get this thing rolling, who’s felt terrible loss as they’ve done so, and who didn’t have the resources or energy within themselves to solve the problem alone.

I needed a community of teachers to give me ideas for getting online, and to hold space for me when I couldn’t figure it out, and to give me advice when I felt completely isolated. I needed Sean and Jesse’s office hours, and simple affirmations of kindness. I needed time, and to push back against the narrative that time is a scarce commodity.

I needed the space to understand that one (or three, or five) awful class(es) through a brand-new medium did not an awful teacher make. I needed to know it’s okay to be a beginner again. And if that’s you, I want to affirm how hard you’re working, how much you’re putting into this, how hard it is to make this switch on a dime, and how many people there are who can help you.

Thank you, everyone, for trying – for ourselves, for our institutions, and most of all for our students. Thank you for dealing with loss and change even as you have to keep moving forward. Thank you for showing up exactly as you are, and becoming a beginner again, just like me.

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