Dispatches from Digital Teaching

When I teach RHE 306, an introductory rhetoric and writing course here at UT Austin, I prefer to meet with students one-on-one for individualized, mandatory writing consultations. This year these consultations took place on Zoom. These consultations provided the first time I have seen any of their faces since our last class on March 13th and the last time I will see most of them until our next and final consultation cycle in May (with the exception of students who take may visit me in digital office hours).

Here are some things my students have told me:

  • The #1 concern that students had in regards to completing the coursework was finding a quiet place to write without distractions.
  • Several students left their textbook for class on campus. I verbally admitted that the way I teach this class, it is possible to skim the textbook after sitting through my lectures if necessary and still make an A. With the pivot to an asynchronous, text-based course, the textbook is necessary to do well in the class. (They did not have to say: they know that I know they know I have essentially let them slide by without doing all of the textbook reading).
  • Students who were struggling with physical and mental health issues earlier in the semester can continue to do so. Some of these students can continue to recover and thrive. Sometimes these are the same students.
  • Students still get stomach viruses, still oversleep through assignments, still misread directions.
  • A non-Jewish student will wish you “Happy Passover” and show curiosity as to how a virtual seder.
  • That they are just taking it one day at a time.

Dispatches from What I Have Learned:

  • I have met two of my students’ dogs, one cat, exchanged a wave with a parent, and heard the babbling of a 5 year old brother.
  • Everyone has met my cat. He screams incessantly if he cannot sit in my lap and has been known to aggressively push my laptop off the desk during Zoom meetings.
  • I am immune to the screaming of my cat during Zoom recordings and digital lectures. He quite literally — not figuratively, literally literally — be yowling and knocking over furniture in the background of a recording and I will not notice until editing.
  • I try not to begin a consultation with a cat in my lap. For one thing, it is better to jump straight to the point and then allow the cat to verge in on “professionalism.” For another, there is something slightly diabolical about beginning a hazy video conference stroking a cat on your lap as a Bond villain.
  • No one cares if a cat is on your lap.
  • No one cares about professionalism.
  • That I do not care if they show up in pajamas.
  • Wear sweatpants under a nice button up shirt with blazers. Just do it.
  • But wear the nice button ups and blazers just to feel alive.
  • Sometimes the internet at your apartment complex will short out, now that everyone in the building is sequestered and constantly online. That sometimes you will give students extra days to complete the revision assignment because your internet was down.
  • That you do not care if they lie to you about their internet being down. If they seem to be fabricating an excuse, they probably have a good reason.
  • That you trust your students.
  • You will do consultations on the first day of Passover, a day you did not expect to be teaching class. It is not like you are cooking for a host of people and, to be frank, you are getting lonely.
  • That oh my god, you have to (digitally) get out more.
  • That it unnerves people to assure them that the university has ensured that each instructor has a “backup” in case I die before final grades are in. You make a note to word things more delicately.
  • You make a note to word things more delicately since you primarily communicate through the written word now. You know that you come across blunt, even accidentally harsh, on paper when students cannot see your facial expressions and hear your voice. You don’t have your Southern drawl to save you.
  • You can’t figure out how to do the backgrounds on Zoom and do not care, You kinda wish you could figure out how to do a Star Wars background but ultimately decide that would be more distracting.
  • Students who engaged assignments well in lecture sometimes struggle to understand assignments in primarily text-based courses. Students who spoke little in class sometimes produce the best discussion posts on the now-mandatory discussion board. You engage all and consider keeping mandatory discussion posts as a crucial element in your course design so we survive this and return to the classroom.
  • That even when your own research feels superfluous when the world is like this:
  • …that your responsibility as a teacher never does.
  • That you are also taking it one day at a time.

Things That You Will Tell Them:

  • That you have never taught a digital class before and you are still figuring out the technology. (You realize they will figure that one out soon enough anyway).
  • That your internet cut out and would you like a few days extension since we could not have our consultation as scheduled?
  • That I have a deadline set by the department for turning in final grades but otherwise deadlines do not matter as much when time is revealed to be fake.
  • Take it one day at a time.

Happy Pesach, chaverim. לשנה הבאה בירושלים.

And an early Happy Easter to those who celebrate that holiday as well!

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