The following short essay looks at some ways that the COVID-19 pandemic changed how I had to teach from mid-March through May, 2020.
No hedonistic blowout for me this year in Cabo San Lucas. Instead, I had Spring Break to throw out the book from thirty years of a chalk-and-talk approach to teaching college literature.
As everyone knows, the lockdown descended with a sudden clang and colleges required faculty to switch course delivery to an on-line mode. But what did this abrupt transition mean for someone like me who, by design, would be able to teach my classes in the back of a cave, as long as someone remembered to bring candles and matches? During my teaching career, I had never used an overhead projector or a doc cam. I had never used PowerPoint.
Most of my English department colleagues at Salisbury University went with Zoom and real-time classes. I was concerned with student connectivity issues and my connectivity issues. I didn’t want to find myself in a state of slapdash disarray peppered with recurrent apologies, so I looked into what was available. My discovery of Panopto led to some surprising inversions.
Panopto allows you to integrate PowerPoint slides with a recorded lecture that could be set to open at a designated time. Upside: students could tune in whenever it suited them. Downside: there would be no real-time interaction. They would get the content of what I thought on a given text without the immediate opportunity to ask questions or make comments.
In my regular teaching mode, I approached a text by asking questions, collecting answers, and putting things on the board. No two classes on “Bartleby the Scrivener” have ever gone quite the same way. By the end of the session, I would have worked in my prepared materials with often exciting interpolations from students that sent them out with more questions to ponder: as in, what does it mean to see Bartleby not as “out of his mind” but “in his mind?” The problem with PowerPoint is its fixed and iconic semblance—the notion that herein lies the truth. Memorize the contents and you shall possess knowledge.
My challenge was to give students my thoughts within a fluid, suggestive, and open-ended medium that would invite, rather than stifle, their inferences. Consequently, I found myself using PowerPoint slides to position a work’s inarguable “Foundations” in relation to an inviting set of “Speculations”—self-empowering possibilities that would encourage students to seek their own syntheses.
Making each of these presentations took hours. A basic fact of the on-line migration was that everything took longer. I had to write extensive new notes and then conceive how each slide would operate as part of an emergent process. Once everything was set up and ready to go, I then had to do it.
It was a weird experience to talk for an hour in an otherwise empty room. In pre-pandemical times, I had taught without consulting notes, as befits the exigencies of possibly holding class in the back of a cave. In these pandemical times, however, I had to learn how to play off PowerPoint slides without simply reading them. I often found myself talking with my eyes closed, so I wouldn’t get distracted by the words on the screen. If I made a mistake, if my mind went blank for a long three seconds, if I stumbled on a word or phrase, I would simply tell the microphone that this was Live Radio with no going back.
To give students a “voice,” I set up online Discussion opportunities that derived from the speculative materials of each session. About 50% of students regularly participated, roughly the same percentage as in my normal classroom mode. Many students showed they were hungry to think and have an audience. Some wrote affecting, even brilliant responses on subjects like “situational ethics” in Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles,” a one-act play dramatizing the hunt for clues after a woman snaps and hangs her sleeping husband following decades of emotional abuse. I made a point of commenting on every student contribution—an arduous practice that reminded me of why, early in my career, I had given up on student journals.
The lockdown forced me to learn an entirely new way to teach—one that I think would justly fall under the heading of what my children used to call “Opposite Day.” When one of them said “Hi,” it meant “Goodbye,” and so on. For each of us, every online class was a pedagogical version of “Opposite Day.” Students also had to become comfortable with their own inversions and displacements. They had to connect their reading of that day’s material with my words unfolding on a screen and my disembodied voice emanating from the Magic Box. Looking back, I think it worked. I hope we were meeting and, in the process, overcoming connectivity issues of whatever kind.
The only sound in the room was the mellifluous lilt of Miss Pinot’s voice as she read to her second grade class. As we listened, we drifted through a late afternoon languor that would soon give way to leaving noises and a clanging dismissal bell. I can’t remember anything that the Bobbsey Twins ever did, but I can still feel the sense of immersion, of rapt concentration and leaning-forward intensity, a longing to live inside the entangling contours of story.