On the fourth day of spring break, our university’s president announces that no one is to return to campus. Two cases of Covid-19 have been reported i
On the fourth day of spring break, our university’s president announces that no one is to return to campus. Two cases of Covid-19 have been reported in our state. All classes will be moving online. Soon afterward, the members of the humanities faculty receive an email from our dean telling us that “the development of a quality online course takes at least two years.” We have 12 days. I feel like a runner with decent times in the 800 meters whose coach says, You still get to go to the track meet, but we’ve switched you to the pole vault!
The dean notes encouragingly that Isaac Newton did his best work when Cambridge University closed during the plague.
Each spring, I teach Writing about Oneself, a class on first-person reading and writing, to 12 Yale undergraduates chosen from 100 or so. The number of applicants has nothing to do with my skills as an instructor. The key word is “Oneself,” which is irresistible to 20-year-olds. If my class were called Writing about the Universe, hardly anyone would apply.
Every year I fill out the registrar’s Pedagogical Needs Request Form, leaving 14 of the 15 “Technological Needs” boxes unchecked. (No, I don’t need a SMART board. No, I don’t need a digital projector. No, I don’t need a Blu-ray player.) The only box I check is “Other.” I explain that because the class requires intimacy, my only Pedagogical Need is a round table in the smallest possible room. I add, “The sort of discussions we have don’t work well when the students are spread too far apart.”
I always hope we’ll be assigned to Linsly-Chittenden 212, a tiny room in a faux-Gothic hall built in 1907. In the years when Writing about Oneself—or WaO, as my students and I refer to it—has been assigned a larger room, we have removed the center leaves of the big oval table every week, carried them to the side of the room, and replaced them at the end of class: the precise opposite of social distancing.
During the remainder of the spring semester, there will be five WaO classes, each 2 hours and 50 minutes; 18 hour-long conferences in which my students and I will edit their work together; 12 half-hour conferences in which we’ll talk about their overall accomplishments; 8 hour-long conferences with my advisees in the Writing Concentration; 5 half-hour conferences with my other advisees; and an as-yet-unknown number of additional meetings with students and faculty. All will be conducted via Zoom.
I have never used Zoom. I am having enough trouble figuring out how to use my new BlackBerry (itself an anachronism), which replaced my old BlackBerry, which did not support either Android or iOS apps, which meant I was the only person I knew who couldn’t call a Lyft, which meant that whenever I needed a ride I had to ask my students to reserve one and hand them a small stack of dollar bills. At the moment, my new BlackBerry sends but refuses to receive texts. It makes little pings at all hours to alert me to various things that I call “things” because I have no idea what they are.
This does not bode well.
I sign up for an online Zoom class taught by the university’s educational technology staff.
Our Zoom teacher is named Brian. I expect him to speak from a high-tech office, but of course he doesn’t. Most campus buildings are closed. Brian addresses us from his bedroom, which has an impressive record collection, an electric-guitar case, a full wastebasket, a bowl of pet food, and a bed whose duvet is slightly askew. He has a beard and a voice so soothing that he sounds as if he is telling a bedtime story. This is exactly what we need. The other faculty members who are taking the class—I see their diminutive heads, some of them gray-haired, arrayed in a vertical column on the right of my screen—are probably as terrified as I am.
Brian is an excellent teacher. He shows us how to sign in to the university’s Zoom page and calmly guides us through the mysteries of Gallery vs. Speaker View, Spotlight Video, Microphone Mute and Unmute, Chat, Screen Share, Whiteboard, and Breakout Rooms. I’ve heard Zoom images described as “squares,” but I see now that they’re horizontal rectangles, each inhabited by a face. In addition to us real students, Brian has four pretend students, one per rectangle. Two of them, Clare and Timberley, whose names are displayed below them in white, are fellow educational technology staffers. They wave at us. The other two—Barry, a small blue teddy bear, and Yoda, who is crocheted—do not wave.