And just like that, the world was thrown off kilter, and with it, the realm of teaching. Our physical classroom at the university had to move online. Full-time and part-time professors had to sign up for a two-hour online training about how to teach using video technology—Zoom—and it had to be done now.
I’d taught classes online before using Zoom, but there were plenty of novices among the seventy-plus professors who crowded into the online training session, which was presented on Zoom. The questions in the “chat” came rapid-fire:“What about running labs in science?” “Group presentations?” “Can you record the sessions?” “Should I use a personal Zoom account?” The presenter had two helpers who typed responses. Showing us his Zoom screen, the presenter demonstrated how to log on, send a link to students, use the “white board,” the “chat,” and “participants.”
“Things won’t be as free-flowing as a classroom,” he said.
He also suggested we advise students to: 1) dress appropriately—no lying in bed or in pajamas; 2) find a quiet place so they could hear the lecture; 3) mute their microphone if they weren’t speaking; and 4) not to use Zoom while driving. “We had one student try that,” he added.
Depending on the class, we could record a lecture and send it to students, or run a real-time class. I teach a three-hour seminar class, looking closely at sentences, and 90 percent of that time we are discussing literature. It is dynamic, quasi-Socratic method, with students and myself asking questions, so it would be synchronous teaching.
Most of my students were in their twenties, living in San Francisco, and I imagined loud roommates in the background talking or playing music. Or the rustling of papers. Or the toilet flushing. I planned to mute everyone so they could hear each other. I’d ask students to use Zoom’s “raise hand” feature if they wanted to speak. I’d also build in more than the usual number of breaks so students could eat, stretch, use the bathroom. It would be orderly, controlled, a bit stifled, but with clear audio. If the class lasted two and half hours, I would consider it a success.
Before class I sent out the link to students so they could download Zoom and offered to do a test run to make sure their audio and video worked. Five out of the eleven students took my offer. The days leading up to the ‘real’ class were spent working out the tech kinks.
Class would go well—or not. It would be lively—or not. It would be similar to the class—or not at all. Maybe no one would talk or the technology wouldn’t work, or the students would feel uncomfortable and the format would be stifling.
When it was nearly time for class, I e-mailed the Zoom link and waited. Minutes ticked by. What if no one showed up? The presenter hadn’t gone through that scenario. The first one in the “room” was a young man in his twenties.
“There you are,” I said. “How are you? Are you doing OK?”
He waved. “Doing fine. Nice to be back in class.”
Then another student, and another, and it felt like a reunion, as if the wind had swept everyone up and flung them far and wide and years and years had gone by. But the gust suddenly had changed and whirled them back into my orbit and here we were again—we were all so excited to see one another.
“How is everyone?”’ I said. “Is everyone OK?”
They began to talk and tell jokes, and one student who refused to turn on his video, saying he looked too tired, was convinced to do so—and there he was, smiling sheepishly.
“You said you looked tired, dude, and you do, but you always look that way,” said one of the students.
Everyone laughed and it felt so good to laugh.
One student said he lost his job—he was a waiter at a restaurant. “Hey, it’s not so bad,” he said. “I didn’t earn that much so the fall isn’t far.” Then another student said she’d lost her restaurant job, too. Then another—let go as a substitute teacher. “And I really liked the job,” she said. Someone said she wished she’d lose her job, she hated it, and we all laughed. We were a group that existed prior to Covid-19, a solid group, and we were all here. Except one.
“Where is she?” one student said.
“Let’s wait,” I said.
I showed them around Zoom—here’s the chat button, here’s the mute button, the participant button. I sat back and waited for the student, listening to them talk, and there was the usual banter and joking and ribbing, “Hey, where are you? What’s that lame poster behind you?” “Did you move back home.” “Yeah.” No one was in their pajamas or stretched out in bed, but I wouldn’t have minded.
When the face of the final student popped up on the screen, everyone cheered. She sat in her kitchen, half her face lit up by the sun, the other half in shadows like a marvelous piece of art.
It took a minute, not even that, to immerse ourselves in the work—the sentences they’d written for class, and sentences from the work they’d read for class—Gabriel García Márquez, Lauren Groff, and Rivka Galchen. We were doing what we used to do in a physical classroom: We were asking why write it like this—why use this word? This image? What’s the effect? And we, as always, were astonished by each other’s work, at the magic of the right word, the right image, the right rhythm. Everything else—the virus, the fear, the panic, the boredom, the sense that the world was ending—wonderfully vanished.
Three hours later, class came to an end.
I’d forgotten to mute everyone; I’d forgotten to ask them to raise their hands. I’d forgotten because there was no need; the dynamic that had been created in the physical room had waltzed into our digital room.
“If anyone hears of job openings, pass them along,” I said.
“And buy books from your independent bookstore,” said one of the students who worked at an independent bookstore. “We ship.”
“And stay safe,” said another student.
Yes, please, stay safe.
Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for general fiction and was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her nonfiction book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, was a Small Press Distribution best-seller. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and the Writing Room.