Stirred, Not Shaken

Dragonfruit martinis. Made in calmer times.

Screw lemonade. If life gives you lemons, find someone who got vodka and make a martini.

I have been teaching college classes online since March 21.

Do I enjoy it? Not particularly. Is it a lot more work? God, yes. Do I feel like 3 days was enough time to prepare, or that retrospectively those three days were used wisely? No. Do I feel like I will get better at this? Definitely. Do I think the students are getting as much out of it as they would from an in-person experience? Definitely not. Am I worried about how this is going to affect my course evaluations, or my research program? Research, yes, oddly no for evals.

And yet, throughout these last few weeks, my overall predominant feeling has been one of gratitude. And I’m not just talking about the “obvious” breaths of fresh air like being able to work from home without having to be furloughed, or having a job that—ironic, since I’m pre-tenure—is stable in this crazy market. I’m not just talking about having a clean, quiet apartment where I can record videos or turn my camera on without feeling embarrassed about what’s in the background. I’m not just talking about having enough money to pay rent, and the internet bill (arguably at this point more important than rent).

I feel absolutely terrible for my students right now. They did not sign up for this. They thought they were coming back from spring break, so who would bring their calc ii materials home? A lot of them do not have calculators, their notes, etc., and there is 0 plan to return those items to them in anything resembling the near future. They are now having to share space with family, including very noisy younger siblings; they’re having to share computers possibly with others who need the computer for their classes or their jobs. Many of their family members, quite frankly, are taking advantage of the extra hands and asking students to spend what would otherwise be their time for class helping out around the house—watching younger siblings, acting as a chauffeur to other relatives.

Despite all of this, there are still a nontrivial number who are trying to learn. I made my regular class time office hours. I did not expect that many to come. But easily 20/36 students are appearing EVERY DAY. Granted, that’s terrible compared to our in-person realities (but students at Navy are required daily to be on time and not leave early, not just in attendance); but given the circumstances and time zone issues alone, I’m rather impressed. I’m making Khan-academy esque videos for them to watch with printed transcripts in case bandwidth is an issue. They’re actually asking questions in office hours about the videos. They are ALL doing on time and with zero complaint the “easter egg” problems I’ve hidden in the videos for them to work by hand and upload. They are giving me honest, and constructive, feedback as I ask them how new methods of assessment are working.

And so, for the first time…really, ever…if a student emails me asking for more help or a private meeting—I’m going to do everything in my power to comply. I’ve been notorious for having packed office hours, and for putting a lot of time in for students who put in a lot of time, but we’re at the next level here because our current situation is next level. If I have to, I’m now meeting with students outside regular business hours. Since this started and even tomorrow I have met and will meet with students on Saturdays. Each of those Saturdays they’ve had a list of questions, haven’t wasted my time, have seemed very grateful for my time, and that was the only time they had. So if they’re still fighting this uphill battle trying to understand challenging material to the best of their ability, I will be the vodka to their lemon.

I also feel sad for some of my colleagues (and I’m using that term broadly to include those not just at my current institution). A lot of them have children, which seem draining of resources and borderline counterproductive even without a pandemic and a “work from home” order. Many who are more…established, so to speak…also are not very savvy with or embracing of technology; they also aren’t used to being forced to do anything, let alone something they weren’t at least consulted on beforehand. Many who are less established don’t have the money to afford the technology one ideally would use to make quality online classroom experiences; throw in a kid or two, and their lives do not sound like fun right now.

So I’m sharing my materials with my colleagues. And more have started sharing their materials too—including materials from before Spring break to help students who again don’t have their notes. Many have assigned their students my videos to watch; I have given my students their handouts for earlier sections where I didn’t already have a handout. We are making cocktails left and right.

Despite being completely by myself, it’s hard to complain too much with my new office view.

Those colleagues who know me well I think feel somewhat sad for me. Because in these times of social distancing and isolating, I truly am alone. I have no roommate, no children, not even a cat or a dog.  No one working for the greater D.o.D can travel outside an x-mile radius for the foreseeable future, so it’s not like I’m able to pack up and drive to a relative’s for company. But quite a few neighbors in my apartment have left. The apartment complex itself is nestled between a golf course and a (shut-down now) elementary school. You can hear a pin drop. But again I am grateful. Four of five working days next week I have online coffee breaks with colleagues. Another working night I have a faculty online happy hour. Just to hear a voice or see a face that isn’t one of a student. Maybe that’s making Irish coffees as well as martinis, but also maybe by now you get my point.

None of us asked for this. Many of us have hardships in transitioning online or working from home, and that’s assuming we don’t have additional hardships because of actual medical or serious financial problems. But there’s really no point even in focusing on how bad it is, because it’s not going to change the reality that this is our reality. Reflect at the end of the term, reflect when this is over. There’s no time to reflect now.

Right now, the only thing you can do is make martinis.

Go above and beyond for those students who are trying their all to beat the odds. Help your colleagues by sharing materials, by offering to help them figure out technology, by having online coffee breaks. People know things are bad; try not to add to the depression of others, including yourself. It is hard, but if we couldn’t do hard things, we wouldn’t have Ph.D.’s; if we couldn’t do hard things, we wouldn’t be the ones teaching others how to do anything. Find something to be grateful for—whether it’s the peace that comes from having no children, or the lack of loneliness that comes from having them.


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