JP Studying in Phoenix around 1980

Partway through the spring semester of 2020 our lives radically changed. Dangers were discovered lurking everywhere, gathering on the surfaces we touch constantly, and getting transferred into our lungs by rubbing our eyes, scratching our noses, touching our faces. Worse, the dangers are hidden, invisible to the naked eye, and don’t manifest themselves for two weeks.  How many places do you normally go in two weeks? How many people do you see, counters you lean on, phone calls you make, while the nastiness works it way undetected through your body and your community?

I know two people with CoVid-19, one in the Spanish countryside and another in Rhode Island. It’s not good.

The upshot of all this is that we have had to radically change the way we live, communicate, and for the topic at hand, the way we teach and learn.

I am a computer geek. I teach geeky stuff. My material is easier to teach with virtual technologies than the classes of my colleagues in the physical sciences, the art department, and drama. I would guess that professors of the language arts, and communications, and psychology are all extraordinarily challenged in this new, virtual world even without the need to handle test tubes, lasers, oil paints or props.

As challenging as this is for faculty, it is doubly or triply so for our students.  They are forced to learn new ideas, discuss important concepts, develop new skills, while remaining socially distant and disconnected from their peers. This places them at a huge disadvantage.

A key factor of education is in discourse, the clear exchange of ideas, but these dialogs are hindered by the imperfections of audio, the jerkiness of video, the latency of slow networks, the difficulty of reading body language, and the ever-present distractions bounding into the home environment during classes.

As a student, I found great value in the physical process of going to school. It was a place where I could focus on my studies without the distractions of roommates on drums in the other room, or children asking you read them a story, or the temptation to take a short news break and get sucked into the rabbit hole of one internet article after another.

Most importantly, in the classroom I felt the vibrant energy of support, of interaction, of immediacy, of presence.

For me, I can learn simple tasks from books and on-line tutorials, but to learn deep knowledge requires human contact, human exchanges, human guidance.

Even though I’m now on the other side of the lectern, those same qualities are why I prefer to teach on-site, why I enjoy teaching in a classroom: it’s the personal interaction between myself and the students, and my students with each other, and the immediacy of help I can provide when they need it.

These are some of the things that make it so difficult in today’s quarantined/locked-down environment, for students and faculty alike.  Not only do we have to worry about the health of our friends and family, job security in our own household and for others, and struggling to learn new survival skills in a world already turned upside down even before the pandemic hit, we have to educate and study in a crippled environment.

The good news is this: we are adapting. My students have risen to the challenges thrown before them, have continued to excel despite the abundance of difficulties in their paths, and have shown the focus and dedication in their studies that makes us proud as faculty members.

I’ll confess that this has not been an easy transition for me. It’s tough to move from classroom to empty house, to try to deliver real and useful content from a chair, to restrict my motion in order to stay in frame, to be unable to wander in front of the whiteboard, to move between desks to study their code, field their questions, or congratulate them on their presentations.

Fortunately, my students have been understanding too, recognizing that we’re all in this together.

I’m thankful for many things. We have technology that was unthinkable a century ago, we have a supportive university that enables us to deliver maximum value to our students, and we have students that are here to learn, not just because mommy said they have to go to college.

We’re all adapting, and we’ll get through this.