Living in a Box

So it’s now been about two months since major shutdowns and “shelter-in-place” orders stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic started. My university switched us all over to online classes starting on March 16, and we’re a week or so past the last day of classes for the semester. To say it has been a strange and challenging transition would be like saying that Andy Dick is “a little quirky”–it just doesn’t truly express the magnitude of the reality of things.

One thing I discovered very quickly is that it takes about four times longer to prepare for, and deliver, a class online than it does in person. When I’m at school it is not unusual for me to be dialed into some project or another in my office only to glance at the clock and realize that I have about 90 seconds to dart to whatever classroom I’m supposed to be teaching in; this typically happens when said classroom is a leisurely 6- to 8-minute walk away on the other side of campus. I run to my class, do my lecture or whatever activity is planned for the day, hang around for a few minutes if needed to chat with any students that might have questions or concerns, and then head back to my office until I have to repeat this process again. It’s not an ideal system, but it works for me, and I’ve gotten used to it.

When teaching online, however, you basically have two options. The first is the one that pretty much everyone on the planet is now familiar with: Zoom (or some Zoom-esque alternative). In case you have been living under a rock, Zoom is videoconferencing software that allows you to schedule a “meeting” that folks can join in real-time using their computers. Everyone shows up in boxes on the screen together, kind of like the opening sequence to The Brady Bunch, and it can take some time and experience with the system for people to realize that they need to mute their microphones while other people are talking. This is why it is not at all uncommon to hear all kinds of random cacophony (e.g., dogs barking, babies and children screaming, flatulence, the porn playing in another window that you forgot to mute) during any given Zoom meeting.

Zoom also gives people the option to insert virtual backgrounds into their video feeds without needing a green screen or any technical know-how. This can be amusing; at the start of the pandemic, one of my students put up a background image of a meme-type photograph that was making the rounds online of some doomsday prepper’s mountainous hoard of toilet paper, which everyone got a kick out of. I myself tried out a number of different backgrounds–a photo of the Verrazzano Bridge at night; the leafy quadrangle in front of Knight Library at the University of Oregon; the bridge of the Enterprise-E; Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream; a close-up photograph of a bowl of green gelatin cubes; a video loop of open-heart surgery. Because why not?

Some people will also join Zoom meetings using their phones instead of their computers, which is a terrible idea. I don’t care what kind of claims T-Mobile or AT&T or Verizon or any of the other carriers make about the supposed superiority and availability of their 5G or 4G or 3D or PP or G2G or TNT or whatever the hell else they have… cellular data is horrible, always and everywhere. Even if you have a top-of-the-line phone and have a crystal-clear connection that lets everyone marvel at how well they can see and hear you, by law this is only permitted for a few minutes. Invariably what will happen is that the signal will instantly degrade at precisely the moment you least want it to. Your image will become little more than a muddy pixilated smear and your audio will stutter so badly that even James Earl Jones would raise an eyebrow. All the while you are completely oblivious to what is happening, so while you think you’re giving a fantastic report on how well the new software is working out for your department, everyone else is going to think you were saying something about ham salad giving you diarrhea.

The big downside to using Zoom to teach undergraduates is that students quickly figure out that they can not only mute themselves, but also turn off their video–and there’s no way for the instructor (that’s the “host” in Zoom parlance) to prevent this or to turn their cameras on[1]. So it can be the case that you end up lecturing for an hour to a grid full of silent, empty black boxes instead of faces, which doesn’t feel that far removed from just simply talking to yourself out loud like an insane person.

* * *

The other alternative, if you don’t want to use Zoom, is to do your classes asynchronously, meaning there’s no set “schedule” or specific time of day that people have to meet. Instead, people log on at their leisure whenever they have time, do whatever assignments or activities are due next, and sign off. That’s advantageous for a lot of people, especially during “normal” stretches of time, as it allows folks to work during the day and do their schoolwork at night or on off days. However, the downside is that these kinds of classes often lack any discernible sense of camaraderie or community–it’s hard to get psyched about writing replies to people you’ve never met and can’t see on a boring message board[2], so it’s up to the instructor to try and make things more interesting.

One of the things that I tried, for example, was recording video lectures wherein I tried to preserve the same conversational style that I use in person, but it appeared that maybe one out of every six students would actually watch these, suggesting that I needed to attach either a proverbial “carrot” or “stick” to the viewing of these videos–after all, these were supposed to be substitutes for real-life lectures, and I worked hard on them, dammit! When you stand up to deliver class material in person, you just do it–and when the class period is over, it’s over. Put another way, the process looks like this:

  1. Prepare for class (i.e., review the material to be covered; decide how to best present this material, and make ready any visual aids, activities, handouts, etc. that will be needed).
  2. Go to class and do the thing.
  3. Review how things went afterwards so that you can do it even better the next time.

But when you’re preparing these things at home, and you’re an anxious perfectionist like me, the process becomes much, much more involved…

  1. Review the material to be covered.
  2. Create an outline that quickly spirals beyond anything you reasonably know how to do.
  3. Attempt to record your lecture while barely holding back from weeping openly, knowing full well that the quality will make public access cable shows look like masterpieces by Martin Scorsese.
  4. Discover that for some reason the video app crashed part of the way through this process, and you have to do it again.
  5. Attempt to edit out any mistakes or technical errors, despite the fact that the computer will spit back some unresolvable error message that Google has never heard of.
  6. Upload the completed semi-okay video to the university’s video server, which will take roughly three hours despite the fact that you pay for what is supposedly “gigabit-speed Internet” at home.
  7. Post the video only to discover that it is 3:30 AM, you are out of wine, and you have to take the dog to the vet in less than 5 hours.
  8. Contemplate death.

After we were all told “go home and stay there” by the university administration earlier in the semester, I used a mixture of both of these approaches, and admittedly, I’ve now streamlined the processes at least a bit so that every time something goes wrong I don’t immediately feel like a consummate failure and break down crying.

But really, what else can you do? This is a strange new (bad) world we now live in. Let’s just hope that students are in fact still learning… that’s about the best we educators can hope for.

  1. Not that I think I would ever actually want to do this, even if I could… I was a college student myself and I remember quite well how disgusting I was.[]
  2. An alarming number of online classes make posting on message boards a massive part of the so-called “learning process,” oftentimes with arbitrary rules in place–e.g., post a reply to a prompt, and then respond to at least three of your classmates before the deadline. Shoot me in the face. There’s a reason no one uses message boards anymore–they are deathly boring.[]