I was awoken this morning by the squeak and groan of the garbage truck on my street. Its noise must have disrupted the flock of grackles in the tree outside my window, for shortly after the truck passed by, their squawking rattled our windows. I reached for my phone to look up what a flock of grackles is called. It’s called a plague.
The abrupt and necessary shift to remote teaching has many of us frazzled. These harried feelings are mixed with fear about the health of our loved ones and heightened by the isolation of social distancing.
My husband and I are both working from home; our 12-year-old’s sixth-grade curriculum is still a few days away from moving online. Our house is a cacophony of ringtones, the chime and swish of Outlook emails, and voices vying for air time on conference calls. Our son is watching YouTube tutorials while practicing his keyboard. It’s loud with technology.
The dystopic combination of social isolation and noise reminds me of this passage from William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding … ”
When I first started moving my freshman literature survey courses online, I was grateful for technology. I watched tutorials posted by my university and YouTube and took copious notes about how to use WebEx, Zoom, Sway and FlipBoard. And after hours of staring into cyberspace, I gave up.
Instead, I am updating my students by sending them a Word doc. In it are my typed lecture notes, a few bad jokes and some links to supplementary videos and readings. At the end of the document are a few questions that students can answer on the Blackboard site we had been using up until the world changed.
At first, I felt guilty about this. As if I weren’t stepping up for my students or had fallen behind teaching trends. During our department’s WebEx meeting, I did not mention my seemingly vanilla course plan. Instead I stayed quiet, petting my dog so she wouldn’t bark at the mailman while the chair was talking.
But then, shortly after the meeting, I received an email from a student. She wanted to explain why her assignments were posted late. She wrote that she was inundated with emails and overwhelmed by the shift to online learning. “It’s all so complicated right now,” she wrote, “and I just need to unplug.”
Maybe, then, it’s not a bad idea to simplify the ways we deliver our courses. Perhaps, while the world vibrates with news reports, it is beneficial to scale back the bells and whistles and take a quieter approach to teaching.
Obviously, we cannot completely avoid connecting with our students through technology, but maybe connecting in the simplest forms can be a comfort -- a way to plug in, but not too much. Maybe a Word doc is not pretty, which has me returning to this line from Neuromancer, too: “The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it.”
I am not completely shying away from aps like FlipBoard and Zoom. I am holding office hours during class times via WebEx, but these meetings are optional. They are check-ins, a space for students to ask questions about the readings or just peek into each other’s spaces and feel a little less alone. I will continue to post lessons via Word doc. And maybe this will help lessen the noise.