On March 11, when Iowa State University announced it was suspending face-to-face classes because of the coronavirus, I wrote an op-ed for the Des Moines Register, anticipating what I would miss when teaching online: “I will miss walking the fragrant paths as spring comes to life at one of the loveliest residential campuses in the world. I will miss my colleagues, the awesome architecture, the museums, outdoor sculptures, the library, Memorial Union, the athletic facilities and so much more.”
I still miss those things. Now, in my sixth week of online classes, I have a vivid mental picture of what the coronavirus stole from me in its deadly rampage: everyday occurrences and encounters that many of us took for granted.
To be sure, I am relieved that my university suspended face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester through May 31. I am grateful for so many things, including the mandate to teach online. We must do all that we can to mitigate the sorrowful toll the virus is inflicting on humanity.
There is a psychic toll, too. It is one thing to design an online course specifically chosen for digital delivery in a university office with IT support. And another to do so on short notice in midsemester at home.
I started to develop symptoms, not of coronavirus, but its phantom presence. The first started a week ago. Dreams. I had one every night now for a week. Late for class. Forgot the class. And then more specific dreams, like last night.
A distressed advisee needed a reference to stay in place in her apartment. Her father accompanied her with the landlord. They were irked with me. I had a letter for her in my office, I told them. All we had to do was find it -- my office, that is. We wandered through narrow lime-green hallways for what seemed like ages, checking name tags on doors. I had no name tag. I had no name.
I am awful with names. A DNA analysis noted, in addition to my heritage, that I am prone to prosopagnosia, or difficulty of recognizing faces. I have compensated for that by memorizing where each student sat and then, over time, associating the name with a seating place.
Consider this March 31 Facebook exchange with a former student -- let's call her Julie -- who was in my media ethics class at Ohio University in 1997:
Julie: Thanks! I appreciate your posts. Keeps me in touch with the rest of the world.
Michael Bugeja: I still remember where you sat in the Anderson Auditorium. In the back, last row on my right facing you from the lectern. About four seats in near the TV booth. (I have this mental picture of almost every class.) Was I wrong?
Julie: Yes! I am honored that you remember me.
COVID-19 stole this from me. I lacked enough time to recall everyone’s place. Now I have a ghostly image in my mind of a class with clear faces at some seats and blurred faces at others, as if memories are being erased.
True, I could ask my online students to turn on their video cameras. We tried and abandoned that after dealing with squeaky microphones and sleepy faces in questionable attire.
I have about 40 students in each section. Mine is a senior-level course, and many will graduate, meaning I will not see them again. So today I pay homage, listing 40 things I miss teaching at home, one for each student.
I miss …
- Aromatic lunches that one student brings to my noon class.
- Perfumed hallways as students dismiss from class on the hour.
- The enlightened look of a student experiencing an epiphany.
- The distracted look of a student checking social media.
- Sleepy students in my 9 a.m. class and starving ones in my noon class.
- Student athletes with their Cyclone-emblazoned duffle bags.
- Students who pack book bags before class ends, signaling to wrap it up.
- Smiling front-row students who already know the content.
- Introverted back-row students who may or may not know the content.
- Minnesota students who opted to attend college in Iowa.
- Iowa students who wish they were in Minnesota.
- Absent students who turn up asking if they missed anything important.
- The pensive student who realizes the content applies to his life.
- The excited student who taps her foot when content applies to her life.
- The student who speaks German with me and who loves “The Dark.”
- The student who showed me his vintage bass guitar.
- My teaching assistant who helps with classroom technology.
- The summoned IT specialist who helps him with classroom technology.
- My office with hundreds of books on four large wooden shelves.
- The janitor who always says hello.
- Exhausted students who work two jobs to pay tuition.
- Students recovering from a drug or alcohol problem.
- The student who apologies for a misdeed about which I never knew.
- Advisees whose internships ended prematurely because of coronavirus.
- The student lounge with CNN and Fox News on mute. No one watches.
- The hallway poster of alumnus George Washington Carver.
- The First Amendment slogan by the water cooler.
- The diligent master’s students in our basement graduate hub.
- Colleagues I seldom see who teach Tuesdays and Thursdays.
- Colleagues I often see who teach Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
- The break room refrigerator with notes about what belongs to whom.
- The candy and pop machines that charge too much. But they work now.
- Cardinal and gold flowers in beds, displaying school colors.
- The library to which I owe three overdue books.
- The parking lot outside my building with too few spaces.
- The greenhouse by our building with Little Shop of Horrors hybrids.
- The Memorial Union entrance with zodiac symbols at an institution of science and technology.
- The campanile where students smooch at midnight to bless the bond.
- Hilton Coliseum, where basketball magic happens. Or doesn’t.
- Hilton Coliseum, where commencement happens. Or doesn’t.
That's my list. You will have another. If you don’t, you should make one.
Despite optimistic timelines, we have no idea when face-to-face classes will recur. We face so many unknowns. Will the economic downturn result in lower enrollment because of cost of tuition? Will cutbacks happen because of that downturn? Will students lose relatives, friends and loved ones? Have you? Will you?
We cannot prophesy what may come. But we can be grateful for what was and perhaps will be again as we WebEx in place. So when we return, if we do perhaps in fall, we will embrace what we took for granted and start a campus COVID recovery with less social distance and more gratitude.
Be safe. Be well. Be thankful.