Robert McEachern contemplates the first time in many years that he didn't spend the first day of classes roaming the halls of his university helping students who couldn't find their way.

September 17, 2020

Classes started recently at my university. We are offering a combination of modalities to students: face-to-face, HyFlex, online synchronous and asynchronous, and multiple species of hybrid.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not on the campus. A blood cancer diagnosis from 12 years ago puts me and my “imperfect immune system,” as my oncologist calls it, at higher-than-normal risk. I’m teaching online instead.

I wish I could be there. It’s the first time in many, many years that I didn’t spend the first day of classes roaming the halls of the university. Or, more accurately, standing in the halls, guiding lost students.

The building that houses my department is the biggest on campus. On the first day of the semester, I usually park myself at an intersection in the hallway, where the B, C, and D wings of the building intersect. It’s a good place to stop. Students who are lost will see that the room numbers have suddenly changed, from B200-something to C200-something, and they look around, panicked, for someone who might be able to help them find a classroom or office. Someone like me, standing in one spot, who looks like they’ve been around the place for a while.

I wish they’d taken a little time before the semester started to visit the campus and find their classrooms, but I know that’s not always possible for every student. Plus, I like to feel helpful.

About 75 percent of the time, the lost students are looking for the third floor. It’s a strange section of the building, since it only exists in about half of the B wing. The third floor doesn’t have many classrooms, so few students ever need to go up there during their time at the institution. The sign that directs people to the third-floor stairwell hangs from the ceiling. If you’re looking at classroom numbers on doors, you won’t even know the sign is there.

Occasionally, students are looking for a particular second-floor seminar room. It’s another anomaly, located in the Neverland where I usually stand on the first day, labeled as being in the C wing, but not quite located in the C wing, though not exactly in B or D, either.

Sometimes they need to find a certain small classroom in the basement. It’s another odd room that’s out of numerical order. Students who are on the second floor, where I am standing, but looking for a basement room, are ones that I especially worry about.

These are some of the little building quirks that one learns after so many years of teaching classes and attending faculty seminars and committee meetings.

A couple of years ago, a student who was sitting on the bench near my first-day spot, and who had apparently been observing me, asked me if she could get me a cup of coffee. I declined, but she said she wanted to thank me for helping other students.

“I wish someone had helped me find rooms on my first day four years ago,” she said.

Many old, familiar colleagues pass by me on the way to their own first-day classes. We’ve all been on the same MWF schedule for years. They’ll make the same jokes that they made the semesters before: “Excuse me,” they’ll say, occasionally stroking their graying hair to emphasize the irony. “I’m a new student. Can you tell me where the sociology department is?” Or maybe, “Getting lots of business today?” Or, best, a happy “Welcome back” or “Have a good semester.”

The university’s MWF morning classes end on the hour and start at 10 minutes after the hour, so normally on the first day of classes when I’m not teaching, I leave my office for my first-day spot at about five minutes before classes get out. The number of lost students picks up after the top of the hour, as they leave one class and look for the next. The urgency increases as the minutes tick away. I stay in my spot until 15 minutes past the hour, five minutes after classes have started. Sometimes a colleague will pass and ask why I’m still there when the hall is nearly empty. I tell them it’s because lost students who are five minutes late for their first class are the ones who need my help the most.

The first week of classes this year, as muscle memory prepared me for familiar beginning-of-semester routines, it occurred to me: Who is going to direct the lost students? Who will show them where the third floor is? Who will tell them how to find the weirdly placed offices and seminar rooms? Even if I were on the campus, I don’t think I’d have been able to stand in the hallway like I used to. Too risky to do that in a time of social distancing.

And so, I fear, a lot of students were directionless that first week.

I wish I could have been there to help them and catch up with colleagues. I wish someone else had been allowed to stand in my place and do the job. I wish I knew if I should have been teaching on campus in some form this semester. I wish I knew whether anyone should be. I wish I knew whether my own son’s college should be teaching in-person classes these days. I wish I knew whether my daughter’s college needs to be completely online. I wish I knew which decisions were the right ones.

I wish someone, anyone, would be able to give directions.


Robert McEachern is professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.


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