Teaching Today

An Essential Worker

Deborah Parker describes why she decided to teach in person this semester and what she's learned from it.

December 9, 2020
 
Molly Jordan Angevine
Students in Deborah Parker's advanced Italian class
 

Life as a professor in the COVID-19 era is disconcerting, even eerie. I’m the only person among the 45 teaching members of my department who opted to deliver my classes in person this semester. In early September, I taught my first in-person class. I walked across an empty campus before entering a building of empty corridors and classrooms.

Eight weeks later, I still see those empty spaces, but my classroom isn’t empty. From the onset, I wanted to teach in person. I’ve found Zoom meetings tedious and think students already spend too much time in front of computer screens. I wanted to engage students directly, knowing that meeting in person would be more fulfilling for both them and me.

I did not make the decision to teach in person lightly. Like most people, safety has been uppermost in my mind. I’ve been in life-threatening situations before and have residual preconditions: I’m over 65 and have had four recurrences of lymphoma. When I raised the subject with my doctors, however, they said I could teach in person as long as I and the students wore masks.

The next step was learning how to manage that risk. An essential component to teaching in person is a robust institutional infrastructure. Fortunately, the University of Virginia provides one: administrators email faculty and students regularly with updates on protocols and safety measures; classrooms have been reconfigured; libraries are scanning a massive amount of materials for faculty; Zoom workshops abound. I know whom to contact if I have questions. “Can I give quizzes on paper?” elicited the reassuring response that COVID-19 lasts only seconds on soft surfaces.

Informing oneself of adjustments that have been made to classrooms is no less essential, and that is best done in person. In July, I made an appointment with a classroom support technician. The new features were impressive. The facilities management staff had added high-performance air filters, ceiling microphones and Plexiglas barriers to classrooms, as well as bottles of antiseptic solutions and paper towels so students would be able wipe down their desks after every class. They also added a second computer screen to accommodate students taking the course remotely: those off grounds could see the class, and we could see them.

No Regrets

I have not regretted my decision. Over the last eight weeks, all students enrolled in my Renaissance literature and art course have come to it, and 11 of 13 have attended the advanced grammar course. The two students taking the course remotely have been included synchronously. Technical support has been crucial to making this work. Glitches have occurred, but the technician has always been on hand.

And the rewards have far outweighed those occasional tech problems. Since the beginning, students have told me how difficult it is to remain engaged and focused on Zoom. They’ve missed interacting with the professors and other students. Many told me that my class was the only in-person one they had this semester, and simply leaving the house was a welcome change from the hours of confinement they’ve had to endure.

I, in turn, have become acutely aware of the importance of student activities that we took for granted in the pre-COVID era: reacting spontaneously to classmates during discussions, chattering among each other before and after a class, making eye contact, catching up with friends as they walk from one class to another, and creating a community. Not having the opportunity to make connections is especially important for first-year students.

Students can laugh and speak more freely in in-person settings. The value of spontaneity cannot be overestimated. I was surprised to see how little it takes to prompt giggling. Most recently, the whole class laughed every time they saw the cat of a student, who was taking the class on Zoom that day. Lighthearted moments are all the more important when one realizes how difficult it is for many students to feel optimistic about just about anything these days.

Both my classes are taught in Italian. I find it also much easier to correct pronunciation and grammar errors in person; the pace is livelier and faster, and I know when someone has finished speaking or when an activity is over. I can conduct office hours in person by meeting the student in our classroom after class.

Wearing masks does not complicate speaking up in class, much less in a foreign language. I asked my students if they felt masks inhibited their speaking abilities, and every student said no. Sound on Zoom is already compromised since most students use the default computer microphones and speakers. I simply ask them to speak up. Small group activities are also not unduly compromised: students can address one another across the desks. The configuration is not a huddle, but it works.

All that said, teaching in person is not without challenges. Constant vigilance is required to include the students on Zoom. At times, they cannot hear the students in class very well. Attendance can be spotty. A colleague in another department informed me that only one-fifth of her students show up for class. They don’t like getting up early or coming out for an in-person class only to rush home for a Zoom class. But the latter problem is easily remedied: the campus has plenty of empty spaces for students to open up their computers.

I’ve, in fact, been lucky. All the students in one class have come every day, and 85 percent of them attend the grammar class. Since the beginning of the semester, five students have taken the class on Zoom rather than in person for one or two weeks after having come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. But they’ve all returned. Recently, they showed up soaked from a heavy rain. I couldn’t help but feel moved by their effort.

Our provost recently organized a town hall to provide faculty with information to help them all decide how they would teach in the spring. One of the participants was the director of counseling and medical services, who spoke about the mental health of students: many are suffering from loneliness and isolation and finding it difficult to interact with peers. She encouraged faculty members to create opportunities for connecting with students.

The piece of information that most struck me was the statistic a doctor from infectious diseases cited: since students returned to grounds in late August, no cases of COVID transmission have originated from classrooms.

So many friends and colleagues have expressed surprise when they’ve learned I had opted to teach in person this fall: “You’re so brave” and “you’re so dedicated to your students,” they’ve told me. I don’t know if I’m brave or more dedicated than others, but I’m happier. I feel good after every class. What I do involves some risk, but I’m also always reminded of other workers who face greater risk. And I feel that there is something essential to what I do, as well.

Bio

Deborah Parker is professor of Italian at the University of Virginia.

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