Simple Presence

When classes adjourned in March amid stay-at-home orders and campus closures all over the country, I moved my classes online for the last four weeks of the term like everyone else. I quickly pared down my literature courses into only their most essential parts: read, demonstrate evidence of reading, and write the final literary analysis essay.

I complained that online teaching was all of the worst parts of teaching (grading, standing at the scanner, fielding frantic requests for extensions) with none of the rewards (surprise, banter, relationships, intellectual exchange). I joked that if I didn’t get to go back to the classroom in the fall, I would probably leave higher education for good to be a bike mechanic and general contractor. (This is not a dig on bike mechanics or contractors; I am really good at both and they seemed to promise a job satisfaction that online teaching could not.)

But as fall approached, and the state of the pandemic remained much as it had been in the spring, I began to reassess. Teaching from home looked more attractive in that light. In fact, the idea of going into the classroom for face to face teaching made me panic.

The delivery method I’m using for all my classes in Fall 2020 is officially called “virtual.” It combines synchronous virtual class meetings with asynchronous online activities.

When we went online in the spring, my guiding questions (and I think rightly so) were about minimums. What is the baseline necessity for meeting learning outcomes? What are the basic principles? How can I be the least annoying and obtrusive thing in my students’ lives?

Now, as I’m preparing for a full term of virtual learning, I’m still thinking about those things, but I’m also asking myself “what do I need to feel like a teacher?” The reason online teaching felt like all the worst parts of teaching with none of the joys was that I cut myself off from joy by absenting myself from learning. I’ll explain.

There’s an episode of Brooklyn 99 (a show I binged in the early days of staying at home) where Charles Boyle has planned an elaborate scavenger hunt/murder mystery game for his best friend Jake Peralta’s bachelor party. The game is amazing and expensive and full of Jake’s favorite things and totally an expression of Boyle’s legendary love. But it starts with Boyle’s kidnapping. He’s absent for the whole game. Jake skips most of it because all he really wanted was to hang out with his best friend, and without him, the games are too hard and no fun.

I am the Boyle in this situation.

I made it so that students walked into my class webspace to see clues and tasks and instructions to get to the next part of the game. They were awesome tasks that proved I was caring for them and smart and prepared and good at technology. But I was already gone by the time they got there, and I sneaked in to set up the next thing while their backs were turned. While I made myself available for emails and phone calls and video chats, I think we both felt lonely. Like we didn’t need all these bells and whistles and shiny tech tools, we just wanted to be together.

As I’m building materials and delivery systems for this virtual fall, I’m trying to remember my own joy. What’s going to make me feel like teaching is worth it? What’s going to make me excited to climb the stairs into my attic home office? In teaching, as in friendship, simple presence beats elaborate games every time. Instead of trying to master a lot of new systems or trying to mask my fear with preparation, I’m going to allow myself to rely on my most comfortable tools and just be there, wherever there is, to watch learning happen.

Published by carrietippen

I am associate professor of English and Assistant Dean of the School of Arts, Science, and Business at Chatham University.

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