Director’s Blog

Pandemic Pedagogy: Teaching Into the Void

by | Dec 1, 2020 | Director's Blog

Over the past 8 months (which feels more like 8 years), faculty developers have worked tirelessly to come up with new and creative ways to promote community building in the classroom. “We need connection now more than ever!” we have cried and beat our drum for Zoom breakout rooms, live office hours, and interactive polling. My first posts here covered student engagement. Yet, as the pandemic drags on, I still hear from faculty that students aren’t showing up to class. Or they aren’t turning on their cameras. “I’m tired of teaching into the void of Zoom black boxes,” I hear. “I don’t know why I’m even bothering to hold class synchronously. I don’t feel connected to the class.”

Building community and forging connections is something I’ve been thinking more about. While I covered strategies for this in workshops prior to COVID, for me personally, it’s actually not something that comes very easily (virtually or not). So I am a true introvert (for context, I’m an INFJ personality type, and a solid 1 on the Enneagram). For me, I crave community and connection, but it needs to be meaningful. Small talk and surface level issues make me profoundly uncomfortable – my worst nightmare is attending a conference dinner where I don’t know anyone (I’m sweating just even thinking about it). I’d rather know a few people really well than know a lot of people only a little. And I recently realized that my behavior on Zoom probably reflects that of the students that are frustrating you. So I want to use that insight to offer additional advice about creating community.

Being able to turn off my camera on Zoom is a wonderful thing for an introvert like me. I can hide behind my screen and keep things at arm’s length when the call includes people I don’t know. Being on camera and engaging with others that I’m not close with can be exhausting, because I have to work really hard to hide my unease. I realize this makes me sound like some sort of Zoom diva who only wants to associate with certain people. But it really has everything to do with my own unease and constant self-editing – was I supposed to smile when they said that? Do I have resting b**ch face? What do I do with my hands while I talk?! Ridiculous, I know, but very much my reality. The ability to turn off my camera saves me from this. Now imagine me as one of your students. You ask me to join a breakout room of strangers and talk? Cue my anxiety, camera stays off.

BUT…you know where I can bust out of my awkwardness and really start connecting? Chats, discussion boards, emails, blogs. That’s where I relax, that’s where I can open up and get past the small talk to really get to know people. So if you were my professor and used chat boards and google docs, you would see a lot more engagement from me. Now, I get that not everyone is like me. For reasons I can’t even begin to fathom, some people like meeting strangers, talking about the weather, or (shudder) working in groups. So we can’t expect a world entirely without Zoom cameras.

Here’s my slightly updated advice to help everyone (including yourself) feel more connected to the class and more comfortable having cameras turned on or engaging in other forms:

  • Make the time on Zoom productive through behind-the-scenes work. We’ve all moaned and groaned over the meeting that could have been an email. Take that approach for any synchronous sessions of your course and design it so that interacting is really the best way to accomplish the goal. This means that student may need to read, fill out a worksheet, or come with prepared notes prior to class.
  • Consider less Zooming. Dare I even suggest such a thing? I dare. Create google docs, discussion boards, a Piazza platform, etc, where students can type to each other instead of talk to each other, and to you. This can happen in real time. If your class is large, put them in separate group chats. Replace a breakout room session with one of these instead and see if the conversations are more lively.
  • Create a more comfortable Zoom. Encourage students to turn on cameras and show the class their pets. Let students know that their children or younger siblings at home can wave at everyone at the start or end of class. Show off your fuzzy slippers. Have students vote for their favorite virtual background.
  • Host a chat-only office hours. See if some students are more likely to engage with you if you’re only typing to each other.

In other news…

What I’m currently reading: Dancing With the Octopus: A Memoir of a Crime by Debora Harding. I couldn’t put this memoir down. It’s a fascinating look at the author’s story of being kidnapped at age 14 and the dreadful way her parents didn’t react to it.

What I’m currently drinking: Cherry Bounce. Friends make this delightful drink every year with their own cherries and use Martha Washington’s recipe. It was apparently our first president’s favorite tipple.

Andrea Aebersold

Andrea Aebersold

Director, Faculty Instructional Development

Andrea Aebersold is the Director of Faculty Instructional Development at University of California, Irvine. She earned a PhD in English and was an associate professor of teaching before coming to UCI. She specializes in active learning, evidence-based teaching, and reading mountains of books.