If you have to teach on Zoom, make it matter

By Michael A. Longinow

OK, March was a train wreck. Let’s agree on that. Even if we started out in January with an inkling, we were mostly unprepared for the order to vacate our classrooms, labs and offices — and keep our teaching up via Zoom. All those little face boxes on our screens with students in various states of dishevelment, some munching food or walking around their rooms or apartments while the laptop or phone showed us ceilings, walls, dogs or cats — it made us crazy. And it made our students crazy too. It also wore on us — and them — out (Zoom fatigue is real.) There are reasons why what we did was hard.

Michael Longinow, Biola University

I got from March to May and landed the plane without any injuries or damage. My students didn’t have to fill our evaluation forms (thank you, provost), but I got a sense they finished with a sense of closure — even some degree of satisfaction, though the experience wasn’t what they signed up for. (OK, maybe my choice to curve grades up a bit helped the mood.)

I learned a few things that I think will help me going into the next semesters and what I’m sensing will be a new normal in a world where pandemic isn’t some scary movie, it’s our shared global experience.

In the interest of brevity, here’s my top five list (in no particular order of magnitude).

1. Smile more. My wife tells me to do this all the time when I teach, but it’s crucial for Zoom teaching. Students watch you for cues and mood all the time, but with teleconferencing, they can’t get away from your face; when you’re happy, they can be pulled into that. Open class with a grumpy face and it will be one long session.

2. Watch for cues. Students tell us when we’re not connecting (if we’re alert to it, and we should be). Some students will yawn loudly to let you know, but most do it with their eyes or body language. When you see more than 2-3 cues, stop in mid-sentence. Switch gears. Tell a corny joke. Hold up the statue next to your laptop and ask it why it hasn’t painted the kitchen. You’ll see all eyes on you, and you can think of a segue into the next point. But you might need to just ditch the presentation and do something else that day.

3. Ask how what you’re teaching relates to their generation. The “OK, Boomer” phenomenon is real. Your students know you don’t understand them. So admit it. And ask them to be cultural interpreters for how NY Times v. Sullivan or the Kerner Commission or plagiarism actually figure into the thinking of their peers. They’ll tell you. They’ll disagree with each other doing it. And they’ll be processing Media Law or Media History or Media Ethics while they’re yelling.

4. Get them talking to each other. In Zoom, you have a little button that breaks the class into “breakout rooms.” Kids being sent to their rooms isn’t a nice memory for most, but I’ve found it’s just what students need. They hear from us all the time. What they crave is each other. When you assign them rooms, give them something gripping to talk about. Ask why they should never run a photo like the Bakersfield drowning photo (or why they always should). Ask if cheating in college factors into the job they get after graduation. Then pull them out of the rooms after 20 minutes (that will seem like an eternity). Sure, they’ll spend part of it diddling around, but they’ll also get at the question. And they’ll be listening to each other in ways they don’t to you. They’ll learn. And they won’t want to miss class.

5. Name them in new ways. A colleague did this and it floored me. On a Zoom meeting call, she told our task force she appreciated each one of us. Then she named us one by one with a single word that she’d picked that symbolized our contribution. Nobody on that call broke eye contact. So I tried it with my Philosophy & Ethics of Media class. In the final 15 minutes of our last session in the semester, I pulled out a piece of scratch paper on which I’d listed each student and I just went down the list alphabetically and gave a kind of “blessing” to each. I did it for the A+ students and the D+ students. And I got feedback from that session that students were touched in a way they hadn’t been in any other class. They knew they mattered to me — and they heard me say it in front of everyone. That kind of connection takes teleconference instruction to a whole new level.

An addendum: Class photo

A Zoom screen showing student head shots.

Michigan State Bias Busters guide authors.

In the Bias Busters class at Michigan State University, students produce and publish cultural competence guides. Typically, their names and a class photo appear on one of the first pages in the books, which have both print and digital editions. When Covid-19 forced classes to meet online without notice, the class doing “100 Questions and Answers About Latter-day Saints” lost its picture day. Solution: This Zoom postcard reflecting the authors and the times in which they worked. This will appear in the guide.

— Joe Grimm.

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