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Reality Check

Steven Hamelman, professor; English; Edwards College of Humanities and Fine ArtsSteve Hamelman

Clayton Whitesides

Disclaimer
I began this essay on the last day of the first full week of online/virtual/digital instruction brought about by the novel coronavirus pandemic. I finished it a week later. Like most, if not all schools across the land, CCU had to close its doors abruptly. On the Friday before the start of Spring Break 2020 (it feels so long ago!), no one was aware that, at least for the foreseeable future, the academic calendar by which we Chanticleers plan our lives had ceased to exist. One day, all routines and operations were running smoothly; the next, those same functions came grinding to a halt, forcing every single member of the CCU community to adapt to the new teal order without delay. Having, at the outset of this piece, “taught” in these conditions for a mere five days (following an extended spring break, during which “the notion of circular time,” to quote the Rolling Stones in a different context, began to be “destroyed”), I was able to say only one thing with certainty: The ideas and impressions recorded here would evolve in tandem with the evolution of CCU’s, the state’s, and the nation’s responses to the virus. My mental processes, and thus my pedagogy, were in flux. They still are. Because of the fluid nature of this unprecedented situation—the inconsistent verb tenses themselves signal stress—I offer in this essay no thesis and no conclusion.

Title Search
On the morning of March 27, as I drove my truck to my local auto shop for long-overdue repairs, I was brainstorming mordant titles for this essay: “Even Registrars Get the Blues,” “COVID-19 AKA Commencement Killer-20,” “And You Thought Hurricane Florence Was Bad?”1

I soon found myself asking the shop manager about the effect of the pandemic on his business.

“You know what it is?” he erupted, eyes flashing. “It’s a reality check on the way things are done in this country.”

My thoughts exactly—confirmed with a nod, not a handshake.

I had my title.

I also had a way forward. I can’t do much about my country’s systemic failures in health and child care, prison policy, and sick leave pay; can’t mend its off-kilter economy or the addiction of its citizens to toilet paper. The coronavirus has illuminated such failures and foibles with pitiless clarity.

But what about the way things are done at Coastal Carolina University? More to the point, what about my own pedagogy? What could I do to succeed in the teaching/learning environment brought about overnight by COVID-19? How would it alter my “reality” in ENGL 101, 205, 306, and 399?

Academic Calabash
From day one, CCU’s equivalent of first responders—the staff of COOL and CeTEAL—arrived on the scene to start triage, dispensing tech-sessions like face masks at a well-stocked clinic. I registered for a refresher course on Skype, not the easiest app to master. During the session I learned about Screencast-O-Matic, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams, this last app striking me as the best bet since it was linked to Office 365. Teams, I decided, would be my main online tool.

The shuttering of CCU by the end of that second week of spring break didn’t stop COOL/CeTEAL from continuing to save the day. In the blink of an eye, the schedule of meetings in Kearns Hall migrated to full electronic training. Assistance was available through every avenue COOL/CeTEAL is licensed to use: webinars, telephone, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc. Individual need was addressed and resolved on the spot. When problems arose in my practice rounds with Teams, I telephoned instructional designer/technologist Matthew Tyler and, later, program coordinator Tracy Gaskin. They both talked me through my impasse. Because of them, I would be “good to go” on Monday, March 23.

Meanwhile, the floodgates had opened. The provost’s office, deans, learning centers, program coordinators, and advising teams marshalled dozens of resources for teachers to sample. CCU’s largesse was on full display. It was as if a giant virtual table, creaking under the weight of its wares, was there for us to browse. Kimbel Library, the Writing Center, First-Year Composition, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion . . . each party was eager to contribute to a painless transition.

To switch analogies: CCU’s online services resembled an academic calabash. One could eyeball, sniff, pick, taste, scoop out a serving, or move on to the next dish, crafting one’s own combo-plate of apps.

Careful not to fall prey to “option paralysis,” I settled on a mix of old and new. Moodle remained centerstage. I crash-coursed my way through Teams, to which I added MP4 videos, YouTube, and select CCU links, threading them all together through email, that most trustworthy of content delivery systems.

In no time at all, I could check off synchronous/asynchronous pedagogy. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Not So Fast
Q: “But what about books?”

A: “Google.”
For many years now, I’ve stocked my syllabi with free full-text/online content. Aside from two, maybe three, short paperbacks per course, all required reading, viewing, and listening—poems, essays, novels, stories, songs, satires, letters, jeremiads, reviews, films—is available with the click on a link. These resources range from canonical titles and performance to images and articles in the current New Yorker or Atlantic. This lack of dependency on print materials made it easy to embed the paper syllabus into the COVID-19 landscape.

Still, teaching has been radically transformed for teachers like me who’ve never been assigned online classes or received online training. The urgency of shifting to full-online instruction at such short notice had led me (and who knows how many other teachers) to explore several untested alternatives. Google happened not to be one of them. As a person whose research once depended on card catalogues, musty books, microfilm, and photocopies, I will never be blasé about Google’s main gift to humankind: instant access to a vast library of primary and secondary literature, not to mention the best journalism in English and endless holdings in music and art. No matter where they were headed, I told myself, my students would have, at the very least, their cellphones in hand; and to have one’s cellphone and WiFi was to have one’s syllabus and the links to full texts listed on it.

Furthermore, 90 percent of all work in my sections is submitted exclusively through Turn-It-In, Word attachments, or Moodle Forum. For this reason, concern about collection of papers didn’t arise while I was busy figuring out Teams, etc.

Within a few days, however, one of the provost’s key caveats hit home. That is, I couldn’t be sure (1) that all of my students would/did have internet access or (2) that their mental/emotional states were stable enough for all of them to care about how simple it would be to continue to post their work electronically. What was in my mind was not necessarily in theirs.

Media to which teachers might turn for moral support beyond CCU’s safety net were tracking the upheaval, with varying results. For instance, on March 16, National Public Radio’s Meghna Chakrabarti hosted an “On Point” episode titled “The Impact of the Coronavirus on the Education System.” For college faculty, the title promised more than it delivered. Higher education received no attention in the program as the episode spoke mainly on how school administrators across the country were trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

On the same day, in the online version of the Atlantic, reporter Saahil Desai hedged more than a bit when stating, “[The coronavirus is] quite possibly the single most disruptive event in American higher education in at least a half century.” Talk about understatement! Not “quite possibly” or “in at least.” More like “definitely” and “the most disruptive ever.”

Otherwise, Desai gave readers much to ponder. His report of student reactions to school closings—from pranks and riots to fear of deportation and unreliable internet—suggests that many Chanticleers may be at-risk in ways that all the tech in the world can’t alleviate. Desai cited a 2019 study which “found that nearly half of students [of 167,000 surveyed] suffered from housing instability, while nearly 40 percent had gone hungry in the past month.” We would be naïve indeed to think Teal Nation’s student body is immune to these worries. Indeed, challenges in food, shelter, and connectivity, as well as emotional distress caused by the forced exodus from residence halls, apartments, and campus “safe spaces” may explain why a disturbing number of my students have yet to show up in a synchronous session or to view/complete an asynchronous assignment. These students have either elected or been compelled against their will not to join the Microsoft Teams sessions at their scheduled time and/or not to contribute to the Moodle Forum prompts. My emails to them go unanswered, and the staff receiving our Campus Labs notifications are likely too overwhelmed to get back to me or other teachers who have submitted alerts. Disembodiment is the order of the day; it’s the Reality Check box we’ve all had checked for us; and it has transformed the material interplay of teaching and learning into an abstraction laced with disquiet.

Student success depends on many factors, not the least of which is the teacher’s attitude and work ethic. We could argue all day about whether or not digital pedagogy can ever be anything but a simulacrum of ‘real’ teaching, but I doubt we would spend a second debating the importance of a good attitude in either method. ~ Steve Hamelman

 

Since we’re in the middle, at best, of the crisis, there is little sociological, academic, or psychological literature on it. Data collection and conclusions based on case studies are months away. Statistical and anecdotal evidence is yet to be compiled and published. We teachers and administrators find ourselves in uncharted territory, casting about with trepidation but also with faith that common sense, diligence, and loyalty to our students will ensure safe passage.

Blessings Not in Disguise
Underlying this essay is the assumption that total online education can’t hold a candle to the live, Socratic, performative classroom model. Online, I can’t read and react to facial or body language, connect with an immediate voice, improvise as rapidly, work the physical area, circle the room, finesse, gesture, or feint. But it does neither my students nor me any good to harp on the deficiencies of digital, especially when one concedes the advantages digital does have over the material.

As of now, the argument is moot anyway. No matter how hackneyed this may sound, a positive attitude goes a long way. We must make the best of the present moment, embrace the default medium, savor the gains rather than mourn the losses, and communicate optimism to our students. A sentence in an early email to all my classes summed up this theme: “We must adapt to circumstances beyond our control and make the result equal to if not superior to the former model.” I reinforce this belief in everything I do. If I don’t embody belief, student morale will falter and performance will suffer. The forces of apathy and detachment must be met and defeated in the forest before they reach the gate. I must and will anticipate their approach and plan accordingly.

Student success depends on many factors, not the least of which is the teacher’s attitude and work ethic. We could argue all day about whether or not digital pedagogy can ever be anything but a simulacrum of “real” teaching, but I doubt we would spend a second debating the importance of a good attitude in either method.
What’s good? Many things. In no special order, here are a few:

•    Students need no introduction to technology—a big thing their teachers don’t have to worry about.
•    Moodle released a decent overhaul just before COVID-19 hit home.
•    Creative screen-hopping (e.g., Teams to a Google image to a poem on the Poetry Foundation page to Moodle to the chat mode) allows the interweaving of content that might otherwise remain un-contextualized—in other words, screen-hopping reveals intertextuality in the immediate moment.
•    CCU’s academic calabash, unlike local stores, has no shortages; CCU’s shelves are sagging with product, not bare.
•    Video lectures and live-streaming classes are fun to make/conduct, and they bring out previously untapped skills in the open-minded and curious teacher.
•    Passion for teaching and digital content-delivery systems are not mutually exclusive.•    I am fortunate to have a dependable graduate teaching assistant (for ENGL
101)    with whom I speak daily to plan lessons, bounce ideas around, co-grade, and derive human sympathy.
•    The home working environment—my dog at peace on the sofa behind me, choice of music on the home system, superior climate control, no commuting-related stress—is a nice change of pace.

Lesson Learned
Binaries have been one casualty of
COVID-19. No need to quibble over the analog/digital divide, the synchronous/asynchronous, the teaching/learning: All are less opposite than they seem—and if we go with the coin cliché (“two sides of the same coin”), I’d tweak it further: that same coin is spinning, so it’s hard to say which side is which at any given time.

Academic articles are supposed to propose and then “prove” a point—a thesis. It would be ill-advised, I think, to try doing that with two such giant moving parts as a pandemic and pedagogy. The one is moving too fast, and the other is reacting to invasion at about the same speed. Trauma unfolds as I write—real sickness, unemployment, deprivation, depression, anxiety, death—and former wrecked routines make way as new ones form; thus, corresponding lessons to be learned are as fluid as the interwoven energies of the binaries mentioned above. Most, maybe all, of us are ascending a learning curve whose top can’t be discerned, so it’s best not to draw too many conclusions at present. I advise no one but myself, and that advice is: Be grateful for every step up this steep grade. The view improves with each stride toward the unknown.

It’s time for me to record another video—and I can’t help but ask, “Is this another sign that the coronavirus is the coup-de-grâce into analog instruction?” Again, I can speak only for myself, but I don’t think so. Today’s reality check says the Rolling Stones on vinyl can’t be beat; with real fingers I type emails to my students; Coastal Carolina University is made out of brick; I hear my students just fine on Microsoft Teams; and—hold on . . . my dog is barking, and I need to go see what he wants.

Note
1. “Comparisons are odious” (55), says Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s novel “The DharmaBums” (1958) because dualistic conceptions of reality are nullified by Zen enlightenment, which reveals the void underlying relativistic illusions of human perception. That aside, memories of Hurricane Florence’s destruction help us gauge the damage now being wreaked by the novel coronavirus. That the pandemic’s reach is global not local, and that its social and economic damage will far exceed Florence doesn’t mean Florence didn’t ruin its fair share of lives. For thousands of victims, it proved worse than COVID-19. Comparisons are odious to followers of Zen; for everyone else, they’re needed to make meaning of events too big for our small intellects to grasp.

Works Cited
Chakrabarti, Meghna, Grace Tatter, and Dorey Scheimer. “The Impact of the Coronavirus on the Education System.” On Point. Prod. Meghna Chakrabarti. National Public Radio. WBUR, Boston, MA, 16 March 2020. Radio.

Desai, Saahil. “The Real Lesson of the College Closures.” The Atlantic.com. 16 March 2020. Web. 24 March 2020.

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 1976.

The Rolling Stones. “Sway.” Sticky Fingers. Rolling Stone Records, 1971. LP.