Teaching round-up, part one

I got grades for Spring 2020 turned in today. The last face-to-face class meeting was March 10, over two months ago. I want to post a bit about how that went, just to think through it myself.

My pragmatism seminar required the least change. We had met every week in the department seminar room. That became a weekly Zoom meeting.

In a blog post at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse described his experience of moving teaching on-line:

I found it exhausting to meet with students for 2 hours at a time. The main reason, I think, is that managing a discussion is just much more difficult online. In-person there are so many cues, not only to me, but to each other, about what they are thinking, who wants to talk, even what they are likely to say and whom they’ll be responding to. Most of these are absent online… I gradually found it less exhausting, and I suspect that is because I stopped anticipating failure, and because they became better at taking control of the situation.

My experience was similar except for the last sentence. It was exhausting and only got worse as the semester wore on.

My class of ten was about half undergraduates and half graduate students. Two of the graduate students appeared on video. Two of the undergraduates did sometimes, but expressed ambivalence about it. My colleague Jon Mandle sat in on the course and had his camera turned on. So that meant that I could see less than half of the participants.1 This made it require extra energy and attention just to interact in basic ways.

If I asked whether an explanation seemed clear— or even just if my audio was loud enough— then I had to get by on nods or thumbs up from just some of the participants. In a face-to-face class, I can look around the room. If someone looks perplexed— or even if they just aren’t signaling assent— I can ask them specifically if they have questions.

For most of the students in the on-line meeting, I had no clues as to whether they were engaged, perplexed, about to say something— or off getting a sandwich. As a result, I tended to monologue more than I do in a face-to-face class.2 Even when someone asked a question, I tended to interact with them about their question rather than getting other people involved.

Students used the chat box to type questions and responses, often in parallel with people talking. One of the graduate students could couldn’t get a microphone to work, although he could hear just fine— he typed more into the chat box than he’d said in-class during the first half of the semester. I was not great about keeping an eye on the chat box, and sometimes I noticed posts there only after they were no longer relevant.

The students themselves were also at a lower energy level than they had been face-to-face. Many of them missed some class meetings. Most of them read less of the assigned reading less carefully than they had earlier in the semester. Perhaps some of that was late semester doldrums, but I have no real way to measure that— no more than I can measure how much less pedagogical value there was to class on-line.

  1. Brighouse says that in his small group discussion all the students showed up on video. That would have made a big difference, I think.
  2. I mentioned this in class one day, and one of the students typed into the chat box: We like the monologues! EDIT to add: I think what I actually said was that I tend to rant more, and the student’s comment was that they liked the rants. It definitely carries a different nuance.

2 thoughts on “Teaching round-up, part one”

  1. I haven’t had to do this so systematically, but will be doing so in the fall. I find the black blank spaces for videos that are off to be more or less like being alone. But when people have cameras on, I found I could get into the flow, and while it was harder than in person, it gradually became less difficult and more natural. Have you considered having a norm of some kind (recommendation, CP requirement, etc) that students have their cameras on? I have been thinking about this, and finding it hard to feel like I have a good handle on all the morally and pedagogically relevant factors to take into account.

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