The “ping” of class members joining our Zoom video screens and gradually showing up with diverse backgrounds behind them has become familiar now. It wasn’t, at first, in March. Yet, it was clear from the start that this different environment for courses would change things around what and how we would learn together.

Like numerous colleagues around the country, we spent many weeks of our 2020 spring term holding once-weekly, multi-hour class sessions over Zoom. When our university, TCU, extended spring break and then closed the campus for the remainder of the semester, we joined the rush to “remote” learning that was widely launched for courses in mid-stream, without time to prepare or substantial resources to aid the transition. No wonder many learning experiences sometimes fell noticeably short.

Yet, our experience of one Zoomed-up graduate seminar in American literature was far more positive than many of the stories we’ve seen about other virtual classrooms. We write now about some take-aways from that course, hoping to assist others during another academic year of navigating virtual classrooms.

Students Reflecting on Teaching and Learning

First, we should point to one feature different from most other reports about shifting to remote teaching, which have typically been written from the perspective of a single course’s main instructor. The “we” writing this essay includes six graduate students, several of whom were already teaching lower-division undergraduate English classes while enrolled in our seminar, and most of whom are now teaching fall semester courses. From the outset of the move to an online platform last March, we were all concerned about the pedagogical implications of the experience, not just for ourselves as learners but also for our current and future students. With that in mind, we decided early on to explore, together, how the new environment for our seminar was working—and not—both as a path for content delivery and as a means of fostering community.

Once the class ended in May, six of the original eleven seminar members (students and the instructor of record, Sarah) have continued to study questions about Zoom pedagogy together, on both a logistical and a broader conceptual level. We’re still exploring now, partly by tracking the approaches we’re adapting from the seminar into our current teaching.

To facilitate that ongoing inquiry, we are using some of the same approaches as a research team that we tried out during the Zoom version of our class—strategies we’d recommend others consider when teaching with ZOOM to monitor how learners are adapting, or not. These include

  • asking students to do brief pieces of reflective writing to revisit specific learning activities metacognitively,
  • holding group-writes in logopedics where we can see each other’s thinking in action, and
  • having conversations that move back and forth between oral and chat exchanges.

As we continue our investigations of Zoom teaching, we often break into pairs to read secondary sources and set them in dialogue with our own data sets–such as responses to an open-ended set of questions our original instructor, Sarah, sent to us. Now, one argument we can make is that, however much it may seem to undermine “coverage” goals, Zoom has strong capabilities for making learning processes visible to students in real time and for cultivating self-awareness about how learning unfolds.

Here’s an example. In one of our post-course reflection exercises (first composed individually and then merged for a whole-group analysis), we noticed that several of us had written about the Zoom feature of a “frame,” showing up around the speaker in a conversation, as both impeding and supporting dialogue. On the one hand, that visible frame made us hesitate to interrupt each other, undercutting the more natural flow of face-to-face exchange. On the other hand, just becoming aware of this pattern has enhanced our commitment, as teachers, to strategies aiming to ensure that all students have accessibility to communal learning spaces—whether in a whole-class oral conversation or an online discussion board. This might involve, as suggested by Elizabeth Stone, “explicitly ask[ing] students to consider talking in class more than they might.”

Another visible feature of Zoom that we critiqued during the course has continued to claim our attention as we immerse in a second semester of remote teaching. Viewing the gallery of class members, each of us could see signs of the soon-familiar Zoom exhaustion showing up on everyone’s faces as a seminar meeting extended into a long stretch of screen-staring. (See Supiano.)

We openly talked about how to balance the physical toll of Zooming against both our pleasure at being together and our commitment to our field of study. We tried out specific techniques such as stopping out of whole-group conversation often with “quick-take” moments of presentation by various class members using screen sharing. One particular exercise several of us praised in retrospect asked each class member to find a photo of Antigua that could illustrate or extend a specific passage from Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. Our whole-group analysis of both process and content after that activity benefited from thinking about how the Zoom space underscored a number of Kincaid’s themes–including how colonizer gazes can appropriate a place by turning particular acts of “seeing” into a power dynamic important to critique. For instance, as Lia Paradis noted in a recent Inside Higher Ed interview, Zoom breakouts can’t be entered as unobtrusively by an instructor as in-person discussions in a physical space can; a teacher showing up in a Zoom breakout “changes the dynamic.” Overall, we are trying to make attentive choices about structures for looking and listening in Zoom that can impose hierarchies or flatten them to support community-building. One simple strategy we’re using asks a student who’s just spoken to call on a peer, for instance.

We’ve been extending this inquiry into Zoom-seeing since the course ended by examining ethical as well as practical issues. One member of our class expressed frustration at a different seminar teacher’s having told all her students to develop a creative, distinctive background slide; our colleague’s Zoom access was available only via “old” technology incapable of that step, so the requirement made her economic limitations visible. On another front, we’ve seen calls to ensure that our self-presentations as Zoom-based teachers are adequately professional, such as Janine Barchas’ thoughtful advice. But we also recall how watching each other’s pets interrupt a dialogue or hearing an oven’s ding signal that someone’s bread was ready during spring 2020 fostered a comforting shared domesticity during troubled times.

Affirming Affect

Another observation that’s crystallized from our post-course written reflections is the positive role that attention to affect—to students’ feelings—can play in Zoom classes. For teachers familiar with scholarship promoting education as empathetic nurturing and dialogue, including foundational work by Nel Noddings (Caring, 1984) and Martin Buber (I and Thou, 1971), this is old news. But our pandemic-time seminar reaffirmed its value in a new context, as have recent commentaries like Andrew Kaufman’s call to “Be Human.”

When our spring 2020 Zoom experience began, we were scattered across the country, holed up and, frankly, very nervous about a global disease. We were dealing with a whole array of additional challenges as individuals, ranging from a family member of one colleague suddenly receiving a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, to an international student’s being literally half a world away from home, to another’s struggling to find reliable internet access, to multiple students’ growing economic precarity.

We began each class session with a brief check-in from each member of our 11-person community. While a stickler might suggest this practice “took away” from content coverage, we always found ways to connect this emotional, human work to course readings such as essays on cultural and rhetorical sovereignty by Native scholars Malea Powell and Lisa King or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home graphic novel. For us, flipping the classroom meant starting each session by foregrounding the personal.

During fall 2020, with most of us teaching classes too large to accommodate a round-robin check-in, we developed other techniques to maintain this commitment to making pedagogical space for emotion toward building empathy. Approaches we employed in fall 2020 included asking students to freewrite about a pandemic-related experience through the lens of course content and then to discuss in Zoom-enabled breakouts, as well s assigning informal one-on-one “interviews” for class members to do of each other with “report-back” questions blending in a disciplinary focus. We’ve also used Zoom’s screen-share feature to show a photo or illustration from an earlier era while asking students to critique it in historical context and then to consider how our pandemic situation may have shaped their response. Any particular activity, we’d argue, is less crucial than structuring some exercises each week as signals to students: we care about you, we know COVID-19 is impacting your studies, and we will make that context a generative part of learning.

Zooming Ahead

We look forward to a future of face-to-face teaching. For now, though, we continue to think deeply, together, about pedagogy’s challenges and possibilities in the time of Covid-19. And we’re taking comfort in the knowledge that our practice of making learning processes themselves an object for collaborative inquiry along with our own students can continue, whatever the format where our teaching is happening.

Sarah Robbins

This article was written by Ruba Akkad, Katelyn Thompson, and Sarah Ruffing Robbins, Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature, with Sanjana Chowdhury, Saffyre Falkenberg, Abigayle Claggett, and K. Elaine Lysinger for the Spring 2022 Issue of Insights.