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Zooming Through the Pandemic: How I Adapted to Teaching Online

Zooming Through the Pandemic: How I Adapted to Teaching Online

Before the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic, my campus, University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) was going through a graduate studentā€™s strike with mass student demonstration to keep the campus closed until their demand for a raise in living wage was met. 

As a result, I had started Zoom classes which was very frustrating. Many students did not have the right internet connection or proper facility to take these classes. Some of them were not even motivated enough to attend classes mainly because of their involvement with the strike. 

The attendance was very thin. I was getting frustrated with this shift in teaching. But I knew that this strike is not going to last long and we will go back to our formal mode of classroom teaching. 

The author with UCSC students during the Education Abroad program in India, Summer 2018.

Alas! that did not happen. The pandemic struck and the University of California declared that all classes will be online starting from spring. Like millions of people all around the world, the lives of students all over the U.S. has changed overnight. Here at UCSC, all campus activities were suspended. 

The students started leaving the campus. I was told by a staff that out of 19,000 students only 1,300 have been left behind who had nowhere to go.  Spring quarter was scheduled to start on 1st of April. 

We the faculty got an official notice that we have to switch to fully online classes without being equipped with any expertise or resources. How have I survived? What have I learned?  

How have I incorporated a sense of community and care into my teaching? How have I learned to be flexible? Most important of all, how have I adjusted to this new use of digital space without face-to-face interaction between me and my students?

On the first day of class I was surprised to see the students names and in some cases a photograph on my laptop screen in small square boxes. The names have become my audience to give a lecture to, to involve them in discussion and get their feedback.  

As an anthropologist and being a peopleā€™s person, I feel alive and animated in the presence of my students. I get excited and so carried away that my whole class room becomes a theater. 

In my own usual cheerful way, ā€œI say hello, good morning! Is anybody there?ā€ Then I see the chat box is active. I open it. Slowly one after the other pop up ā€“ fine, thank you, right under their names. 

As an anthropologist and being a peopleā€™s person, I feel alive and animated in the presence of my students. I get excited and so carried away that my whole class room becomes a theater. 

My aim has been to build up a relationship with my students and give them a positive experience of learning from the teacher as well as from one another in introducing them to another culture so that they can relate to themselves and their culture more intimately. 

My physical presence and interaction with my students make that possible. With Corona, my physical connection with my students is broken. What I miss the most is to be with the physical bodies in a classroom space. 

Teaching online, I realize that the class does not allow a shared experience of learning. For example, earlier in my large participatory course on Bollywood Dance and Culture, I invited specialists in different Indian classical dance forms to perform on the stage and also invite students to participate and make it a wholesome hands-on experience. 

In class, I saw the impact of my teaching not only on the minds of the students but also on their bodies. That has become impossible in online teaching this year. I have no way of gauging the impact my teaching or lectures have on the students unless and until I call upon a student who may refuse to share the screen because of multiple concerns.

The classroom is no longer what it used to be. The laptop screen has presented them with a platform to articulate their own frustrations, adjustments, especially personal and family tragedies anonymously. 

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For example, when I ask them whether they have completed the reading, many of them share on the private chat why they have not done the reading due for that lecture. They share their own limitations of space, lack of mental and physical wellbeing among other issues as to why they are unable keep up with the speed of the class. 

My experience is in line with what is reported in the press that this mode of teaching has created a different kind of atmosphere/ environment than the one existed before. Students are freer to discuss their personal information as they could not do in front of their peers in the class. 

Teaching online, I realize that students are freer to discuss their personal situation with me as they could not do in front of their peers in the class earlier. For example, when I ask them to show their face on the Zoom video, many students privately said that they are not in a position to share their screen because they have no privacy as they have moved in with their families. It is humbling to hear their sincere apologies for things that are beyond their control.

These experiences have helped me think differently about the sense of community in the online world.  For an instructor used to classroom interaction with students and sharing their experiences provided a sense of community which I took it for granted. In the present context, when social distancing has become the norm, self-alienation and isolation are creating new kinds of challenges. 

UCSC students during the Education Abroad program in India, Summer 2018.

I try to provide a structure online showing that I care for them. In the beginning of the class I check in with them what is going on in their lives. I provide a weekly discussion forum on the canvas where students can share their personal experiences, video/audio clippings as well as photographs, reflecting on their state of mind within the framework of the themes discussed in class. 

Reaching out to students on the screen allows me to transcend some of the barriers and rethink a sense of community consciousness which is very rewarding. I realize that it is normal that Covid-19 has unleashed destruction, panic and anxiety in our life. 

My responsibility is to develop a community of learners finding new ways of peer-to-peer support. It is the social and cultural aspect of learning which has been affected by social distancing and in what way it can be brought back in online education has to be explored more creatively.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a post-doctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant womenā€™s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary ā€œRoad to Zuni,ā€ dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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