Graduate School Meditations · Professional Development

Literature and Photography: TA Reflections

This course surveyed the literature of photography: essays, letters, theories, and books devoted to the subject.  It also surveyed photography as a subject of literature and as a part of storytelling.  It is hard to say more (though I loved the class), because on many levels it felt frivolous to go on as usual.

This course marks the official movement into a socially distanced covid world injected with escalating fear and internationally tragedy.  Of course it also marks the equally disturbing beginnings of distance learning, isolation, and financial precarity for millions of people. Though there is much to say, enough to be overwhelming, I want to try and stay focused on what I learned as a TA coming to distance learning in the midst of a global health crisis.

Thinking about TA pedagogy is also difficult because we in the U.S. have entered into a civil rights protest moment.  The murder and police brutality exercised disproportionately against black people on the very streets of this country has reached a tipping point and mobilized many Americans, many of them young college-age students, to engage in demonstrations and to assert that black lives matter. Many are experiencing extreme levels of difficulty processing the images, videos, and stories that compel protest actions.  They are scared for themselves and their friends.  They are realizing that their friends have always been scared.  Many are also struggling with the influx of racially motivated terror actions–zoom bombing racist content in classes, seeing threatening graffiti, the hanging of nooses in public spaces, and the continued injustice and violence against black lives.  There are many others who have written more eloquently and more powerfully about the moment–for the most part I leave it to them. Again, though in many ways it is frivolous, I want to try to reflect a little on the pedagogical lessons I learned this quarter.

Synchronous Distance Learning on Zoom

Here’s some of what I learned this quarter.  I hope to recalibrate some of these issues in the Fall, as my university will continue to be online at least until January 2021.

Generosity.  First and foremost, and this goes for any crisis, including the strike I have mentioned elsewhere, be generous.  People are dying.  People are scared and alone. People are afraid to see their families, afraid to carry a disease to their loved ones.  Shelter in place and social isolation is exacerbating already tense environments, metal health struggles, and other personal struggles.  Students are learning from homes that are not their normal headspace for learning, and in many cases they have been forced to return to spaces that are unsafe.  And you will not know anything about this.  Any student managing to sufficiently get school work done is incredible.  They are incredible even if they cannot get work done. In a crisis educators do not need to be married to the high expectations of a stable, safe, and comfortable world.  Being generous also means carving out some time for folks to just talk about their situation, to generate some form of human contact and safe place for expression. TALK ABOUT WHAT IS GOING ON! Share information on how they can help or be better informed on the issues.  Generosity is the most simple and powerful labor action one can take in a crisis.

Survey accessibility. The lead instructor in this course prepared a survey in the few days before the class began to determine what kind of learning was possible and what kinds of issues folks might have.  Do they have a laptop with a camera and a microphone? Do they have good internet speed?

Synchronous or Asynchronous? The course was structured to occur in real time but each meeting was recorded to support those with connectivity issues.  I would go synchronous every time (if I had to make that choice), unless the needs of international students need to be considered.  Synchronous meetings create a community environment and provide some form of human contact.

Recording sessions.  If you are recording, make sure students know and that they agree not to disseminate the recordings for any purpose other than for the course.  Having to think more carefully about recording classes (I’ve only known one instructor to do so pre-covid), made me more comfortable with the idea.

It’s helped to consider a different approach to a familiar frustration.  I’ve struggled with how to deal with the typical two-week enrollment period in college learning.  Some students are there from day one, but some arrive a full two weeks into a ten-week course.  It is insanely frustrating to constantly deal with acclimating students to the class and catching them up.  So I have decided that if we ever return to in-person meetings, I will at least record each session until enrollments finalize and possibly continue on.  With the recordings, students have the opportunity to know what went on, which may have a beneficial effect on frustrating “What did I miss when I was absent” emails.

Virtual Classroom Etiquette: Cameras.  Discussing classroom etiquette is a must.  Many students are new to this (as are instructors).  I would urge students to utilize their cameras while in the meeting, if they are able.  Sometimes the camera function reduces the stability of internet connections.  I sense many folks check-in to the meeting but are mentally checked-out when they turn off their cameras.  I guess I am on the fence with this one–maybe they are shy about being seen in an otherwise private space, but I feel that seeing each other is important.

Virtual Classroom Etiquette: Platform Tools. We used zoom for class meetings.  What I liked about it was that it was easy to use featured screen-sharing functions.  The basic tools are the gallery, chat, and participants.  I have seen the gallery used in interesting ways to involve students by doing things like raising their hands or performing. The participants box features a hand raising icon.  This is very useful and I would urge my class to use it.  Because we are distant and the gallery only displays so many folks at once, it can be tricky to allow conversation to flow, so if a method for creating order is established and generally followed folks will think less about when they can speak and think more about what they have to say.

The chat feature presents interesting issues.  I think the class needs work together to decide how the chat function will be used and stick to those guidelines.  Some issues I had with it include (1) it being used during class as a place to socialize rather than learn. This is distracting and can be disrespectful, so it would be good to not use it that way.  (2) The chat function can supersede oral conversation.  I was lax with this during the quarter, because you know crisis and all, but I was increasingly disappointed with class meetings becoming exclusively a chat room.  Part of the problem is that students with microphones were using it and perhaps inadvertently allowing folks who don’t have a microphone to get lost in the mix. (3) I absolutely loved the chat function because it allowed people to chime in differently or help explain a concept to others.  Questions could be logged into it and reviewed as necessary. I think students felt a little less hesitant to pose a question because it was not a severe distraction or derailment.  It’s clear that community guidelines need to be established for the chat, and it would be even better to include the students in the decision making process.

Virtual Classroom Etiquette: Break-out Rooms. I did not do well with break-out rooms.  Too much resistance to talking.  Too time-consuming for me to move through each one and encourage discussion.  I’m not quite sure what the issue was but I am going to try them again, first, with a very simple activity and with regular groupings,  perhaps starting with moving between pairs and discussion as a whole, repeat the pairs in a new activity the next time so that folks get to know someone and get comfortable with that person.  Maybe then move to pairing pairs, and having that group of four work together a few times.

Cold calling. I am normally not a fan of cold calling, but distance learning definitely made me more comfortable with it.  I am grateful for this.  Some folks literally just need a little nudge to share insights and knowledge.  It is easy in a distance learning space to fade away from the conversation or work.  This is also a good way to keep people present and accountable–you will know who just check-in and tunes out this way.