PALS is excited to welcome back Kristin Lacey for another guest post. Lacey is a PhD student at Boston University working on nineteenth-century American literature. In her post, Lacey documents changes she made for online teaching to help foster student interactions and community building. She explores how these online practices could be adapted for the return to the in-class experience.
You might recall my former post for PALS, which featured quaint concepts like standing next to students and moving around a classroom. To put it mildly, things have changed. This academic year, I taught two synchronous online writing classes; the majority of my students lived on campus in relative isolation due to pandemic precautions. While my students and I experienced the inevitable burnout and sadness that have plagued us all this year, I was surprised to find that both of my classes developed a stronger sense of community than any class I’ve taught in person. I’ll lay out some of the simple strategies—which can be used online or in person—that strengthened bonds between my students and allowed all of us to bring our whole selves into the classroom.
As mentioned in my previous post, I required every class to take name tests to ensure students actually learned and remembered their peers’ names. While the name tests were successful, doing them on Zoom seemed silly and unnecessary. Instead, I instituted weekly “check-ins;” I ask each student to share how they’re doing: what’s been going well for them and what they’re struggling with. Occasionally, I ask them to answer a question in addition to sharing how they’re doing: What’s something that made you laugh recently? What are strategies you use for getting writing on the page? What recharges you when you feel drained? In short surveys during both courses and last semester’s course evaluations, students described the class environment as safe, welcoming, and comfortable, or in the words of my favorite response this semester: “I love the vibe! It’s super chill and respectful.”
Check-ins afford students an opportunity to be vulnerable and to hear that they are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. As one student wrote, “In a weird comforting way, it’s nice to see other students struggling [be]cause that just means we are all barely holding it together, which is oddly comforting. It also just like lets me hear how their week has gone and if they’ve done anything fun.” I worried that they would find regular check-ins a waste of time, but over the course of the semester, students share more about their lives and interests; each student provides thoughtful answers, and they often respond to each other’s check-ins in the Zoom chat, offering support or commiserating. Far from rolling their eyes at this use of class time, they seem to relish the opportunity to be open with one another. One student requested “more time for chit-chat in the beginning!” I suspect that check-ins will be slightly awkward in-person, but I hope to implement some version of them next time I teach. It’s an easy way for students who only see each other three times a week for 50 minutes to develop connections beyond the superficial.
Class Slack spaces—which I use in place of Blackboard—have been another integral community-building tool during the pandemic. (Slack is a communication platform used in many workplaces; instructors are increasingly using it for instruction, as well). I divided all my class content by weeks, in addition to creating a “Random” channel for students to talk about anything; “Topic Chat” for students to share sources and questions related to queer American literature and culture; and perhaps most importantly, “Pets” for, well, sharing pet pictures. In Fall 2020, students used the Random channel to express their collective election night anxiety. Three students decided to go to a convenience store together to buy stress snacks, and they told me the next day that they had stayed up to watch the sunrise together (I made our 9:00am class optional on the Wednesday following the election).
Students can opt in to participating in non-class discussions, but these conversations are open to all class members. I see this as particularly beneficial for quieter or more self-conscious students who might not be the first to exchange phone numbers with or talk to their classmates, especially in an online setting when chance encounters are rare. One student used the Slack to share that she had been outed as queer; students (and I) replied in support, saying how sorry we were that that had happened to her. I was surprised but pleased that she felt comfortable sharing such a painful personal experience with our class. Simply providing a space for students to talk outside of class time can lead to spontaneous opportunities for meaningful connection.
One of the benefits of teaching online (in a time when many of us have constricted our social lives to the online sphere) has been connecting with students on the level of Internet culture, sharing memes and TikToks related (and many unrelated) to our class conversations. At the end of last semester, I asked students to send me memes about our class. Most of them were about awkward Zoom silence after I asked questions, my cat Vita (a frequent guest star), and the many times Harry Styles and fanfiction came up in class. I was surprised by the tone of the memes; students lightly roasted each other and me in the way that only happens when you’ve achieved friendly rapport. I compiled the memes into a PowerPoint and showed them on the last day of class; this was a fitting and surprisingly emotional way to end a strange semester.
Each of these strategies adds depth to the classroom and, in my experience, has not added to my workload. In fact, I’ve found using Slack to communicate with students significantly decreases my workload by enabling shorter, more conversational responses and far fewer emails. I only received two student emails in the entirety of the Fall 2020 semester because students opted to message me directly on Slack with questions. I won’t pretend this isn’t the main reason I plan to continue to use Slack for my classes post-pandemic.
In short: Zoom teaching has taught me that less is more. Rigor must not be the end-all-be-all during a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of political, social, and medical catastrophes. Students learn better when they know they can count on support, not only from their instructors, but also from their classmates. Spending less time on class material and more time on building a community is a worthwhile endeavor, particularly when people are scared, overwhelmed, and tired. And finally: let them make memes.
Kristin Lacey is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Boston University. She has taught courses on satire, nineteenth-century American literature, queer American literature and culture, and literary representations of “madwomen.” Her dissertation, The Ambition Revolution: Gender and the Pursuit of Success in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, studies how women manipulated the trappings of the True Woman to achieve the New Woman’s rewards.