I met with my New School students for the last time on Wednesday, March 11. I’d instructed them to bring their laptops; we were going to have a trial “webinar.” This was right before our extended two-week break, a period in which professors would transition their courses online, and after which our classes would take place in as many different locations as we had students.
The first trial was a disaster. My laptop audio malfunctioned, the viewing mode would only show one person at a time. That meant people’s faces kept swapping in and out in a maddening blitz, like a high-speed slide show. Luckily, I resolved both issues by the start of my second class, while my students—thanks to the wise counsel of my teaching assistant—muted their mics when they weren’t speaking. By the end of that class, we folded our laptops with relative confidence, said our goodbyes with relative uncertainty, and fled to our respective corners of the country.
Where did my students go?
They dotted the map of the United States: California, Maine, New Mexico, Florida, upstate New York, Chicago. A few still resided in the New York metropolitan area, while one was all the way down in Mexico City. Whatever region we belonged to, we still bent our schedules twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, to Eastern Standard Time. Likewise, we still assembled in a common place that allowed everyone to see each other, and to be heard.
That place was virtual, of course. Before the pandemic forced me into it, I’d been thoroughly skeptical of online teaching. Such classes had earned their reputation through chat rooms, discussion boards, and email correspondence—none of which I wanted any part of. What drew me to the teaching life hung on face-to-face interactions with students. I thrived on the wonderful alchemy that only arises through a flurry of voices in real time, and in a shared head space. As far as I was concerned, if I lost the physical classroom, I lost all interest.
Not so anymore. During COVID-19’s prolonged lockdown—which has divided teachers from students, separated students from one another, and distanced us all from our relatives and close friends—the virtual classroom has felt like a saving grace. That doesn’t mean it has negated all adverse effects on learning; nor has it kept every student from slipping through the cracks. Sadly, for a great many educators, this past school year will forever be tinged with a sense of loss and regret. And yet my optimism persists, given what we were still able to accomplish. The online platform allowed a critical mass of my students to remain not only visible but intellectually engaged. It prevented a semester’s worth of writing from going up in smoke. And it allowed teachers—during a time of increasingly heated rhetoric for our country—to promote some of our most vital lessons in how we take in and interpret the world.
On March 30, as my first class reassembled, I watched with delight as the initial squares appeared onscreen. A student’s name showed up in a black box, alongside the caption “Connecting to audio…” That short trail of dots percolated with anticipation. Each new arrival brought a smile to my face; each new video brought a wave hello of my hand. The squares shrank down, making room for newer squares, and repositioned themselves. It reminded me of a biology film on cell division. In the background I saw kitchens, bedrooms, basements, and backyards. In one room stood a cool-looking vertical lampshade with an eye chart printed on the side. In someone’s kitchen I saw a complicated cat tower with various perches and carpeted tunnels. Sure enough, halfway through class, a black-and-white spotted cat sauntered onscreen. Her name—how could I not interrupt discussion to ask?—was Gumdrop. On a different day, her tortoise-shell roommate, Jellybean, made a separate cameo.
That first class had its ups and downs. I started by checking in with everyone, to see how they and their families were doing; to ask for positive stories and funny anecdotes; to hear what shows they’d been bingeing or books they’d been reading. It was here that I first learned of the reality series Tiger King, a show I instantly vowed never to watch—partly out of disgust for the subject matter, partly from a fear of getting hooked. Following our two-week hiatus, the class reintroduction felt very uplifting. It came at a serious cost, however. The socializing ate up a big chunk of regular discussion time, which that day centered on a very sensitive work of short fiction: “Red From Green,” by the writer Maile Meloy. It’s a story in which a sexual assault takes place, and at the back end of class, as I felt the minutes starting to dwindle, I took too long with some passages, hurried through others. The main character’s reaction, and the nuances of description, needed to be drawn out more slowly, yet the crucial moment in the text felt delivered in haste—like something shoved through a closing window. Just as importantly, interpretations of that moment needed to be spread across more student voices. It was an error I apologized for by email, and once again at the start of our next class, but to this day I still wish for a do-over.
As a teacher of writing, I lost an important ally online. The chalkboard is a space in which I draw overlapping circles, box cars strung together in a straight line, an iceberg with its tip jutting above the water, a long-stretching arc with hash marks along the way. These images aren’t symbolic: they stand for specific work we do on the page. They help visualize the connections we build between texts, the flow and order of ideas, the transitions we need between paragraphs, the way we expand and go deeper within a passage. The chalkboard records important insights during discussion, but just as significantly, it illustrates how an idea comes into being. Out of a rough, fragmentary thought, the idea gets built brick by brick. Once those bricks are on the board, vague words are identified and replaced. The student—with a push from the teacher—siphons out his or her more precise language. A stroke of chalk blots out those previous words, which get overwritten with the student’s new language. Everyone recognizes the transformation. Verbally, such interactions take place all the time in a webinar. Physically—logistically—it can’t be demonstrated to the same effect.
Other professors have it much worse. For writing classes that incorporate the city, an access to neighborhoods, street art, architecture, and museums is tangential at best, and at worst off-limits. One colleague, with oversees students spanning distant time zones, has been forced to hold “asynchronous” sessions in small groups, as full-class webinars are simply out of reach. Then there’s a friend of mine who teaches fashion (at a different institution), and who’s understandably less sanguine about moving her 5-hour studio course online. In a normal setting, she wanders from table to table to inspect student portfolio illustrations, demonstrate various design techniques, and offer feedback on concept development. Her co-instructor models pattern-making, draping, and the construction of garments. To facilitate such complex, tactile practices by computer seems about as daunting as helping someone take apart a car engine.
We’ve all been exasperated by the medium. In person, a student might hesitate mid-sentence, but they won’t literally freeze in place as their voice turns jittery and bionic. Nor will they suddenly vaporize from sight (at least they haven’t yet). But online, at any given moment during class, a face might instantaneously disappear—only to show up again somewhere else, like a submerged dolphin resurfacing. The checkerboard rearranges itself. Students get knocked off by bad or inconsistent WiFi. Other students are forced to dial in, their identities reduced to the icon of an old-fashioned telephone receiver. One day, when Spectrum WiFi went down in my neighborhood, I became that static icon. Over the course of back-to-back classes, the cellphone screen grew increasingly warm against my cheek, while having to call on invisible students became an exercise in great frustration.
The most serious issues of the moment transcend the technological, of course. As with so many aspects of the pandemic—be it susceptibility to the virus, job insecurity, or access to health care—the crisis has befallen Americans unevenly. Private universities are not immune to that trend, and many of their students are no less exposed. At The New School, financial aid props up over eighty percent of its matriculants, a number of whom still depend on part-time jobs. Many of those students—waiters, hostesses, baristas—were chased from their jobs with no way to plug the hole. Then there’s the opposite kind of job insecurity that overshadows one of my students. Her single mother is a police officer, and thus an essential worker, which means having to brave the public at large and risk of exposure on a daily basis. Several members on her force contracted COVID-19, including one colleague who passed away. Alongside such worries, the task of keeping focused on school work becomes a rightly diminished priority.
In early April, my outlook remained high. Turnout was strong in both classes, yet it only took a couple of weeks for that to change. The number of squares started to decline; certain faces went missing more regularly from the checkerboard. Just as I would on campus, I reached out to advising and student services, hoping to provide extra support to those individuals. Hoping—as I always do—to nudge stray students back into the fold. But the fact is, some students simply shouldn’t be nudged back. Taking care of their emotional and mental well-being is far more important than tending to their school work. Some students had enough self-awareness to let me know this directly. Others, more worryingly, said nothing at all.
The coronavirus has driven home a hard truth about my profession. The longer I teach, the more I discover just how unknowable certain students are. No matter how strong or collected they seem on the outside, hidden vulnerabilities lay within. The pandemic has only amplified this pre-existing condition. Take one enthusiastic student of mine, a talented writer who, up until spring break, had been one of my most frequent participants. After the break, on the heels of several missed webinars and a period of radio silence, she finally got back to me and said how great a toll the crisis had been taking. She would not be able to attend any more sessions or complete any further work. It was a lucky thing for her—if you could call it that—that university policy dictated no registered student could receive worse than an A- or an A, regardless of attendance or work turned in. This struck me as a wise and appropriate policy. In a time of pervasive hardship it removed at least one layer of concern: a layer that might otherwise push students into an even darker corner.
I know what grade that student deserved. What I’ll never know is what her final work would’ve been like. Countless instructors have shared this same lament. Our best of intentions falls short. Our outreach comes up empty. COVID-19 has taught us the same lesson we so badly want to resist: that there’s simply no way to protect every student at risk, just as there’s no surefire way to protect everyone against a virus.
We persist as best we can. For myself, the joy of webinars still begins and ends with the ability to see my students as human beings. They eat, lean back in bed, sit cross-legged on the sofa, drink from oversize mugs or large portable cups. They appear totally unselfconscious as they reposition themselves in whatever mode of furniture, or as they walk about with their laptops. Such moments can be marginally distracting, but are in no way disagreeable. A New School colleague describes one frequent but charming disruption by a student of hers, who “turns the pages of his textbook…like a wind rustling a thousand leaves.” In one of my own classes I found a distraction particularly amusing, a student who sat turned away from her laptop and was clearly preoccupied with someone else offscreen. It turned out she was doing her sister’s nails, so I naturally demanded a visual. An impressive row of scoop-shaped extensions grew on the modeled fingers, vaguely resembling pistachio shells. In my 6 p.m. webinar, I was the one responsible for a brief, daily distraction. One hour into class, as the noise erupted along my Brooklyn street, I politely begged off so I could join the applause for health care workers.
How did the semester end?
In my course called “Coming of Age in America,” students wrote about several short stories in either a traditional essay, a film festival they were pretending to curate, or a group-therapy session conducted among the stories’ main characters. They explored the complicated relationship to parents and authority figures, the yearning to rebel versus the safety of conformity, and the tension between fear and desire that comes with experience. In my other course, Culture and Conflict, students discussed a film or TV series they found inspiring, and whose main struggle reflected some larger cultural phenomenon. My hope is that by examining how mental illness is portrayed in The Joker, depression in Bojack Horseman, or toxic relationships in Midsommar, these students will continue to locate their ideas in new and different mediums beyond the university itself.
The importance of that task doesn’t recede during a pandemic. In a time when science and critical thinking are tested by national adversity, personal sacrifice, and an aching desire for a return to normalcy, the lessons of writing translate ever more strongly. Now is not the time to let down our guard. Teachers must stand up for clear ideas and concrete evidence, just as we must push back against short cuts and complacency. We hope, with heavy hearts, that our country will limp toward convalescence, but in the meantime we’ll carefully balance the anxiety of this moment with the urgency of pushing students beyond the path of least resistance. Whether it’s safely distanced in a circle of desks, or through multiple laptops across the country, the classroom will unite us in that common goal.
Jonathan Liebson ’92
Jonathan Liebson teaches writing, literature, and culture at Eugene Lang College of The New School and at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. His essays, reviews, and fiction have appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post Book World, Tablet Magazine, Time Out New York, Harvard Review, American Book Review, among other publications. You can see more of his writing and photographs at www.jonathanliebson.com