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Notes from Week 1: In-person? Remote? It May Not Matter; The Al Fresco Fiasco

by on September 02, 2020 5:00 AM

Count my students among those who expect a spike in COVID-19 cases to force Penn State to lock its classrooms before leaf-peeping season. Their pessimism didn’t surprise me. This did: Even if all their classes go remote, they’re staying in Happy Valley.

Why? They’ve signed leases on their apartments. And after six months of sheltering with their families, even the roommate who steals their mac and cheese is looking pretty good.

On campus, I’m seeing and hearing, masks are nearly ubiquitous. Off-campus, not so much. So even if Penn State sends its dorm dwellers home, the community may still be at risk from the thousands more who stick around – in which case, the university may as well keep its doors open.

That’s one of my takeaways from Week 1 of Fall Semester 2020. The other is that in-person instruction may be overrated, at least during a pandemic. I tried to meet my students face-to-face last week. It didn’t go so well.

Unwilling as I am to risk my life teaching the fundamentals of journalism to undergraduates, I opted out of classroom teaching this semester. But I took to heart what my colleagues told me about last semester. While I was deciding whether to shelter in place in Greece or return to the land that Donald Trump was making great again, they were pivoting from classroom to Zoom room. It was hard, they said, but without a half-semester to develop esprit de corps, it would have been harder.

So my bright idea was to meet and greet outside on Day 1, and maybe on several other days until the frost is on the pumpkin. In preparation, I reserved my college’s open-sided tent and when my daughter asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I suggested that I would be a more effective journalism instructor if I had a newsprint mask. It arrived just in time for my first day of teaching, emblazoned with these headlines: 

  • VIETNAM PEACE PACTS SIGNED

  • WAR IN EUROPE HAS ENDED!

  • KENNEDY IS KILLED BY SNIPER

  • MEN WALK ON MOON – PLANT FLAG

And the timeliest of the bunch: 

  • PREVENTION OF POLIO IN VACCINE TESTS

My students were duly impressed with the billboard on the lower half of my face (or said they were, bless their hearts). But then I had to teach in it. It muffled my voice. It fogged my glasses. It was hot.

Meanwhile, those who had elected not to come to State College this semester struggled to participate remotely. I had assumed that the entire University Park campus was one giant Wi-Fi hotspot. 

Well, there’s a saying in the journalism world that I was bound to impart to my classes sooner or later: Never assume. Simple example. Someone tells you their name is Smith. But is it? Maybe it’s Smyth. Or Smithe. Best check. 

It turns out Wi-Fi al fresco is an iffy proposition on the Penn State campus. But even when the signal kicked in, some 20 minutes after the start of class, I found myself mostly focused on the humans who were physically in the tent with me, while mostly ignoring the ones on my laptop screen. And that didn’t seem fair, given that everyone had signed up for a remote class. 

I had to assure the students who were not physically present that I absolutely would not penalize them for being absent. “I just thought it would be nice to meet face-to-face,” I said. And it was nice. I told the tenters I was willing to try it again if they were game and if the Zoomers didn’t object – which drew a great big and totally predictable non-response.

Later, I learned that I could borrow a MiFi wireless router, but that extra layer of technology, in addition to my having to reacquaint myself with the Canvas course management system and learn the finer points of Zooming (remember, I wasn’t here last year so I’m still playing catchup), felt like the bust card at the blackjack table.

That was Tuesday. On Thursday I met my classes online, as planned. They went better in almost every respect. I was mask-less (and shoeless and sockless, but not, I hasten to assure you, pants-less). I was able to avail myself of the handy two-screen setup in my home office. I was able to share documents like a Zoom pro.

Above all, I was me, for better or worse – as fluent online as I am in front of a live audience. 

Everyone hates Zoom, Jerry Seinfeld recently wrote in The New York Times. “There’s no energy. Energy, attitude and personality cannot be ‘remoted’ through even the best fiber optic lines.”

I mostly agree. Would I rather be in the classroom and in my office on campus, enjoying doorway chats with colleagues and former students? Absolutely. Just as I’d rather see my children and grandchildren in person than on a screen.

For now, though, Zoom is not only better than nothing. It’s better than I expected. 

 

 

 



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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