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Please Don’t Put Me in a Room with a Bunch of 20-Year-Olds!

by on June 24, 2020 5:00 AM

I never thought I’d say this, but given a choice between room and Zoom, I’ll take Zoom.

As you’ve probably heard, Penn State has decided to bring everyone back to campus this fall

That’s good for the university’s coffers, good for the local economy, good for employees who might otherwise have been furloughed or laid off. 

Good for everyone’s health? I’m not convinced.

As Temple University psych professor Laurence Steinberg wrote in The New York Times last week, young adults are risk takers. Counting on them to wear masks, wash hands and keep their distance from each other, he said, is “delusional.” Having seen my share of student shenanigans from my perch in the Highlands during my first 16 years in State College, I have to agree.

When I heard in March that Penn State had told students not to come back from spring break and told faculty to get ready to teach online, I felt immensely grateful that I was on sabbatical.

It’s not that I’m an old dog, incapable of learning new pedagogical tricks. I’ve taught online classes before. I even developed one. 

OK, it was 20 years ago. But still. As I recall, developing the course materials was rewarding work. Teaching the class was not.

We were in asynchronous mode. I wasn’t interacting with my students in real time, like we’ve all been doing with our friends and relations since we were told not to breathe on each other. The format was: post assignments, wait for the students to submit assignments, grade and offer feedback on assignments, repeat. 

This was social distancing to the nth degree – as in, no interaction whatsoever. And judging from the work I received, there was no real investment of time or energy on the students’ part, either. 

My sense was that when students don’t have to show their faces, they’re less embarrassed about dashing off subpar work. I was happy to bequeath the class to others and stick with teaching more or less live humans.

Zooming in real time is different. Some of my Penn State colleagues felt so comfortable with the technology that they were able to turn their online classes into multimedia extravaganzas. Some just did what they would have done in person and found that they enjoyed seeing their students in their natural habitat (others wished they could unsee their students in their pajamas). 

Mostly, though, I’ve heard little good about online education, from either teachers or students. 

To be fair, a big part of the problem, as Patty Kleban noted a couple of months ago, is that it takes time to prepare to teach an online class. The suddenness of the pivot from room to Zoom in March meant no one had any. 

But even with the spring semester’s trial by fire behind them, and a whole summer to prepare properly if they must, everyone I spoke to was fervently hoping it would be safe to go back to the classroom this fall.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. We who choose a career in teaching picture sitting in a room (or, on nice days, on a lawn) exchanging ideas with a group of students and meeting one-on-one with them in an office (or a café). 

What surprised me was how many students said they hated online classes. These are our “digital natives.” Many are the times I’ve walked into a silent classroom where everyone was deeply involved with their phones rather than with each other. For the introverts and those who dread the awkward moment when they actually have to respond to a live human, the online class seemed made to order.  

Yet one survey found that three quarters of students were unhappy with the online class experience. It’s not just that they missed basking in the wisdom of their learned profs. They missed the whole campus experience: sports and arts events, extracurriculars, escaping the watchful eyes of their parents... 

Given all of the above, when my department head asked me in early May how I felt about teaching an online course this fall, even if we returned to the classroom, I gave the Bartleby response: “I would prefer not to” (Bartleby is the title character in a story by Herman Melville) – though of course I said I would be a team player and do whatever I’m asked to do. 

When my department head called again last week with the same question, I had done a 180. Back in May, amid the last snow squalls and daffodils, the fall semester seemed a long way off. Surely, I thought, it’ll be safe to come out from behind the hand sanitizer by the end of August.

Not looking that way now, is it?

Professor Steinberg has requested that he be allowed to “teach remotely for the time being.” So have I, even if it means seeing my students in their jammies. 

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 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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