Notes From the Wasteland No. 41 ‘How Can We Stay Connected When We Are All So Separate Now?’

I spend a lot of time online at the moment, it’s what I get paid to do. And each time I enter a classroom and see all the separate frames of everyone who has also enter the classroom, the biggest fear I have is not whether we will cover the right topics, not that we will develop the right arguments, not that we will really get anywhere with the syllabus (because we will and we do), the biggest fear I have with each class a simple one, a primeval one, fundamental, existential; how can we stay connected when we are all so separate now?

How can we be together when we are apart?

I suppose the first way to answer this is by making sure that we have something in common to talk about, a topic, a film, book, statement, article, story etc etc. That’s fine and I always make sure that we do have, but here’s the problem; the one real thing we all have in common in class is that we are separate, not together, and all the topics, films, books, statements, articles, and stories, currently cannot change that. And that’s hard to overcome.

Can we overcome it? I think so. We can overcome this by being quieter, and kinder, gentler with each other, not expecting too much all the time, understanding that sitting where we are sitting and doing what we are doing is not where we want to be sitting but is where we are actually sitting so we have to make sure that the fact of our sitting where we’re sitting is something to celebrate not denigrate. It is where we are, after all, and so we should be pleased to see each other, to hear each other, to talk and laugh and joke, yes, joke, and share the time together.

The world will take care of itself, but only if we take care of each other.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 40 ‘Here Are Four Things I Do When I’m Teaching Online’

  1. Super-size My Enthusiasm

I have a busy day today. I have lots of teaching to do, all of it online. I reckon that for every one minute of online teaching I have to do I need about five minutes more enthusiasm and this is some calculation, not quite dog years but maybe Zoom minutes. I have to do this otherwise the experience for everyone who enters your classroom is such a bad one and with things being the way they are at the moment, bad online experiences amplify themselves so loudly that they cast a sonic shadow over everything else. There is just no need for anyone to experience this type of class because these type of classes are wholly avoidable.

2. Transform the Ordinary

That’s not to say that my classes are always interesting; I could never make a claim of that magnitude. Some of my classes, most of my classes, are just ordinary at the level of insight and discovery – a suggestion, here, a thought there, a reason for further thinking outlined, somehow – but ordinary can be transformed if we take the time to make the context of the ordinary more compelling. Take the time to make the ordinary more compelling by caring how you describe it. How you let other people experience the ordinary.

3. Care. Really Care. No, Really.

No matter what we do in life we really need to care about it, otherwise what we do in life doesn’t really seem to matter. Now take this concept and expand it to the point where caring takes on a new meaning, becomes something like super-caring, and then apply it to the people you are online with. This is the only duty we have to those we meet in virtual classrooms – we simply have to care so much that our caring becomes something that matters to those we are online with.

4. Don’t Waste People’s Time

I am continually hearing horror stories of people, I can’t call them academics because clearly that’s something they’re not interested in, who fill the entire time they are online with a class by showing them films. Films. And if the class is only fifty minutes, say, then that’s how long they show the film for. And then because most films are more than fifty minutes long, they show the rest of the film in the next class. In this way, all they need to do is to get people to log on and then press Play. One story I heard, the film in question was over three hours long and so, without so much of a blink of the eye, let alone a nod to the poor people in the class, the film began at the beginning and spooled out over three online sessions.

What. A. Complete. Waste.

Of. Someone. Else’s. Time.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 24 ‘My Top Four Lessons Learned from Teaching Classes via Zoom’

As everyone knows, Zoom calls are (very) hard at the best of times, what with patchy wifi, variable frame rates and the various other glitches and hitches that colour the nowness of our communication. Teaching over Zoom is even harder, especially with patchy wifi, variable frame rates and the various other glitches and hitches that colour the nowness of our communication. I have been teaching remotely, like many of us, since last year, and have had a lot of time to reflect on my experience. Here are the top four lessons I have learned teaching classes via Zoom:

  1. FILL THE VOID WITH YOUR ENERGY. However much energy I expended in a class room, when I was face to face with people, now needs to be quadrupled. Zoom can be a dead zone for thoughts and feelings and responses and the only to overcome this is by powering through the gears and refusing to succumb to the darkness.
  2. DON’T LOOK BACK. Don’t mourn the physical classroom. That room is empty now and will never the be the same again, even if I ever get back into one. With the best will in the world, Zoom now represents the death of the classroom. This is both a fact to be acknowledged and an opportunity to rethink everything I have ever done teaching-wise. And I like opportunities like this. This is what I thrive on.
  3. DON’T CHEAT YOUR STUDENTS. Zoom has given me a chance to rethink and redo my approach to teaching and all that it entails. The length of a remote class can be challenging but this is a good thing and not to be squandered. I know of people being paid to teach full time and all they do is play films over Zoom for their students to watch over Zoom. If that was me I would be asking for my money back straightaway.
  4. BE GOOD VALUE FOR MONEY. Don’t overlook the experience of those you are teaching. They are paying for the privilege to sit in their bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, shared flat, communal area etc so give them all you got. I have never liked PowerPoint, even when it became an industry standard, so I use it sparingly and I make very effort to make any slide I create to look like any other piece of content my students consume. Not that there was before, but there is now simply NO excuse for shoddy presentations with low resolution images, default fonts and bullet points.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 19 ‘Teaching people is such a sacred thing’

It begins again. The working week begins. Although the space between the week and weekend is not always clear as I have to work at weekends too; I always do. This is just what I have to do. I have to make sure that my classes are prepared well in advance because even though my favourite part of teaching is the chance to talk around and between my notes I still always worry that I don’t have enough material. I have been teaching for twenty one years and this is the fear that always grips me. The truth of the matter is that I always have more than enough material, far far more than I normally need but even then this doesn’t satisfy me. I suppose this is because I can’t bear simply using the same material year after year and so it means that each class I have prepared I then have to rewrite and then rewrite and then rewrite. This is intensely satisfying and very necessary but also extremely exhausting. But I cannot have it any other way. Teaching is such a particular joy, one I have been so lucky to have stumbled into. But it is only a joy for me, and for my classes, I hope, if I come to each class and each topic afresh and with genuine vigour. The thought of coming to class having not prepared and ready to look like I really don’t care is only the kind fo thought that haunts me not sustains me. I will not be that so-what kind of teacher, that I used-to-care-but-don’t-anymore outlook that some people adopt. This is because it is such a rare pleasure to put a thought in someone’s head, see them acknowledge the workings of their own brain having had a gentle prompt from something I suggested, to see that spark ignite behind their eyes, it is such an honour that needs to be treated as sacred. And so, to me, anyone who abuses that honour by not caring, and daring to show that they don’t care, that they can’t be bothered, don’t, in my eyes, deserve to stand in front of anyone, let alone ruin that sacred relationship by refusing to acknowledge its sacredness. And though I sometimes grumble and complain, fearing that I am giving all my time and energy away, I realise, inevitably, that I am so honoured to be trusted to say things to groups of people, people who look to me for suggestions and conversations, for stories and different ways of telling them, for explanations and sometimes wonderful complications, that I will always do what it takes to make sure that no person leaves any of my classes feeling that whilst I may not have all or any of the answers, I will always at least commit to giving my all and everything every time.

And then again. Again. Again.