You can take a remote college class from anywhere these days. From your backyard, your car, your bedroom—even your bed. In these casual settings, it can be easy to forget that classmates and instructors can observe you. And that means class has the potential to get … weird.
Nolan Cabrera learned this early on. So this fall, the associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona instituted a few guidelines for his online seminar course—rules he never thought he’d need.
“I had to say, No. 1, please don’t do drugs and don’t drink while class is going on,” Cabrera says.
“No. 2, please wear pants of some kind. People forget.”
And the third rule, well, that relates to a different number one and number two: “If you have to use the restroom, please don’t take your computer in there with you.”
Welcome to pandemic college teaching. The familiar four walls of the campus classroom are gone, as are the traditional boundaries separating school from personal life and students from relatives and friends. In their place are new barriers—time, distance and computer screens—dividing professors from their students.
Faculty trying to teach under pandemic conditions have to adjust to more than just new tech tools. They’re contending with interlopers listening in on class discussions, difficulty gauging students’ reactions to course material and unexpected student behavior that sometimes requires setting new ground rules.
“We’ve had to create some policies to remind students this is a classroom space,” says Cassander Smith, associate professor of English at the University of Alabama. “There’s a particular decorum. You don’t want to tune into a Zoom class discussion when you’re still in your night clothes, or lying in bed.”
Many students are tuning in to virtual classes from spaces they share with other people, which can change the tone and stakes of course discussions. Conversations once confined to a classroom and a group that has agreed to abide by guidelines for speaking and listening respectfully now may be overheard by parents or partners not bound by such conventions.
Teaching this way, some professors say, can feel like being under surveillance.
“Last semester I was teaching a class on ‘everyday white supremacy,’” said Lee Bebout, professor of English at Arizona State University, during a recent panel discussion hosted by the Education Writers Association. “That can get a little tricky with parents listening in over the background.”
It’s a phenomenon that’s grown familiar to Venus Evans-Winters, professor of education at Illinois State University. The courses she teaches explore race, accessibility, immigration and gender—“topics that are a little bit more sensitive,” she says. She has noticed her students get uncomfortable during remote classes when other people in their homes get within earshot.
“I have witnessed this sort of subtle, ‘let me switch from listening to my instructor through the computer to putting on my earbuds,’” Evans-Winters says. “I have had situations where I got these subtle texts saying, ‘I’m not going to be able to have this conversation with this person here. You know how my partner is, it’s best I don’t show up for class.’”
When these shifts happen, the professor sometimes responds with light humor. But in other cases, she emails a student to ask, “Hey, are you OK? I saw you had to get off quickly.”
Having people who are not enrolled as students listening in on sensitive class discussions raises new questions for faculty, Evans-Winters says, such as “how to keep people safe and also allow them the opportunity to take intellectual risks?”
On a larger scale, it also may undermine one of the primary goals of higher education: to broaden students’ perspectives beyond what they learned from friends and family growing up. That may be especially pertinent right now, Evans-Winters says, as students try to process racial conflict, the health crisis and growing economic anxiety while stuck at home.
“The point of adolescence is to start to think independently of your primary family—your primary circle,” Evans-Winters says. “What happens when we have our young minds, our future citizens, quarantining with families on an ongoing basis, and they cannot begin to think more independently or explore outside worlds?”
What Are They Thinking?
Professors who teach in person are accustomed to reading the room. They’ve learned how to tell when students are interested, or bored or confused, by the looks on their faces. The remote environment makes that physical feedback much harder to get.
“The biggest issue for me is it’s so difficult to take the pulse of the class. All the information is in front of you when you have a class of 20, 30, 40 people,” Cabrera says. “Is someone sneaking in a text message here and there? Are people engaged in a lively discussion? The human component of it is so removed.”
Smith, at the University of Alabama, is teaching a graduate course about racism, violence and protest in early African American literature this semester. She says student conversations can get tense and produce anxiety.
“My struggle is figuring out how to navigate the emotional landscape of the class,” Smith says. “The subject matter does evoke a lot of feelings in students.”
She used to be able to read body language to tell when to slow down or speed up her instruction. All the signs she looks for from students—“they will shift in their seat, they will cross their legs or fold their arms, they will walk out of the classroom and come back in, fidgeting with a water bottle”—are now largely hidden from her.
“Something as simple as eye contact—it is difficult to know who is looking at who at any given moment,” Smith says.
The professor has been so concerned about reading the digital room that she asks different students to stay on the call after class for a few minutes to check in.
“We’ll have a real quick chat: ‘Just want to make sure you’re getting what you need out of the class. Any problems? Let me know,’” Smith says. “That’s been how I gauge the class atmosphere. That’s my little effort to adapt to the virtual environment.”
Making Virtual Classrooms More ‘Humane’
The shifted boundaries of pandemic college classes have not been entirely negative, however. Professors say the new circumstances have offered some fresh teaching opportunities.
Evans-Winters finds it interesting when students intentionally invite their roommates or siblings to sit in during her class.
“From a critical pedagogy perspective, knowledge is supposed to be accessible. It should be a communal experience,” she says. “It’s not so secretive as people think.”
Smith appreciates how students use the chat feature of the video platform to ask questions, make observations and post links to relevant resources.
“The course content is sparking a lot of curiosity in students,” she says. “They are using the chat feature as a way to supplement class discussions.”
Meanwhile, Cabrera’s three rules have turned into a running joke with his students. He finds that a little humor at the start of class helps to set the right mood.
“In a weird way, us laughing at the absurdity of the situation together, it does help form those communal bonds,” he says. “When students are smiling at the beginning of class, they seem more engaged in the intellectual work.”
Beyond sobriety, pants and private bathroom breaks, Cabrera is not interested in imposing additional rules on his students. He knows life isn’t normal right now, and so he’s tried to shift his teaching and his expectations accordingly, he says, “to create the most humane classroom experience that I possibly can.”
“I basically assume my students are not OK until they tell me otherwise,” Cabrera explains. “Reciprocally, my students make it OK for me not to be OK.”
“In such chaotic times,” he adds, “I think giving both the students and ourselves that grace is important.”