Across New York State and the country, sweatpants became classtime-wear and living rooms morphed into dance studios as college professors took on remote teaching.
For some, it meant juggling kids and a partner, while others struggled with loneliness.
We asked instructors from schools all around the state to send in pictures of what virtual classroom life looked like for them, and to share their thoughts on the experience as it was happening.
They described a flood of emotions, how their classes responded and how they sought to address the new challenge.
“As the majority of our lives now take place online, it has become less fun, less experimental, and much less satisfying,” Amy Foerster of Pace University said amid the lockdown. “I worry that my students are increasingly isolated from one another and from the university. I worry that I am becoming increasingly isolated, too.”
She was not alone.
(Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.)
Allie Robbins, CUNY School of Law
The days and hours blend into one another.
The very idea of that mysterious mythical creature known as work-life balance—who always seemed to be just out of reach—vanished entirely in an instant.
Trying to be everything all at once, a brain literally shattered into pieces.
The constant barrage of things to do and overwhelming news.
So privileged, and so grateful.
And, yet, so tired.
Cotter Christian, Parsons School Of Design
My husband, dog, and I had to leave New York City at the end of March because of a stalled apartment purchase. I’ve taken over my sister-in-law’s dining room at their farmhouse in North Texas.
I keep a black button-down shirt nearby, which pairs nicely with all of my pajama bottoms, for meetings that require some semblance of professionalism.
Paper towels on the lights act as diffusers to reduce unflattering shadows and the dog usually settles near my feet. Having a space dedicated to work is a real privilege, especially one that comes with a view of open space and horses.
I’m fortunate to be able to teach students and meet with colleagues in a relaxed and peaceful environment.
Greta Berman, The Juilliard School
Remote teaching is far from ideal.
I find it about three times as hard as meeting my students in person.
And I’m always thoroughly exhausted afterward.
Here I’m always “On!”
But it’s far better than none at all.
My wonderful students help keep me sane during this surreal time.
Oscar Oberkircher, SUNY Oneonta
The day starts early taking hay to the horses. A couple days ago it was warm and spring and then winter came back for a visit. Traffic isn’t ever much out here in the boonies but this was rush hour by my house. We used to get about 20 to 30 cars an hour but now it is two to five. As you can see, social distancing isn’t a problem!
I arrive at work and it kind of looks the same as my home in the country. This hall was a sea of students during class change but it is an echo chamber now. My lab, which should be full of sound and the aroma of great food cooking, is empty and lonely. I sit in my office, with maybe two-three other faculty in their offices spread out across the building, creating video lessons, answering an onslaught of emails, grading frantically to keep up and hoping to see students back here in Oneonta next fall. We’ll be ready!
Feng (Johnson) Qian, University at Albany- SUNY
I have transitioned my graduate level course Economic Evaluation in Healthcare (which I have regularly taught in Spring semester in classroom since 2013) to remote formats via Zoom. I am very glad that the attendance rate after transitioning to online format has been always 100%.
As an instructor in public health, I keep reminding my students the importance of “stay home, save lives” and appropriate social distancing during my lecture every week. And we share the latest news and important scientific research updates on COVID-19 with each other throughout the online teaching, lab, and discussion sessions.
Therefore, we as a group feel more socially connected than ever during this period.
Amy Foerster, Pace University
The photo I’ve chosen here is a good example of how I feel, and where I am, on a typical Monday.
I start the teaching day with an hour of virtual office hours, then shift into teaching two courses synchronously in 85-minute blocks. I spend a good amount of time each Monday not only preparing my lecture notes, class activities and discussion questions but also choosing a virtual background and adjusting my green screen and webcam, feeling all the more ridiculous and adrift as I do so.
The virtual background and green screen serve two purposes: One, my home office and webcam are in a part of my apartment I would prefer my colleagues and students not see (not messy or quirky in a way I want to hide; just a private space), and two, using a backdrop of my office at the university makes both me and the students who visit me here feel a little more normal. We all know it’s a trick but we participate anyway. It’s nice to pretend we are really at Pace and on a nice, sunny day before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19.
When initially shifting to online instruction, I viewed it as an unfortunate, but semi-fun necessity: learning to use new technology, experimenting with different ways of increasing student participation, trying new forms of pedagogy that might have taken up too much time in “real-time” and in a real classroom.
As the weeks have passed though, my students and I have agreed that the honeymoon period is over. As the majority of our lives now take place online, it has become less fun, less experimental, and much less satisfying. I worry that my students are increasingly isolated from one another and from the university. I worry that I am becoming increasingly isolated too. I miss seeing their real faces and hearing their real voices twice a week.
I worry that they won’t come back in fall semester, and that our graduating seniors will likely never see one another, nor me, again. I worry that they aren’t learning anything.
Working from home, and being able to socially isolate is, as we know, a privilege. I’m grateful that I can do it, and that most of my students can too. I’m grateful that I haven’t lost my job.
I think every day of the legions of front-line workers who can’t practice social distancing; who must risk traveling on the subway or in crowded buses to provide the essential, but often totally undervalued and underpaid, work that keeps the rest of us going. And we all know we have to keep going. But this new environment feels like a loss too— a loss of real-life connection, a loss of community and a loss of a certain type of innocence as well.
We aren’t going to have those sunny days in my office “BP” (before pandemic) anymore.
What comes next is up to us.
Arseny Khakhalin, Bard College
In one sentence:
it’s not sustainable;
and everyone is tired.
Patricia Cronin, Brooklyn College
Here I am teaching remotely today in East Atlantic Beach.
I’m on a Skype call with a graduate student doing an individual studio visit for my Master Project 1 course.
We turned our guest room into a workout room and teaching spot.
It’s got light, lots of outlets for all the electronics and a door.
Some of the students are actually thriving, some are struggling.
Maura Nguyen Donohue, Hunter College
I have been mentoring a department towards using modes of communication new to most of our faculty— of course, Zoom, but also WhatsApp, Slack, Dropbox, and Vimeo—as well as suddenly shifting compositional attention to making dances for the camera, including framing, editing, lighting and negotiating hardware deliveries so students have gimbals, ethernet cables, dongles and, for some, a device to come to class on!
The conditions our students are in can be very hard, I’ve lost a few elders, my teen kids complain about their online workloads and the absurdity but I am finding joy in the tenacity and continued creativity of my students.
Hunter’s motto is “mihi cura futuri”—the care of the future is mine.
Amidst all of the chaos, I am taking the work of remote teaching as an opportunity to attend to the present moment and to build carefully towards an unknown future.
Van C. Tran, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Remote learning is more effective when we can cultivate a sense of (virtual) community where our students feel engaged with the course materials and with each other.
While technology serves to reduce the physical distance among us, I still miss the dynamic quality of an in-person classroom.
However, we are doing the best we can. And the students’ resilient spirits always brighten my day.
Diane Urban, Manhattan College
I love teaching—but what I have always loved about it is the actual interaction with my students.
To continue the feeling of togetherness, I recorded some lectures on YouTube.
That was something I never considered doing before.
The feedback was positive. The students said it made them feel like they were back in class—and that was exactly what I had hoped to accomplish.
Randolph R. Cornelius, Vassar College
Distance learning has taken quite a bit of getting used to. This is the first time I’ve ever had to teach this way in some 40 years in the classroom.
I am very active in the classroom, constantly moving around. I teach in a tiered lecture theater with about 40 students and I move around the classroom to stand next to students when they are making comments, partly so I can hear them as I am in the process of going deaf, and partly to be able to interact with each student more personally.
In doing this I find I can start a back-and-forth conversation with the student and then with other students more naturally. This is quite difficult to do online, but my students have been very helpful and do their best to interact with me and not just sit and be passive. Part of the problem in this regard is that some students are “attending” the class late at night or early in the morning because some are in Europe, Africa, and other times zones far removed from the east coast of the US.
I’ve been sitting while teaching so far. My wife suggested that I set up my computer camera so that I can stand up and move around in a more normal classroom manner. So even though my home office is small, my students will be treated to a more energized online classroom.
Rebecca Wright, Barnard College
It’s been a challenge adapting a small highly interactive class to an online setting overnight.
Nonetheless, I’m so impressed with my students for staying engaged and supporting each other.
I’m tired of working from the small desk in my bedroom. But my cat likes it, and at least I can enjoy the trees outside my window.
Léonie Stone, SUNY Geneseo
Here’s a photo of half of me, and another of my little squares of students.
Teaching online reframes how you think about teaching, shakes things up, creates innovation.
But I miss my students, and I miss being with them, and I feel less whole because they are squares on my screen, at best.
This is pretty representative about how I feel about online teaching and these days in general. First, we were all moved abruptly to this new reality, one that none of us chose. And we’re doing the best we can with it, which means finding the good in with the difficult.
I’m more organized, because I have to be, and that also makes me better at finding interesting things that I might have skipped before. Meeting online has let our alums come back and join classes and bring their experiences.
There’s a richness to being together and learning that is nearly impossible to replicate online, synergies that don’t transfer to a screen. And so, we’re trying to learn from this time, but looking forward to a day when it ends.