I am a graduate student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, and I just earned my MBA from the Brandeis International Business School. Like most students, all of my classes went fully online back in March.
Lesson plans were quickly adapted, and for the first few weeks, it felt like an adventure we were all experiencing together. I had taken online classes before, but to borrow a very popular phrase, it was “unprecedented times,” so to experience it with other Brandeis students created a sense of solidarity. Even though I was missing out on valuable in-person social experiences, being in school meant experiencing the pandemic through the lens of higher education.
Seven months later and here we are again, still in a pandemic and conducting classes online. As an incoming student at Heller, I strongly desired the face-to-face interactions with my new cohort. I came to Heller because I wanted to make the world around me more compassionate; however, I am feeling anything but compassionate toward the end of my three-hour classes.
This feeling has been exacerbated by a recent announcement from Brandeis administration dated Oct. 8 that the upcoming spring semester will likely be a mixed teaching format as it has been this fall, with some classes online and some in person. The spring term will start Feb.1 and end May 14. We will lose our February and April breaks. Just like the fall semester, our term will be jam-packed with marathon three-hour classes.
I don't know how I'll continue to cope with three-hour classes. Don't get me wrong. The teachers, teaching assistants and my fellow students always attempt to bring their best selves to class, as do I. Unfortunately, now that the newness of the term has worn off, I’m finding it difficult to stay engaged after the first 90 minutes of class. Some of this is due to the dry nature of the material that I don’t yet understand.
Much of my class time is consumed by technology. Few students sign in to class at the exact start time. To me, being on time means being early. Five minutes of every class are consumed by waiting for everyone to sign in. Each class has its own kind of “participatory” methods. One class uses Miro to jot down ideas by groups. Another professor uses the annotate function on Zoom to allow for group participation. Many professors use the Zoom chat function to allow communication. All these methods are great, but they're also a lot of noise and very distracting. Coincidentally, these distractions are what I need to stay awake. Between the class lecture and Slack channel activity, I am either learning or nearly falling asleep. Honestly, it could go either way.
My attention span lasts for about an hour, so I’ve taken steps to stay more alert. I’ve converted my desk to be a standing desk. I also bought a tall chair to sit on or lean against, just so I'm not sitting. According to some, sitting is the new smoking. If that's the case, I'm up to six packs a day.
You would think that a class lasting three hours would cover a ton of material and offer detailed instructions for assignments. You would be sadly mistaken. Not only are assignment “rubrics” kept hidden in secret locations on LATTE, but then we hear, “well, I don't want to give too many details because then everyone will hand in the same type of formatting.” Yes, but I am becoming anxious with both the uncertainty of the pandemic and the added workload. Being able to see samples of previous submissions would ease my pandemic-ratcheted anxiety.
For all these reasons, I strongly feel that the classes should be broken into two segments. It will give my mind time to absorb the material, and it gives my eyes a rest from staring at the screen.
When I look at my computer screen, I see images of classmates who look like they should be extras in “The Blair Witch Project.” No one looks happy or engaged. Last term, I put books and board games behind me so that I would look forward to class, if only for the comments about my background. Now I am paranoid that my Zoom backgrounds are distracting my peers, so I have decided to keep it as plain and dark as possible.
Regardless of what background I have, I must have my camera on to earn participation points, but at what cost? My eyes are already tired from the blue lights, allergies and because my eyeballs are twice the age of my cohorts.
I've tried to eat and drink water to stay awake, but it’s hard to eat discreetly when you're on camera. It is also a little gross. Instead, I spray my face with water to keep myself awake.
I can’t help but feel extra paranoid knowing that the lectures are being recorded, and that I might appear on them depending on the class setup. I am aware that this is the spotlight effect; nevertheless, it distracts me from learning to know I might be watched and recorded. Why can’t the lectures be pre-recorded for asynchronous learning?
I wonder what I look like to other people. Do I look like the sourpuss that I feel inside? Do I look interested and engaged? Did I remember to mute myself and touch up my appearance? Am I wearing pants? Is my ring light turned on? Does my background look clean and interesting but not too interesting? What did I forget?
I guess the only choice I have is to appreciate that I don’t have to be on campus every morning for a 9 a.m. class.