As I write this, the first week of the second semester of 2020 is nearing its end, and I’ve taught my first two seminars in Logical Methods, my main undergraduate teaching responsibility for this semester. Melbourne has just entered Stage 4 of its lockdown, as we attempt to deal with the ongoing community transmission of COVID-19. The streets are quiet, it has been over four months since I’ve been on campus, and all my teaching is done from the chair at my desk in my study, peering into the 15 inch screen of my laptop, with the green cyclops dot in the middle of the top screen bezel showing that yet again, my image is being transmitted across the internet, to students scattered across Melbourne, across Australia, and across the world.
I’ve started teaching online afresh this semester, taking into account some of the things I learned in the mad rush to online teaching in Semester 1. Then, I had to juggle three very different subjects. This semester, I have the chance to put into practice, from the beginning, what I learned in the experience, concentrating my energy into one unit: the Philosophy program’s second year introduction to logic, Logical Methods. Shawn Standefer and I put a lot of effort developing this unit last year, so the work for this semester involves figuring out how to teach it online.
Thankfully, we were set up pretty well to make the transition, at least in part. I’d already recorded hours of video lectures, designed to supplement the active seminars we used to teach face-to-face. Shawn had already prepared practice and graded quizzes the students could use to test their skills. All this still works in a pandemic, provided the student has a decent internet connection. What is less easy to replace is the seminar. When we taught this in person in 2019, we’d have a class of around 30 students, clustered around large tables, working on logic problems, talking to each other, as Shawn and I went from table to table, helping out, talking to each student, and then, after a reasonable amount of time, one or other of us would feed back to the whole group some thoughts about how they were going, or give some advice, or general feedback, or we’d raise for the class different questions that came up in one of the clusters of students we’d talked with. We’d have this regular rhythm, of working through questions in small groups, and feeding back to the larger group, putting things into practice, and reflecting on what we’d learned.
This can be approximated online, but it there is no way that it can be replicated.
In a classroom, I have peripheral vision. I can get a sense of how other groups are going, while I’m focussing on one group. People elsewhere in the room can catch my eye. I can sense when the groups are restless, wanting to go on, or when they’re having a lively conversation or a full-on argument, or when they’re stuck, spinning their wheels and needing help. Using Zoom, a powerful video conferencing setup that allows for breakout groups that can approximate those small groups of discussion in a larger group, I can get into things with one group, but while I’m in that group, we’re hermetically sealed from the rest of the class. I have no idea what the other groups are doing. In this position, you either losing track of time as you deeply engage with one group of people, or you’re constantly looking at your watch, half thinking about how you should get out of there to see which of the other groups are on fire. It takes at least twice the energy to go through the same material as you could cover face-to-face, and to do that, you need more time. It’s hard work.
This is not a complaint. Without something like Zoom, we wouldn’t be able to even approximate what we do in face-to-face teaching. With videoconferincing sofware like Zoom, we can at least give the students the opportunity to work together in groups, to spend some time working independently, while also having regular feedback from a teacher, and they can have the experience of being in a larger cohort, working with others, of not being alone, of some of the joy of being in this together. That, alone, is a valuable thing in a time of physical distancing.
Having one semester’s experience of the transition to off-campus teaching, we noticed that it was easy for students to become disconnected. The web of informal connections that’s sustained on campus, with students bumping into each other, of chance encounters in the library, or waiting in line for a coffee, or of just hanging out with other students, all these things are gone in the move to working online. None of those informal connections are vital in and of themselves, but the loss of the whole campus experience is experienced as just that: it’s a loss. Some students are able to manage, but some have so much going on (it’s a pandemic, after all!) that they’re unable to sustain the effort required to complete a semester’s course of study, because it takes significant energy to recreate all the habits and routines of on campus study, when uprooted to the new, online, context.
So, this semester I have tried to recreate in conscious, explicit ways, what was habitual and implicit in life on campus. Instead of a student chatting with me as I walked back to my office after a class, I’ve made the decision to let the whole class know that I’ll stay around online in the Zoom session for 15 to 30 minutes after class, for anyone to talk informally about whatever is on their mind—whether the content of the subject, or anything else. It’s just one way to allow space for informal conversations, to allow things to arise naturally, without having to book an appointment, or send an email, but to just hang out and chat, like we might if we’d bumped into each other on campus.
That’s one difference this year, but I decided to do more help provide other means of connection. Since we started revising Logical Methods last year, we’ve been concerned to make logic teaching in the Philosophy program much more accessible and better integrated with the rest of the curriculum. The work we’ve done has been paying off, but by its nature, any logic subject is going to stand out in a humanities program. When you look at what we do, it’s formal, it’s technical, and it looks mathematical. Students approach this material with a range of expectations. Some love it, some fear it. Since logic is connected to many disciplines, the pool of students is broad, too. This year about 65% of the students aim to complete a philosophy major, but that leaves a third of my students as coming from all over the university. We have the usual mix of mathematics, computer science, and engineering students, but we have a good supply of media, politics, commerce and economics students, and more. With a student body like this, students are coming with a diverse range of needs and expectations. And in this isolated time, students have much less access to each other, and less access to their teachers. It’s easy for them to flounder in the initial weeks, unsure of how to work with this new material, and with little idea of what to do. I wanted to do something to help each student start off the semester well.
So this time around, when the course website launched, in the first announcement I sent out (10 days before the semester started), I let students know that I’d be available for a short 5 to 10 minute one-on-one consultation, where (1) I’d ask them what they wanted to get out of the subject (to help orient me as their teacher) and (2) they could ask me anything I wanted. That way, I’d get to know some students just a little bit, and deepen the connection beyond me seeing them restricted to small rectangles on my screen, and as names on email addresses or assignment submissions. But at the same time, I’d break the ice for them, and hopefully establish the semester as one where we’re available to each other, and the subject is much more interactive than what might amount to a bunch of videos on the internet.
I thought that maybe 50% of the students would take me up on the offer. And at the time I made the offer, our enrolment was at around 70 students for the subject (already up on the 65 who completed the unit last year). So I thought I could manage that many short interviews in the first week of classes.
Well, about 95% of the students have signed up for these interviews, and our enrolment is now on the other side of 110. So I’ve been busy, getting to know my students. They’re a bright, engaged, bunch, and to a person they’ve been grateful at the opportunity to talk one-on-one with their lecturer. Some have been disappointed with the move to online teaching, keenly feeling the loss of the campus experience. Others have found that they’ve managed well so far. But in each case, I got to hear from students, about what they want to learn, some of their hopes or fears, I’ve heard their excitement and their nervousness. For some, it’s continuing an already established passion for learning philosophy or learning logic. For others, it is the first dip of a toe into the water. Some are doing it because they want to do well in logic questions in the LSAT, and for others, they’ve just heard that it’s fun. In each case I’ve been able to help set expectations, to explain how the subject fits together, and how it might scratch where they’re itching, or how it might stretch them beyond what they’re looking for. These conversations have helped me as I present material in class, to orient things toward the students I have, and to help take the interests and passions they have, to show how they can pursue them while they study logical methods with me.
This is a bittersweet time, as we start our second semester of online teaching, while our community struggles with a pandemic and with living in a lockdown and all that entails. But one of its highlights, so far, is getting to know over 100 students, who are each, in their own way, keen to make connections, and to make the most of the opportunity to learn some logic. Being a part of that is enough to keep me going.