Looking Back on First-Time Teaching Using Zoom
By Anjalee Nadarajan
When I received my acceptance to the PhD program in English during early March last year, I didn’t actually think that the coronavirus would ravage North America to the extent that it did. Friday the 13th, March 2020 was our last day of normalcy here at York, and in the months since we’ve all become accustomed to all things academic on Zoom. But while attending classes on Zoom is one thing, teaching on Zoom is quite another—we might even call it unprecedented. With only a few weeks left in the 2020-2021 school year, I am reflecting not only on my first year of teaching, but also on my first year teaching over Zoom. Here are two things that I’ve learned since September.
1) Less is more.
Initially, I made beautiful PowerPoint presentations. I spent hours labouring over the alignment and placement of text and images. One day, during the fall semester, though, I didn’t, and to my delight our tutorial learned just as much. I discovered that typing key terms in the Zoom chat and discussing them were equally effective. Worrying about the alignment and placement of my material was distracting me from delivering the material. Also, the return on time investment was low; I would spend fifteen minutes carefully crafting a slide only to present it in two minutes. I realized that my time could be better allocated elsewhere, such as reading more to contribute more examples to our class discussions or going over underlying rules of grammar to teach to my students. Meanwhile other tools like screenshare and sharing files compensate for the lack of PowerPoint presentations. For example, when we’re close-reading a passage in an online text, I like to screenshare and highlight the relevant passage so that my students can see what we’re discussing. Before, I would have copied and pasted that text onto a slide. I do think, though, that there’s a medium to be found in between extensive slides and having none at all, but I first have to let go of my own perfectionism: I am not a graphic designer and it’s OK if my slides aren’t top-notch.
2) Let go.
Initially, I scheduled every minute of my 90-minute tutorials, activity after activity. I worried about retaining my students’ interest in a virtual environment, where any number of distractions can be found in a keystroke. As I gained more experience, though, I began to relax and let go of controlling the pace of my tutorials. I understand that my job is simply to deliver the material and anyone who wants to be engaged will be engaged. While I still map out my time, it’s in loose blocks; therefore, when discussion goes on longer than expected, I either compress my remaining activities or let go of them.
In the same minimalist vein, I now give students in-class time to brainstorm and complete assignments. I find that building these blocks helps them to avoid procrastination and allows them to ask me initial questions privately through chat. One cool feature about Zoom is that we can turn off our cameras when we write, so that it replicates the experience of privately writing while being in a workshop setting. Sometimes, to truly replicate a workshop environment, I put them into breakout rooms, where a smaller number of students have the means to unmute themselves and actively participate, which may be unfeasible in the whole tutorial. When I jump from one breakout room to another, I hear the voices of people there I usually don’t hear in our full class. The chatter in breakout rooms makes up for the lost ambience of the classroom, the undercurrent of stifled conversation, which I miss terribly.
Like most instructors, I worry about technology mishaps. I worry about being able to command students’ attention, I worry about making sense. I worry about my students leaving tutorial bewildered and having learned nothing. Fortunately, these worries seem to be needless, as students for the most part do want to learn. Unfortunately, they too are contending with their own technological limitations and many responsibilities. I often receive emails after the tutorial from students who apologize for their internet cutting out or their mic not working. On the other hand, some of my students are still names on black rectangles, as I have neither seen their faces nor heard their voices. But it amuses me to think that one day it will be possible for us to pass by each other at York without my being aware that there goes a student of mine. Given that the next academic year will probably also maintain the heavy use of Zoom, I hope to use the platform more efficiently and further develop my pedagogical philosophy so that I can teach the best that I can.
About the Author
Anjalee Nadarajan is a PhD student in the English department at York University. She is currently TAing a course in the Writing Department, Introduction to Professional Writing. Her research interests are prose narrative and the novel's relationship to war and revolution. She looks forward to learning more about pedagogy from the Teaching Commons throughout her PhD.