Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Eating together, separarely

The other day I baked a cake from a box  in the pantry, just so we could enjoy some cake while watching our grand-daughter eat her birthday cake via Zoom. Her cake looked amazing and they say it tasted great too; mine tasted like it came out of a box, but it felt good to be eating together, at a distance. This morning I had a brief Zoom appointment with a colleague who always shares her oranges with me, and I peeled and ate an orange while we talked just so it would feel like we were eating together even if we couldn't be in the same room or even the same county.

I've been impressed with the many ways people are doing things together while maintaining social distance. Here are a few examples:

  • Members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra play Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring together, separately (click here).
  • People everywhere are figuring out how to play board games online with friends (click here). 
  • Miss choir practice? Sing along with a virtual choir online (here or here or just Google "online virtual choir"). 
Most of the things I do for fun don't lend themselves to online sharing. (Want to go on a hike in the woods with me? Fine--just stay six feet away.) But singing or playing or sharing a meal with others even if we're not in the same house feels viscerally satisfying: even a cake that came out of a box tastes better when we share it with people we love. 

Mmm, chocolate. Here, have a bite. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Consider the trilliums

The gloom started lifting the minute my car swung around the curve and I saw the gate to Lake Katharine opened wide as if in welcome. If ever there was a time when I needed to immerse myself in nature, this is it.

Each day I feel more blue, even though things are going well enough under the circumstances: we're still fully employed and healthy, classes are carrying on as well as can be expected, and, thanks to the wonders of Zoom, we even got to sing Happy Birthday to our youngest grandchild when she turned two yesterday. But so much is still missing from our lives right now: hugs from the grandkids, visits with friends, trips to the store, impromptu discussions with students in the hallways. 

Like everyone else, I'm living a compartmentalized life, dividing the home into work and leisure zones, seeing friends and family in little Brady Bunch blocks on a computer screen and finding it difficult to make connections across the void or bring the different pieces of life into harmony. Even my attention span seems fragmented, my mind constantly jumping from one online task to the next, constantly worrying over broken bits of everyday life and wondering when they'll ever be normal again. But when I went to Lake Katharine this morning and walked through the woods and down into the gorge, the pieces started coming together.

There's no Zoom in the woods and few distractions; in a nearly two-hour walk, the only other person I saw was a jogger running nimbly up a muddy slope I was struggling not to slide down. I stepped aside to let him pass and then went on my way through woods that felt familiar: this is the place where I saw the bluebells last year, and here I should look for trout lilies. I heard a hawk and a pileated woodpecker and unknown numbers of phoebes, and down at the marsh I heard the call of a Louisiana waterthrush, exactly where I'd heard one at this time last year.

Names of wildflowers came back to me unbidden as I greeted them as old friends: Dutchman's breeches and Jacob's ladder and blue cohosh looking, as usual, like something beamed in from outer space. Consider the trilliums: our spring so far has been cold, wet, and windy, and the coronavirus has turned human communities upside down, but down in the woods the trilliums are coming up all the same, thriving on damp hillsides and turning their pure white blossoms toward the light.

That's why I go to the woods: to turn away from the flickering lights of the computer monitor and the transient fragments that fill our lives now and find a place that feels whole and unperturbed and full of peace. Just last week I reminded my students, apropos of something we'd been reading, that the words whole and health and holy all derive from the same Old English root, and while the entire world obsesses over how to stay healthy, we do well to work on wholeness and holiness as well. 

That's why I go to the woods: to find a place that feels whole, where I can turn my face to the light and find peace.

Down into the gorge.

Salt Creek.

Solomon's Seal, just starting out.


Blue cohosh. Freaky!


Dutchman's breeches.

Mayapples, just popping up.

Bluebells are on the way!

I don't know what these flowers are and I couldn't get any closer.

Two Canada geese were sounding a loud alarm about something.


I think this is Jacob's Ladder.

Trout lilies! Saw lots of leaves but few blossoms.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The way my mind works now

Is there a word to describe an irrational fear of grocery shopping? Better ask Google: officinaphobia, from the Latin officina, a shop.

Under current conditions, is officinaphobia really all that irrational? Asking for a friend.

In a time a social distancing, how do pickpockets earn a living? Can they apply for unemployment benefits? Or have they all moved indoors to become Zoom-bombers? 

Zoom-bombers sounds like people so disgusted with how they look on the screen that they firebomb their own home offices, which would have the added benefit of injecting a little variety into the working-from-home situation, but no: Zoom-bombers exploit features of Zoom to force participants to view offensive content, like porn or racist rants. (Read it here.) The existence of Zoom-bombing provides further evidence, in case we needed it, that despicable people will find a way to act despicably in any situation.

Funny how everything on the syllabus right now seems to have some relevance to current conditions, from George Saunders's portrayal of characters trying to profit from the suffering of others (in "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline") to W.S. Merwin's poem "Rain Light," which shows how comfort can continue "even thought the whole world is burning." Next week my Colson Whitehead students will start reading Zone One, a zombie novel examining the various ways humanity responds after a global pandemic. Some suffer severe officinaphobia while others act despicably by seeking to profit from the disaster, but my favorite character rearranges debris to create art that will last long enough to convey meaning into the future. 

I want to be that person, but instead I'm sitting at home obsessing over how I can avoid looking like an idiot on Zoom and wondering how long I can put off grocery shopping.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

I've taught online before--why is this time different?

Everyone I know who has made the sudden shift to online teaching keeps talking about how exhausting it is, and I agree, but then I ask myself: I have taught online before without trouble; why is this time so different?

Let me count the ways:

Two or three times I taught an online course in Writing about Nature--a bit ironic, I know, relying on technology to write about nature, but we do what we have to do. Teaching that course was a total breeze for several reasons:

1.  Summertime! I didn't have to teach other classes, attend committee meetings, or do any of the million other tasks associated with my job during the semester.

2. Preparation! I worked long and hard to set that class up, recording narrated PowerPoints and creating assignments and activities that did not require my constant attention. I had ample one-on-one support from our Instructional Technologist and an opportunity to test every part of the system before opening it up to students.

3. Asynchrony! Students completed assignments on their own time, meeting three deadlines each week; I could dip into the course to check on progress any time and respond to their online discussions and writing assignments at my leisure--no Zooming required. 

4. Small class size! It's always easier to manage the needs of eight students rather than eighteen, whether online or face-to-face.

My current online classes, by contrast, had to be thrown together in a few days with assistance from our Instructional Technologist who is doing valiant work to provide services to literally the entire faculty, all at once. There was little time for testing or putting together elaborate resources, and of course I still have to deal with my usual committee work and my usual load of students. 

I've made some changes in syllabi and assignments to allow some asynchronous work, but because my courses are largely discussion-based, we still meet virtually via Zoom at least two days a week. I have mastered breakout rooms, and I think the students enjoy meeting in small groups where they can chat comfortable with each other, although the one guy who was Zooming without a shirt on was maybe a little too comfortable. (This is college, dude. We wear clothes.) 

I don't think I've "dumbed down" my classes but I've certainly inserted some flexibility, and I'm also offering a few unusual extra-credit opportunities designed to help students boost their grades while encouraging each other. My American Lit students, for instance, can earn a few extra points by choosing a character from their reading and writing about why they would or would not want to be quarantined with that person, with evidence from the text to support their claims. Me, I'm choosing a character with a working time machine so I can jump right past all this mess and see what comes next.

I admire my students' ability to adapt to circumstances: one rural student without home internet access drives down the road to a church parking lot where he can call in on his cell phone, and a couple of students in my 8 a.m. class are not complaining about having class at 6 because they live in a different time zone.

But I am exhausted. I feel like I'm on duty all the time, even while I'm sleeping. When I hear or read the so-called "experts" saying this experience proves that colleges can easily shift to online learning permanently, I utter a hollow laugh and start counting the days until I can afford to retire. With time, preparation, support, small class sizes, and more universal access to appropriate technology, online teaching could be a breeze, but not today, and probably not tomorrow either.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Home office blues

Shelter in place means stay home, but what is home? I feel most at home in my little house in the not-so-big woods, a house with lots of windows so every room offers views of trees and birds and other wild things. However, that house lack cell-phone access and reliable internet access, which I need for teaching my classes and surviving during the shelter-in-place order, so last Friday I packed up what I thought I would need for teaching my classes and took it all to the parsonage in Jackson, where the internet and cell-phone coverage are great but there's not much to see out of the windows.

On the plus side, I'll get to go through this struggle at my husband's side, and I can still go for walks out at the cemetery or at Lake Katharine after the weather clears up. On the minus side, I miss my woods, my birds, and my creek. Also, just a few days of relying entirely on my laptop have proved gruelling, causing elbow and neck pain, blurred vision, and headaches. I need the big computer monitor from my office and the docking station and external keyboard and mouse--and a desk to put it all on. I taught this morning from my dining-room table, which is not sustainable because it's small and we need to eat there, and somehow spilled salt ended up on all over my notes.

But we are safe and intending to stay that way. I'm reminded of the six months I spent doing chemotherapy and radiation, when I struggled through sleepless nights by visualizing a happier future or planning a long road trips down the Pacific Coast Highway. In 2011, I had the privilege of taking my California Literature students there during Spring Break, and when I stood on the shore of the Pacific at Big Sur with my health restored and a full head of hair, it felt like triumph. 

So today as I try to cope with neck pain and blurred vision and an uninspiring view, I keep trying to believe in a happier future when we can move freely about the country in the company of people we love. "Next year in California," I keep telling myself, and I might even come to believe it one day.

The view from my "office"

Where I really want to be right now

Updated to add: Just after I posted this, I noticed a robin building a nest under the eaves just outside my "office" window. I realize that having a choice of two places to live is a first-world problem that many people would welcome, but when this style of life starts feeling oppressive, it's good to be reminded that nature is still doing its thing out there, even if I can't always see it.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Just ducky

I didn't walk far this morning because of threatening weather, but I found plenty to distract me from the current crisis: flotsam washed up by last night's heavy rain, cardinals chasing each other through the forsythia, waterleaf and coltsfoot popping up in the woods alongside the usual spring crop of beer cans tossed out of passing cars (why?), spring rivulets washing down the hillsides, standing waves in the creek where a few days ago our grandkids were wading--and, best of all, a pair of wood ducks in the trees above the creek. I've caught a few glimpses of ducks for a week or so but never saw enough to provide a clear identification. I hope this pair decides to nest nearby. 

I can see how high the creek rose based on what it left behind.

Why do people do this? All up and down my country road!

wood ducks!

This tree caught...something.

This is where we were wading last week.

And the bridge caught a tree.


Such a handsome couple.

Seeking cheer in the midst of fear

Every day this week I've reached a point when I just wanted to lie down and cry, usually toward the end of the afternoon when I'm exhausted from learning so many new skills and tired of my own company, but tears can be also triggered by minor matters, like the absence of cars in the campus parking lot, or major issues, like the lockdown at my Dad's assisted living facility, where he is no longer allowed to leave his room even to take walks up the hall and so spends all his time alone with nothing but the television to entertain him, and at the moment nothing he sees is particularly entertaining.

Spending too much time listening to news or looking at social media makes me jittery, and my attention span has gone all to pieces as I scramble for reasons to hope. So many groups and individuals are making resources available online--we should all be virtually touring art museums or learning new languages or watching opera or going outside to see nature doing its Spring thing. 

Carefully. Keeping our distance. Washing our hands.

Yesterday my daughter sent me a video of a chickadee feeding from my granddaughter's hand. The bird lands and Miss E looks surprised, and then the bird takes off just as a huge grin flashes across her face. I've played that video over and over again, and I'm also monitoring the Marietta College hawk nest live stream (click here). Outside my window the phoebes are calling and towhees have returned, and down by the creek the kingfishers are chattering up a storm. After a bit I'll walk out and see what else is happening in the non-virtual world.

I won't be gone long. You come too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Questions I'm obsessing over right now

Will recording Zoom class sessions inhibit student participation?

How inhibited do I feel when I know I'm being recorded?
Is this why I refuse to use video in Zoom and why I rely entirely on audio instead?
Will I ever get over my horror of being recorded?
Does this stress me out more than any other aspect of online teaching?

What about privacy issues? Does random noise from the student's household need to be recorded in perpetuity?

At this chaotic point in time, do I really need to learn to use a video editing program to delete the unnecessary sections from the class meeting recording?

It's helpful to have a recording to share with students who have tech issues and miss the class meeting, but if I make the recording widely available, will this encourage students to skip the class meeting and rely entirely on the recording?

What kind of class discussion can we have if no one shows up?

Instead of cancelling our student poetry reading, why not move it online? 
Wouldn't lots of people enjoy watching students read their creative works in front of cool virtual backgrounds?
If an online poetry reading is such a great idea, why didn't I step up and volunteer to organize it?

If I had to take an exam online, would it totally creep me out to know that an electronic proctoring program was monitoring my every move and even taking control of my computer to limit access to other programs? 

If such a system would creep me out, why would I expect my students to welcome it?

Is it possible to adapt my exams to make such invasive monitoring unnecessary?

Am I a fool to have spent time submitting my fall book orders? 
Is it safe to assume that we will have some sort of fall classes regardless of circumstances, or is that assumption unreasonably optimistic?
Does that little frisson of pleasure provided by crossing fall book orders off my to-do list offset the possibility that it's a total waste of time? 

Will my wrist and elbow ever stop aching? 
Will my eyes ever un-blur?

Will I ever stop obsessing over everything that could possibly go wrong in my online classes?