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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

My university, like most universities across the country and globe, is struggling with a range of questions about how to operate during the pandemic this coming fall. I’d like to address two of those questions:

1) Is a zoom classroom inferior to a traditional classroom?

2) Should professors decide whether to conduct their classes traditionally or by zoom?

The short answers are: no and yes.

First an admission: I was on sabbatical this year and so avoided the staggering task of pivoting mid-semester and turning traditional courses into remote courses. I did observe many of my colleagues (including my spouse) and a few students (including my son who finished the last quarter of his first year at Haverford at our dining room table) make the transition, and the census seems to be: online classes kinda suck.

But of course that was the census. How could a course shoehorned mid-stride into a format unfamiliar to both the teacher and the students work as well as the intended format? Taking that very specific context of suckiness as evidence that online courses therefore are necessarily sucky would be like listening to a novice during a first piano lesson and concluding that pianos are godawful noise-machines.

If you want to know what a non-sucky zoom class looks like, start by looking at zoom. If you instead start with your traditional classroom lessons and try to adapt them to zoom, suckiness will ensue. Find out what is uniquely effective about zoom and then build your lesson around those features.

Here’s an example. I recently learned that the whiteboard allows everyone to access it simultaneously. I can’t stress enough how unbelievably cool that is. The first time I made a tiny little check mark during a zoom meeting was the first time I felt like a fully present participant and not just a multi-tasker giving the person talking a fraction of my attention as I’m hidden by the looked-at-but-not-seen weirdness of the videocam.

The pedagogical implications are even cooler. Here are two:

First day of zoom class, students enter to see each of their names typed on the whiteboard in a different color/style with the instruction to “check in” by selecting the same color/style and drawing a check next to their name. That’s now their identifying color/style for the rest of the semester. Whenever I start a new whiteboard for a discussion segment, we’ll begin with an instant “check in” along the margin. Then whatever they place on the whiteboard (a passage from the reading that supports their interpretation, a circle or underline to isolate a phrase from a longer passage that I placed there) everyone recognizes it as belonging to the specific student. And these visual interactions are happening in conjunction with the regular verbal discussion, making the zoom discussion not a second-rate imitation but its own unique animal.

Here’s a goofier micro-lesson for getting everyone’s attention synced. Each student is assigned one facial feature (left ear, mouth, right eyebrow, etc.) and when I say “now,” they draw simultaneously to create a one-second class portrait. I’ll save one portrait from each day (did I mention you can save your whiteboards?) and create a slideshow for the last day of class. This is my own doodle, not a class portrait, but it gives you a tiny hint of the possibilities:


There are so many more ways to capitalize on features:

polling (pre-plan a sequence to weave through discussion, starting with a fully anonymous reading quiz)

backgrounds (for homework students select passages—or images if it’s one of my comics classes—from the reading and have the screenshots ready to display behind their heads)

screen sharing (yes, everyone can finally all be one the same page at the same time),

break-out rooms (AKA, “small group work,” a core to my teaching since the early 90s),

I could go on, but you get the point: Build from the tech up.

Which brings me to the second question: should professors decide whether to zoom or not?

My school has created a doctor-signed HR form for professors at high-risk for CV-19 to receive permission to not meet with classes in-person. That’s great, but zoom isn’t primarily an emergency teaching tool. It’s just a teaching tool. Plus CV-19 doesn’t apply only to zoom teaching. Traditional teaching won’t be traditional either.

A CV-19 classroom will require teachers and students to wear masks and to stay six feet apart. How do you get students into small groups while circulating between them to monitor and answer questions? You don’t. Zoom break-out rooms are pedagogically better. If you think running a discussion on zoom is clumsy, how will it go when everyone has to shout from behind masks? I like to pull my classes into tight circles, but the minimum circumference for a fifteen-person CV-19 seminar is 120 feet. Does anyone seriously think that’s better than a grid of unmasked close-ups on a zoom screen?

Happily my school included this statement in our “Returning to the Workplace” guidelines:

“The university recognizes that a hallmark of a W&L education is the personal relationships between faculty to students. These relationships are typically fostered through the in-person classroom experience, and to the extent that students are able to return to campus, in-person instruction is the preferred method of delivery. However, as has always been the case, all faculty may alter their pedagogical methods to include a range of strategies that ensure an interactive and high-quality offering. This flexibility is not altered by these guidelines. If uncertain, faculty should continue to consult with their department head and dean on such approaches.”

Since I’m now vice-head (or what I’ve been calling “helper chair”) of my English department, I invite my colleagues to consult with me if they’re uncertain whether zoom approaches can achieve interactive and high-quality pedagogy better than traditional approaches used in the non-typical and non-preferred constraints of in-person CV-19 classrooms.

But whatever they decide, the decision to zoom or not to zoom is theirs to make.



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