When asked near the end of the chaotic spring 2020 semester how my sudden shift to online teaching went, I responded, “It was twice the work and half the fun of teaching in person.” Once the semester was over, however, I received messages from students thanking me for carrying on close to normal and providing them with stability in a very stressful time. Some even proclaimed it their best learning experience ever. Perhaps students at the University of Texas at Austin are just forgiving and understanding of a professor who, after four decades of teaching nothing but in-person classes, was suddenly forced last March to adapt to teaching online. Still, perhaps both my summary judgment and the students’ were correct. Despite the difficulties and frustrations, my efforts to clearly illustrate the central message of the course and make the transition to online as seamless as possible may have paid off.
Online teaching is indeed twice the work, especially for a first-timer. I quickly upgraded my technology at home while UT scrambled to provide the best platform for teaching remotely. Everything was new—new equipment at home, new systems to master, new difficulties in maintaining a classroom community and communicating with each student. Because I had students scattered around the world, I taught each class asynchronously. That forced me to imagine a full classroom while switching back and forth from focusing the camera on me to screen sharing quotations, photographs, music, or the lecture outline for the day. Thankfully, over half of the 40-person class attended synchronously, but looking at their faces on my screen, keeping an eye on the chat feature, responding to raised hands, and trying to maintain the normal flow added another level of difficulty. The whole experience felt like juggling while balancing on a beach ball. I never ended a class thinking that I had nailed it that day and that things went especially well.
Stress and worry made the teaching experience half the fun, but I also missed the human contact with students. It was impossible to read the body language of students for clues on how the class was going and to look them in the eyes when responding to questions. I also missed the adrenaline rush after class, when students come up and declare “you made me think about this” or “that was a new idea for me.” Instead of inspiring students to think about the past and the evidence that supported new ways of viewing the past, it seemed that far too often I was simply performing and pushing information down the throats of students. Class seemed flat with fewer probing questions asked than during a normal in-person class.
Given the challenges and off-putting nature of online teaching, why were students generally positive about the experience? Crucially, we had almost half a semester together in person. They knew me, and I knew them. We had built community, and they were comfortable asking questions. I had established a certain rhythm in each class, and I decided to follow that rhythm online to the extent possible—which turned out to be a wise decision. In my undergraduate course on the history of Texas, I would open the class with a recording of a song from a Texas artist or a song that especially fit the topic of the day. For example, when the topic was lynching and white supremacy, I opened with Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” With the camera on me, I spoke about the major argument for the day and the song. Then I shared a photo of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, while I continued speaking. Then back to the outline of points to be covered for the day, and so on, until near the end when I shared a quote from a newspaper that illustrated the commonplace nature of lynching. That led to a concluding discussion of the questions and thoughts to be carried forward from that day. The experience was not identical to our face-to-face sessions, of course, and I had to pay special attention to fielding questions and comments from students as they came up. Yet the pattern was familiar enough to the students to allow them to continue to get something out of the course.