The Pandemic Lessons

For the last one and a quarter years, I taught college students from my bedroom. It’s the only room in my open-plan, mostly glass house where I can have privacy and quiet (sort of). So every week, for two and a half semesters, I invited students into my most intimate space. Because of my house’s unique lighting, backgrounds don’t work to anonymize my location — believe me, I have tried. Besides, I believe one’s room makes one’s Zoom. My students wouldn’t have gotten to know my pets — and, by extension, me — if they hadn’t watched them lounge on the bed, bring me rats, and, once, bite me on the cheek. It was a fair exchange: I saw the students in their childhood bedrooms, their off-campus housing kitchens, their backyards — met their dogs, and cats, and occasionally a parent. Strangely, we got to know each other better than if we had been stuck in desks in a fluorescent building. My bedroom turned into the best classroom of my decade-plus teaching career. 

I don’t ever want to do this again. To say it was a difficult experience is to say 2020 wasn’t a normal year — a gross understatement. I never thought I would teach students who I didn’t once meet in person. I had students who disappeared, students who lost a parent, students who lost a friend. Students had severe anxiety and even mental breakdowns — oh wait, that was pretty much all of us. I probably wouldn’t recognize a couple students if I were stuck in an elevator with them because they rarely turned on their camera. I understood: I hate to look at myself in pictures or video, couldn’t stand seeing myself every day in the little Zoom window — but also couldn’t stand not being able to see how the students were seeing me, to ascertain whether the cat or dog was Zoombombing again. The student who kept her camera off wrote magnificently about loneliness, patience, sunsets and homesickness. Did I need to see her face to know she had a gift?

In one class in particular, a spring course on Nature Writing, there was nothing virtual about our experience. We made real connections. Beaming in from our private spaces in different parts of the planet, we created a community. The students get the primary credit: 16 generous, responsible, talented seniors and one junior, who did their classwork with sincere dedication (well, mostly) despite being about to finish their horribly disrupted undergraduate experience. They were kind to each other and patient with me. They turned the Zoom chat function into a comedy improv/pep rally/bitch session — a comedic ticker adjacent to the main broadcast. In their peer reviews, they supported and pushed each other, generating some of the most meaningful pieces I’ve read from undergraduates.

“My bedroom turned into the best classroom of my decade-plus teaching career.”

At our last session, we lingered over goodbyes. Even though it was 8:30 on a Thursday night — 11:30 for those on the East Coast — no one seemed to want to be the first to click “leave room” on the final class of Zoom university, of their undergraduate education. A movement started in the chat for those near campus to meet at a local bar. After all, most of them didn’t know each other either. I cried.

I’m scarcely alone in having this kind of profound pedagogical experience during the pandemic. From kindergarten to graduate school, at least half of learning in the U.S. in this past year has taken place online. It works better for some ages, and some subjects, than others. I was lucky: I had adult students and small classes that allowed me to give individual attention to every member, and I was already conversant in many online teaching modalities. You can teach writing online, I discovered; trying to learn calculus virtually was a whole ‘nother story, my son, a high school senior, said.

I am thrilled to teach in person again in the fall, but I don’t want to simply return to old ways. I believe that the pandemic was not a pause button; it was a reset. Earth 2.0 — or whatever version we’re on now — needs to be a radically different place: kinder, more thoughtful, centered around mutuality and reciprocity, not consumption and depletion. That’s what my Nature Writing students and I decided, based on reading such writers as Robin Wall Kimmerer and Pope Francis. I learned valuable lessons from teaching during COVID that I plan to carry with me. For years “rigor” has been pounded into our faculty’s heads by administrators. In 2020, “compassion” became our mantra. I used to be a deadline dictator (years of newsroom experience), but who was I to turn down a late paper from a student who was struggling to get out of bed every day. An honest, original reflection on Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” wasn’t going to get a B just because someone split too many infinitives. 

The big lesson — how to make it through the worst crisis of their lifetimes — overshadowed the little ones. How could I come down on students who were being denied all the best parts of college, who were back living with their parents in cold places after years of independence in sunny California, who were taking care of sick parents or of younger siblings who were suddenly being homeschooled, who were having to work DoorDash shifts because one or both parents had been laid off, who were about to enter a bleak job market, who never got to have an on-site internship, who were miles away from their best friends, their lovers, their peers?

“I believe that the pandemic was not a pause button; it was a reset.”

That caring made me a better teacher. I think it made the students better students. And it is how I plan to teach from now on. Not from my bedroom, though oh, how my pets will miss having me home all day. But wherever I’m at. When I first created the Nature Writing course pre-COVID, I imagined us taking exciting field trips. Instead, each student blogged each week from their nearest nature spot — frequently their backyard. We called these our personal Waldens. I think sharing those spaces with each other was crucial to bridging the emptiness of cyberspace, and to finding peace where we were at. It was a great class that I’ll never forget. But I can’t help but wonder: With that group of students, and with my renewed commitment to compassionate pedagogy, how great would it have been if we had also journeyed together to the beach, the desert, the mountains?

Or is that exactly what we did?

Evelyn McDonnell is a journalism professor in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. A frequent contributor to LMU Magazine, McDonnell has written or coedited seven books, including “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways” and “Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl.” Follow her @EvelynMcDonnell.