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19 Apr 2020

Turning corners – Last week felt like a corner-turning week on a number of fronts. It all started on Monday, in particular on my walk home from the office. After cresting the hill and beginning the walk down the long, gentle slope to the apartments, the wind began to blow. It’s been a very windy spring, and that wind has been rather cold and biting on my walk into the office in the morning and then back home in the evening. But Monday was different. The wind blew, but it was a warm wind. There had been other signs of spring, of course, such as the cherry blossoms and warm sunshine during the day, but somehow this felt like the final harbinger preparing the way for the new season. It’s a little thing, but I will take what I can get in these trying times.

“It’s good to know that if this whole professor thing doesn’t work out, I can always be a Twitch streamer.”

It also feels like we’ve turned a corner on COVID-19 here. Not that everything is perfect, of course. We’re still getting new cases every day, and there are reports of people who had previously been listed as recovered being reinfected—although whether these are actual reinfections or just resurgences of the virus is yet unknown. But the number of new cases has been down considerably recently, and we have definitely been successful in flattening the curve. There is still a long way to go, but progress is good.

Finally, I also seem to have turned a corner when it comes to the current semester. My last entry painted a somewhat bleak picture of things and the stress that I was feeling, but I think I have gotten a handle on things now. Teaching online via ZOOM is still not easy. I find it much more draining than teaching in person, partly because I don’t get nearly as much feedback from the students—and I mean feedback in every sense, including just being able to see the expressions on their faces. But we seem to have worked out a system where the students communicate their questions and comments to me via chat and I address them when appropriate. So, for example, if I am in the middle of explaining something and I get a question from a student, I will acknowledge it and then come back to it when I’ve finished what I was talking about. Sometimes students will even pitch in with their own ideas or thoughts on another student’s question—although, fortunately, it never gets to the point where it feels like the students are carrying on a separate conversation while I’m trying to conduct class. I wouldn’t say I am 100% comfortable with online classes yet, but I am pretty comfortable now. And it’s good to know that if this whole professor thing doesn’t work out, I can always be a Twitch streamer.

(All of this, by the way, is regarding my undergrad class with nearly fifty students. My graduate seminar is much smaller and thus much easier to handle, as I can see all of the students at once and we can hold actual spoken conversations. Given the nature of this particular seminar, there are even aspects of this class that are easier online—although I would still of course prefer to meet in person.)

I’ve also adapted other aspects of the class to the brave new world we find ourselves in. Quizzes, for example, are out. I thought long and hard about what I was going to do about this, and I ultimately came to the conclusion that, since the purpose of the quizzes is to give students some motivation to keep up with the readings and pay attention in class, whatever I came up with as a substitute only needed to accomplish that goal. So now the students write a brief (400-500 words) essay on each section. I have simplified the grading system for these essays, too; while it makes sense to grade quizzes out of 10 points, it doesn’t make as much sense to do the same for a very short essay. Instead, if students meet the guidelines I set out, they get a Satisfactory. If they do not meet the guidelines they get an Unsatisfactory. And if they make an extra effort and show real interest in the topic, they get an Excellent. These of course have numeric equivalents so that they can be worked into the final grade, but the system makes things a lot more manageable for me.

In addition, I’ve been trying to make more use of the online class system, known as eTL (which I mentioned in the last entry). I’ve always had a Q&A board for students to post questions that we couldn’t get to in class, but this semester I’ve actively encouraged students to use it, and they seem to have taken to it. It allows me to answer questions at a more leisurely pace and in perhaps more detail than I would be able to go into in class.

Probably the biggest change for me this semester, though, at least in terms of class prep, is that I realized early on I would need some sort of visual supplement for class. I am used to writing on the board a lot, but that is not practical with ZOOM. It is possible, as there is a whiteboard I can share with everyone and write on, but I quickly realized that it was going to be impractical. So I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I was going to have to put together PowerPoint files that I could display on screen while talking. This has probably taken up the most time this semester, and it has left me feeling like I have been frantically laying down track in front of a speeding train; up until the week before last, I generally wouldn’t get the PPT finished until the day before the class, or sometimes even the day of the class. Last week, however, gave me an opportunity to catch up in the form of the Election Day holiday on Wednesday. As a result, I was able to finish up the PPT for next Tuesday’s class and get halfway through the PPT for next Thursday’s class by Friday evening. I’ve also done the necessary prep for the translation class at KLTI, so I am well ahead of the curve. I expect to have all of my prep for the week done tomorrow, which will give me the rest of the week to make even more progress.

While things are going well, or at least better than they were a month ago, it’s important to realize that none of these corners being turned right now are leading into home stretches or anything like that. Although the course of our lives when viewed from a distance appears to be linear, the rhythms of life are in fact cyclical. This new spring will lead into summer, which will lead into autumn, which will lead back into another winter and then yet another spring. But just as this spring is different from the last, so next spring will be different from this one. We follow the cycles of life, but we never end up in exactly the same place as where we started. Every semester I teach my classes, but each semester I learn something and I grow a little, and I incorporate that into my next semester, hopefully making for a better experience for my students.

Similarly, I don’t know when the current cycle of COVID-19 will lead us back around to some semblance of normality, but it is a mistake to thing that things will somehow go back to the way they were before all this happened. I don’t think we would want that, even if it were possible. Instead, I hope we will have learned enough to be better prepared the next time something like this happens—because it will happen again. With how connected we all are in this modern world, epidemics and sometimes even pandemics have become yet another part of the cycle. Dealing with them is something we are going to have to work into what it means to be a member of modern society.

On a slightly more cheerful note, in addition to all of the other corners turned last week, it also happened to mark yet another trip around the sun for me. That, perhaps more than anything else, brings home to me once again the strange cyclical-yet-always-changing nature of life. It gave me an opportunity to see how much I have changed since previous trips around the sun, and it gives me hope for change in the future. Although I haven’t had as many trips around our sun as some reading this now, if I have learned one thing from the journey, it is that nothing stays the same and everything is in a constant state of flux. “This, too, will pass,” it is said—and whether that makes you feel anxious or content says a lot about how at peace you are with the nature of reality. The way I like to think of it is that, no matter how many corners I may turn, I will never have “arrived.” There will always be more corners to turn, more road ahead to travel, until at last I rest from the journey.

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