Once yer back in the room… to zoom or not to zoom? (A meditation on hybridity)

My sabbatical ended in December, friends, and I’m back in full swing as term throttles toward Reading Week. (Don’t mention it: I might start twitching inadvertently and my brain may start leaking out of my ears.)

It’s been a hard re-entry, not helped by The Beer Virus Inc, as Kelsey and I call Corona, Omicron edition. At my school we did January on Zoom, after having term delayed by a week; as of last Monday we were back to live in person, trussed up in hard-shell N95 masks that make us profs look like we’re getting ready to remediate some asbestos in an abandoned factory. My face itches every time I put it on, and my ears ache after an hour. During breaks for group discussion I run into the hallway to yank it down and take five good, deep breaths.

And yet, OF COURSE it’s wonderful to be back in the classroom.

This woman could be me. Except she is saving your life, and all I can do is teach you Shakespeare. (Her name is Erica Parziale, and she’s an emergency management intern at Tufts Medical Center.)

Almost as soon as we returned to in person teaching, I began to field student requests to attend class on Zoom. I was prepared for this; I knew we might have to pivot back and forth depending on public health advice, so I set up a regular Zoom room for each of my classes just in case. I told students up front that if they fell ill or needed to isolate, but felt well enough to come to class, Zoom was always an option. They just had to let me know in advance.

That was back in November, when teaching was still a theoretical on the post-holiday horizon. While I was planning my classes and toggling between light prep, research projects, and dog walks, it hadn’t occurred to me that more than one or at most two students in any given week might need the Zoom option. It certainly hadn’t occurred to me that anyone might prefer it! But teaching is a game of shifting circumstances, and as term pressures bear down I’m finding that for a range of reasons – COVID exposures; COVID illness; unexpected family travel; pressing deadlines; STUFF – students are increasingly interested in the Zoom option.

At first I figured: well, I can, and I said I would, so why shouldn’t I? This was my attitude last week, in fact, when a snowstorm in Southern Ontario meant it was a gamble for me to try to get on the highway, and the only amenable trains had been inconveniently canceled for February. I quickly decided both of my Thursday classes would be on Zoom, but I confess I felt some guilt in making the call. I imagined my students would be bummed to pivot back to online after just one class, even if it was only for one day. That guilt made me even more committed to making Zoom an option for any one of us in class when we decided, for ourselves, that such was the best or safest call.

Guilt aside, I was surprised to hear another (and very compelling) perspective when I found myself that same snowy Thursday in a meeting with two colleagues I know well from other universities. Our pre-meeting chat turned to hybrid options in the classroom; both noted that they were opposed to teachers like me making Zoom an option when my university has been clear that instructors are not expected to teach in a hybrid way.

It’s not equitable, they argued; sure, you can do it, but that might mean students figure it’s easy, or expected, and then when an instructor with fewer resources or less ease with technology refuses to allow Zoom-ins, they might appear churlish in comparison. Both of my colleagues are senior administrators, and both added that this kind of dispute over equity in the COVID academy has been blighting their workdays and creating headaches across their campuses.

My gosh are there ever a lot of hybrid learning graphics about! This one featured a decent selection of different-looking humans, plus a cat and a cactus. I mean come on.

Fretful and chastened, I made sure to let both of my classes know that day that I appreciated their accommodation for my safety in the snow, and that while Zoom was an option we were privileged to enjoy, that was largely because of the resources available in our high-tech classroom this term. I tried to make this resource piece clear: I reminded the students that our university wasn’t giving me, or any teacher, any extra tools or support to make hybrid happen, so we can’t just expect everyone wants, or is able, to do it. We got lucky: that’s all.

At the same time, I decided to start asking others – peers and students alike – about their attitude toward the hybridity question. On the weekend another friend who is a senior administrator at a university near my home came for a doggie visit. She reflected on how much she wishes she could mandate hybrid models; it’s good for everyone, she argued. (At both of our universities, our strong and very much appreciated faculty unions have nixed any such mandate, for equity reasons.) We talked about how we both understand the labour challenges involved, but she noted that her own colleagues are full of good will and trying to make it work for students confined to their homes as much as possible. I reflected on the fact that it’s not really that hard to get students Zoomed in, especially if one’s classroom has a couple of screens, a rack computer, and at least one clever techie in the ranks.

Speaking with her, I felt vindicated in my choice to give my students the hybrid option.

And then Tuesday rolled around.

In one of my classes, this term I’m co-teaching with a professor of Psychology, and her community psych students are learning alongside the gang in my class on performance studies and applied theatre. On Tuesdays we hold joint sessions in her (less high-tech but bigger) classroom; this Tuesday, when our research fellow Stephanie and I arrived, students started to pop into the Zoom room in what felt like unexpectedly high numbers. Stephanie was left fielding the virtual gang AND the virtual speaker, trying to figure out on the fly how to put live and virtual students into the same breakout groups, and also managing problems with sound while fielding private queries in the chat.

I didn’t ask Stephanie, but I’m guessing she would have been into this as an option.

When we debriefed about Stephanie’s experience later, the hidden labour of the hybrid option hit me full in the face. She described feeling overwhelmed, unprepared, surprised and disheartened. She also let us know that at least one student had ended up stranded in Zoom no-person’s land, frustrated and without a group to talk to. I realized then that the live bodies on one side of the room and the black squares on the screen clearly heralded their own inequity, too, and normalizing that inequity might be a big mistake.

Week nine feelings, I’m guessing.

If this is week five, what happens in week nine, when the poop is hitting the thingy, term paper-wise, students are cramming or all-nighter-ing and struggling to get to class on time, and they just decide instead to pull the Zoom trigger? Sure, maybe lots won’t, but maybe they will. Would I have abused the Zoom option in, say, third year of my undergrad? You bet your life I would have done.

The horses have left the stable for me on this one, this year; I don’t feel comfortable withdrawing an offer I’ve made to either of my classes in good faith, however negligent I may have been in thinking the whole thing through beforehand. But I think some good learning may yet come from this.

In our team debrief this morning, my Psych colleague Leora, Stephanie and I decided that we’d continue to permit Zoom attendance in our Tuesday classes but only if students got in touch with their fellow group project members ahead of time and arranged for one of those members to bring them into the room on video. To save our emotional energy and reduce our ever-increasing mental load, we’re going to be frank with them: we’re always happy to have you, but if you want to attend virtually, you’re still going to have to do the work of getting yourself to class, and on time.

Friends, I’d be SO keen to hear how this situation is playing out at your institutions. Are you being asked to permit hybrid learning? Are you forbidden, and if so why? How are your faculty unions handling the workload-creep challenge that two years of online learning has created? Please do share in the comments.