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English prof navigates Zoomland with success

English prof navigates Zoomland with success

Turns out even Shakespeare can be taught remotely.

April 9, 2020 at 11:36am

By James M. Sutton

Since my very first days teaching at FIU, interacting with students and forging strong relationships with them beyond the confines of the classroom has driven me professionally. In fact, I’m still in touch with a couple of the students I taught in my first courses in fall of 1994. I’ve always believed such connections were formed in the spontaneous give and take of face-to-face interactions. A dynamic classroom is especially important, I think, when teaching Shakespeare and other dramatic literature, where the verse literally indicates movement of body and mind.

So the mandate to move all of my classes this semester to a “remote” space was not welcome news. How would I manage to convince 75 first-year Honors College students that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman mattered, if instead of wandering through the aisles of desks of SIPA 220, calling on them to read lines and respond to my on-the-spot queries, I now had to scroll through their faces, arranged 25 to a screen-page in a 5 x 5 grid, to search for the blue “raised hand” icon? Where’s the spontaneity and joy in that?

Most challenging: the wellbeing of the 20 students enrolled in my other Honors College course, the one that prepares them for a month-long summer study abroad trip of a lifetime to the United Kingdom. Talk about cancel culture: London, Manchester, Liverpool, Belfast, Wales and Bath, slated for June, all gone.

On Thursday, March 12, I met those crestfallen students for the first time on Zoom. How was this class, predicated on an incredible first-hand travel experience, to be re-built?

Empathy, compassion, just listening to each other that first day together all seemed to work to restart and redirect the students. We agreed to keep major components of the class, such as the students’ required presentations each week on aspects of British history. Their sharing and narrating PowerPoint slides works just as well online as it does in person. But continuing to require that they read 100 pages weekly from a book of English history and then quizzing them suddenly seemed pointless, and cruel.Out went the readings and quizzes. The hope that some of this group might be able to make the trip in 2021 and the rest, currently seniors who will graduate shortly, on their own in the future provided a measure of consolation.

As for the first-year Honors students and the three colleagues with whom I teach the course, we too have survived, even thrived remotely. It turns out Arthur Miller’s great tragedy, as well as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, translate just fine on Zoom, a couple of recent trolls notwithstanding.

In my course on Shakespeare histories, although I will always prefer the community-building of the face-to-face classroom, Zoom has not been a death knell. Our weekly meetings are lively, full of verbal and written chatter, plentiful sharing of film clips, memes and good ideas, even dramatic readings. And in the age of Covid-19, new discoveries abound. For example, I’ve always found Henry IV part 2, a somewhat dull play, a particularly hard sell to the students: It’s riddled with false rumors, fake news and lots of disease and death. Now, in a time of pandemic, with so many hopes and dreams dashed, waiting for “Day 2,” this play resonates as never before.

I’ve always been a “high-touch” type of instructor: teaching theatre and poetry beg for embodiment. Being “remote” seems, at first glance, to be defined by the opposite kinds of moves and modalities: disembodiment, distance, lack of touch. And yet, we are not lonely exiles doomed to our home-islands. With empathy, care, and compassion, guided by a firm notion of what truly matters in our lessons, using our I-phones, keyboards, and screens to connect with each other, we are forging relationships that could endure another 25 years, well after coronavirus has become but part of the story we share with our children and grandchildren. 

James M. Sutton is an associate professor of English and a faculty fellow in the Honors College.