Teaching Under Triage

Teaching, in certain ways, is a performance art. The teacher, lecturing before a hall brimming with students, is the prima ballerina in a Tchaikovsky ballet or Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton. And, according to Shelly Kagan, “performing to an empty theater is just completely different from performing to a live audience where you’re getting their presence.”

Shelly Kagan’s face fills my computer screen as I’m listening to his analogy. He’s in his home office with bookcases filled with leather-bound spines behind him. The more I talk to him, the more I begin to understand why he’s one of Yale’s most popular lecturers. His class on “Death” has been so well-received that Yale turned it into an Open Yale Course, allowing the public to experience Kagan and his philosophical teachings. His stage presence is captivating, and his passion for whatever subject he’s talking about never gets lost, even through a computer screen. When he speaks, he leans into the camera, close enough that I can see my own reflection in his glasses, making it feel like he’s divulging a secret rather than speaking about Zoom’s shortcomings. 

Kagan, Clark Professor of Philosophy, is teaching a Normative Ethics seminar and a lecture titled “Life” this semester, but hasn’t been on campus since March. He is not the only professor who hasn’t stepped foot on campus since the start of the pandemic.

As Yale wraps up its first-ever completely online semester, I sat down virtually with five tenured Yale faculty members, most of whom have been teaching for several decades, to see how they’ve been handling online teaching while simultaneously coping with the pandemic. While some professors found the transition to virtual teaching smooth, others found it frustrating and laborious. Some have found more free time for various recreational pursuits, while others feel drained after a long day of shouting into a microphone the size of a large water bottle (more on that later). 

After hours of conversations in front of grainy screens, I realized that, in a lot of ways, we may be more similar to our professors than I’d previously thought. Along with the technical challenges of teaching online, our professors are dealing with personal obstacles just like everyone else. What started out as conversations about Zoom quickly turned into ruminations on pandemic life, nostalgia for the past, and uncertainty about the future.

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Only a few classes, such as laboratory and art classes, met in-person this semester. Most other classes ran completely virtually, including Shelly Kagan’s two philosophy courses.

Kagan, a self-described Luddite, admits that he’s been struggling with Zoom and prefers to write on his chalkboard than on the program’s virtual whiteboard. He attributes his technological struggles to his age, before adding that he purchased his first smartphone only a year ago. Before that, he’d been using a hand-me-down flip phone.

“I’m an old man. I’m set in my ways. I do not like change,” he said.

Three of the professors I interviewed pointed out their age when describing their challenges adapting to virtual teaching. Joseph Altonji, Thomas DeWitt Cuyler Professor of Economics, said that he’s “too much of an old dog to learn the new tricks.”

Age was another important factor to consider when deciding whether or not to meet in person. Altonji considered having one introductory meeting in-person for his undergraduate labor economics seminar but ultimately decided against it, saying that he would have been “slightly uncomfortable,” even if they met outside.

Marcia Inhorn, William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs, also felt uneasy with meeting in-person. “I would not consider meeting [in-person] in a seminar format because of age and COVID. I do not want to get COVID-19. I don’t want to spread it to my family.”

Most of the professors I spoke with are between 50 and 64 years old, an age group four times more likely to require hospitalization for COVID and thirty times more likely to die when compared to most undergraduates at Yale, according to the CDC.

Teaching virtually has come at a cost for Kagan, beyond just having to deal with technological challenges. He laments that he can no longer receive the constant feedback from his environment that he usually gets from lecturing in-person. The rustling of bodies if he’s being boring, the subtle “huh”s as students are thinking about a question he just posed––all of it is lost on Zoom. 

“I feel the difference. I feel stiffer lecturing. I feel less in the flow,” he added.

Some professors, unlike Kagan, feel too much in the flow. Altonji misses being interrupted by spontaneous questions from his students, saying that oftentimes this semester he would lecture for ten minutes without interruption. William Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics, has the same problem and reminds himself not to “go on and on and on.” Laughing, he says, “[Zoom] is not a very lively medium.”

As I talked to more professors, I found that the problems we students face with virtual classes are comparable, yet still vastly different from the ones our professors face. Sure, we might all experience the occasional bad Wi-Fi connection, but if a professor’s Internet goes down, a class of one hundred students is left in silence. If ours goes down, we can get the notes from a friend or watch the lecture later on Canvas. Their problems seemed to be amplified versions of ours, because they have to manage a class on top of dealing with whatever obstacles may arise.

Beyond the classroom, professors had to confront their own personal challenges as well. One common theme links them all together—a longing for the past. Nordhaus says that he’s been back to his office a few times to pick up books and “look nostalgically at all the things [he’s] missing.”

What Altonji misses deeply is regular social interaction with his colleagues and students. Along with his classes, all of his professional conferences have been moved online as well. “You can get a fair amount out of the presentations but you don’t have conversations with people about what they’re working on or even just how they’re doing,” he said. 

Marcia Inhorn has been staying in her house with her husband and children as much as possible. She laments not being able to see her elderly parents, who live in another state. 

Inhorn added, “It’s really been tough to be so separated from family that I would’ve certainly seen this year.”

Shelly Kagan and his family have also been minimizing the amount of time they spend outside of the house, resulting in his family’s use of Instacart for their groceries. The online orders sparked a philosophical debate in his household. “It means we don’t have to go into the grocery store, but we’re sending somebody else into the grocery store, so they’re at greater risk. Who is this person that’s being sent into the grocery store? This person will be either somebody who’s lost their job or needs the extra money. So basically I’m taking advantage of the fact that I’m comfortable financially to make somebody else take the risk for me. Is that morally legitimate?” 

Even philosophizing has grown more difficult. He finds that, when staring into space—the main way he ponders philosophical questions—fewer thoughts are coming to his mind. He succumbs easily to distractions on his computer from the newest The New York Times headlines about COVID or the election. He says, rather dryly, that all of this falls under what he calls “pandemic-induced stupidity.”

I resonated with the relatability of his comment. I didn’t think I would have much in common with someone who had to use a slide rule in his math classes. I thought about my version of Kagan’s pandemic-induced stupidity. It’s having to read the same paragraph three times because I’m thinking about how I only walked 2,000 steps today. Or not realizing I’d missed a meeting with my dean because I was too busy reading COVID-related predictions in The Times

With challenges, however, come solutions. After all, the professors I spoke to didn’t get to where they are without adapting and overcoming obstacles.

In an effort to “simulate as close as possible the real-life experience,” Kagan asks his students in his seminar to keep their videos and microphones on at all times “so when they’re ready to jump in they don’t have to fumble around and unmute themselves.” Much to his delight, his students love to talk, so he hasn’t seen a drop in engagement in his seminar.

Although Altonji has noticed a dip in participation, he’s found that one-on-one interactions with students work great remotely. Because of the ability to share screens, he can easily review his students’ empirical projects with them. “The medium works very well for one-on-one advising,” he said. “I can just as easily meet with a student at eight at night as I can at nine in the morning.”

William Nordhaus also loves the flexibility and convenience of Zoom. He’s looking forward to not trekking a mile through the snow in the middle of winter to get to class.  In terms of long distance travel, a few weeks ago, he gave a talk in Italy and didn’t have to board an airplane. The setup time for his Zoom classes is a lot less than for a normal in-person class, and he’s happy about the few hours a week saved just in terms of logistics.

Along with all the challenges, the pandemic has also brought small joys to the daily lives of some professors.

Smiling, Professor Inhorn tells me about how her millennial children have been home since the spring. “We’re living together for the first time in years. Personally, as a mother, it’s been fantastic. It would’ve never happened otherwise.”

Professor Altonji has also been spending more time with his family, now that he doesn’t have to commute to New Haven from his home in Madison, Connecticut.  He speaks fondly of hiking, cycling, and playing tennis with his wife, all things he wouldn’t have done regularly had he been working from his office on Hillhouse Avenue.

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Moira Fradinger, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies for Comparative Literature, is the only professor I spoke with who has an in-person component to her course this semester. Her graduate class on key concepts in psychoanalysis meets in-person and is streamed via Zoom for those who cannot physically attend.

“After Trump’s administration decided to put a ban or to limit the access of foreigners to American universities if they did not have an in-person component, I volunteered in my department to offer a hybrid class… so that foreigners could apply for this as a credit.”

This semester has not been easy for Fradinger. The first room she was given in Old Campus had only two small windows offering poor ventilation and was not large enough to accommodate a seminar of fifteen socially distanced people. After three weeks in this room and a second attempt at finding a different one, Fradinger was given an appropriately sized room in Rosenfeld Hall. A permanent classroom found, she now had to determine how to have everyone’s voices be heard.

In each meeting, she couldn’t walk around but had to stay in the same place with a large microphone a few feet away from her, which was supposed to record in-person conversation so that the virtual participants would be able to listen and participate in the discussion. Even though the microphone was the size of one seltzer bottle (as she describes it), it was not sensitive enough. Because the students were spread six feet apart, it wouldn’t pick up their voices. To try to find a solution, Fradinger asked a theater student to teach everyone in the class how to properly project their voices without having to move closer to the microphone and risk breaking social distancing, and Classroom Technology and Media Specialists Tony Sudol and Paul Auringer were instrumental in providing the microphone and helping her throughout the semester.

Issues with the microphone, coupled with connection issues from the streaming program, left Fradinger drained after each class. “I finished with such an exhaustion every Wednesday,” she said. “My semester has been consumed by learning how to make it work. The technological preparation––being there half an hour before… staying afterwards to clean, my Wednesdays were completely useless because I was so exhausted. My voice was hoarse and pretty much out because I was shouting for two to three hours.”

Through all of the difficulties, Professor Fradinger found some positives that came from teaching her hybrid course. The students grew attached to each other, which was one of the reasons that Professor Fradinger cites for keeping the in-person component, even though she had considered going fully virtual many times throughout the semester. 

“I really found the group of students fantastic, and [we] managed to create an atmosphere in which we were all together in making an effort to cope with poor technology,” she added.

During my interview with Professor Fradinger, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car that was driving through rural Pennsylvania, so I inevitably lost signal a few times. Every time I reconnected, she always had a calm smile on her face, assuring me that everything was fine in response to my frantic apologies. I imagine this sort of patience was necessary to overcome all of the technological and organizational challenges she faced this semester.

***

Marcia Inhorn’s teaching isn’t the only aspect of her academic experience that’s changed. Her research has been completely reshaped by the onset of the pandemic. She is currently working on a project on infertility and assisted reproductive technologies. Anthropologists of reproduction, like herself, are concerned about the ways that COVID has affected reproduction, including the shutting down of in-vitro fertilization centers around the world. 

“It’s caused further delays for people who are feeling up against the biological clock, if you will. There’s been a lot of grief about that. What is it going to mean? Is COVID going to be the reason that I never end up having children?”

I compared my own pandemic-related problems to those of Inhorn’s research subjects. All of a sudden, they didn’t seem that significant anymore, which isn’t to say that they aren’t still legitimate concerns. But, I’m fortunate, as I’m not up against the so-called biological clock, and the pandemic hasn’t severely disrupted my life and family planning. The minimization, which is different from trivialization, of my own issues is comforting.

As I hit the “stop recording” button on my phone and thanked Professor Altonji for his time, he surprised me with a question. He asked me how I was doing. The last time I’d seen him was last May in an economics seminar I’d taken. I looked at his face on my computer screen for a minute. His hair had grown long, and he was wearing a casual fleece sweater instead of the button-downs I was used to seeing him wear. I thought about his question. How was I doing?

I said I was doing well because I really was doing well. I told him about how much I was enjoying being home after a semester in New Haven. He told me about the trails and forest preserves he and his wife had been exploring. I couldn’t remember the last time someone asked me how I was. Talking to Professor Altonji about the small joys we were savoring in our lives was a nice escape from the pressures that this pandemic has brought. His simple question left me with a smile on my face long after our call ended.

— Alice Yan is a senior in Morse College.

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