Teaching (Art History) During a Global Pandemic

Written back in mid-June as a review of nine months of remote teaching. As I finish grading the last exam from my students, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my experience teaching this year as a first-time TA, and through a pandemic no-less!

I consider myself lucky that my University decided in March 2020 to make all classes virtual, including the smaller group sections taught by TAs (except for some STEM courses), rather than attempting some hybrid experiment or enforcing an unrealistic and dangerous in-person environment. The remote working conditions brought with them a transition to the virtual world, with the University’s online platform suddenly taking a front seat even amongst those instructors who had until then kept their courses very much analog. In addition to this, instructors and students alike quickly had to become experts, or at least be able to keep up, at Zoom, Slack, Google Docs, Mentimeter and countless others. Living through a screen and on-camera became the norm. I’m not going to lie—the idea of having to manage so many platforms smoothly in front of my students while avoiding any potential sound or camera issues seemed intimidating at first, but soon enough I found my rhythm and my optimum setup (two screens did the trick for me). Unfortunately, for some of my students, this just wasn’t possible.

Screenshot of UCLA announcement regarding the transition to remote instruction on March 10, 2020.
Screenshot of UCLA announcement regarding the transition to remote instruction on March 10, 2020. https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/ucla-transitions-to-online-instruction

Many students expressed concern over their lack of access to reliable internet or uninterrupted time with a computer that was to be shared with other family members. While the university offered some devices for students to borrow indefinitely, these resources were obviously finite. Many attended class from a less-than-ideal working environment: whether an on-campus dorm shared with roommates, a kitchen frequently visited by roommates and family members living in the same house, or a living room being used as an impromptu house office by various people. Several students joined our weekly meetings while caring for children running around them.

“I can only imagine what a struggle it must have been for those students who took classes in the US from further afield.”

In addition to the difficulties of finding a space conducive to working, the usual stress and concerns were accompanied by the pandemic stress and physically and mentally unhealthy habits. For a year, many of us have been living and working from home 24/7. I taught from a different time zone but, since I had the opportunity to teach early morning in Pacific Time, my teaching hours worked perfectly for me. However, I also attended classes in what was the evening in my local time. Trying to focus and actively participate at the end of a workday was not easy, so I can only imagine what a struggle it must have been for those students who took classes in the US from further afield. The difficulty for international students to keep up with their US classmates from their home countries was clearly not something that the university had foreseen, as class options that tried to better accommodate a wider range of time zones only become available in later quarters. However, I had several students who, despite taking classes from home, still went to work in person. What is more, some of them actually doubled their shifts to work full-time as family members lost jobs—all while trying to keep up with their coursework. Finally, given the nature and scale of the pandemic, many of us have become far to accustomed to close and frequent encounters with sickness and death. Expecting from students the usual level of academic performance in an atmosphere filled with death would seem out of touch with reality. At this point, at the end of what feels like a very long academic year, I can honestly say that I’m physically and emotionally exhausted, and the same applies to the students.

I don’t know if this is the norm, as I haven’t taught pre-pandemic, but I admit that most weeks I wondered whether the students were understanding anything I was saying or if what we were doing in section was effective at all. While the virtual setting allowed students to participate through various means—discussion forums outside of class hours, via chat during weekly meetings, or ‘live’ by unmuting themselves—many checked out entirely a few weeks into the quarter. Some thrived in this multiplatform environment. Others felt overwhelmed or lacked the will to do so. Being on camera so often isn’t natural for most people. Receiving immediate feedback on how one looks when listening to a lecture, attending class, or asking a question feels uncomfortable. And as such, unsurprisingly, many students were quick to turn off their cameras, if they ever had them on.

“Some thrived in this multiplatform environment. Others felt overwhelmed or lacked the will to do so.”

In many of my meetings, I was surrounded by mostly black squares with names to which I couldn’t associate a face. While in Fall students with their camera off throughout most of the quarter were a minority, by the end of the academic year, cameras off was the norm. To this day, I’m certain that if I crossed paths with many of my students in the street, I wouldn’t be able to recognize them—not because I have forgotten them but because I never saw them. Although I empathize with all the reasons why students might not want to show their faces in class, from the perspective of the instructors, this led to a more impersonal and disconnected experience. I’m not able to engage as much if I don’t see—or hear—those that I’m talking with. Facial gestures also allow me to get an idea as to whether students are understanding the material or, on the contrary, I need to retrace my steps and clarify certain concepts.

Instructor lecturing via Zoom to black squares from students not using the camera/video option. Photo courtesy of The Arbiter
Instructor lecturing via Zoom to black squares from students not using the camera/video option. Photo courtesy of The Arbiter. https://arbiteronline.com/2020/10/25/how-does-camera-usage-affect-the-zoom-learning-experience/

This was the context in which I taught museum studies, Indigenous arts of the Americas, and medieval art from Europe. These three courses were very different not only in terms of content but also structure. Nevertheless, they also shared a goal of keeping students engaged and up to date with the material through regular low-stakes testing or short written responses. Engagement through regular graded opportunities—in addition to the usual papers and exams—seems to have been a trait of teaching through the pandemic. For many students, these activities helped them feel connected with the course and increased their overall success rate. For others, it felt overwhelming. From the perspective of the person responsible for doing the grading, at times it felt excessive. It seems like during this time there has been increased pressure on the instructors to ensure that students complete the required coursework and succeed at it—having pursued my undergraduate studies outside the U.S., I’m still not used to this hands-on approach.

As often seems to happen with courses that also serve a General Education requirement, the content of the course took something of a backseat. I think given the concerns indicated above, this was more necessary than ever. The focus wasn’t for students to know the history and collection of X museum, being able to identify tens of medieval artworks, or memorizing so many archaeological sites across the Americas they had—sadly—never heard about before. Heavier weight was given to the development of critical thinking, analysis, and writing skills. Ultimately, these courses were only a very brief introduction to the field they represented. While some students were unaffected by the material taught, for others it had a deep impact, allowing for a reconnection with one’s heritage or a reevaluation of what they had been previously taught in earlier education stages. Finally, for many students, I hope that these courses felt like a momentary relief from everything going on around them at the time. And, to me, that’s more than enough.

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