Begging for Camera Time ... and Other Thoughts from (Still) Teaching through a Pandemic

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Last week’s planned return to campus after three and a half semesters of remote teaching/learning was foiled by Omicron. Instead of meeting in person with students, I found myself lecturing to a screen full of black rectangles. Our college will spend the first four weeks of spring semester completely remote. Most of my students, it seems, are fatigued from on-camera class meetings and so it was that I appealed to any last sympathies they might have for their professors. “Please, don’t make me lecture to a screen with black rectangles and face-less names,” I pleaded. “When we meet in person next month it will be much less awkward if we are familiar with each other’s faces.” My pathetic begging resulted in about half the students turning on their cameras. A (very) small victory.


This afternoon I participated in a time management seminar for students run by our college tutoring center. While the number of students who attended was small, their willingness to participate in such a program during the second week of the semester reiterates the importance of recognizing that students generally start out the semester hoping for success. Attendees of today’s program, just by being present, were acknowledging the challenge of managing academic demands with family and work responsibilities. Likely they have struggled with balance in the past and are hoping that this semester things will be different. Their presence made me wonder how many of my students are, in fact, engaged in this juggling while their cameras are off during my lectures. 


In my head I know that there are many reasons students do not turn on their cameras. Perhaps they feel uncomfortable having strangers see into their homes/workspaces. Maybe they are still in their pajamas and sipping their first coffee of the day during my 1pm class. Or they are shy and unwilling to have their images broadcast via the internet into their classmates’ private spaces. Or maybe they are texting or gaming or doing anything but listening to my lecture.


I’m trying hard right now to convince myself that it’s not all about me. I have been working with college students since 1994. Nonetheless, the hour before my first remote lesson of this spring semester I was an anxious mess. It was as if I had never taught a class before in my life. Although by this point in the current pandemic I have attended dozens of remote events, I found myself overcome by nerves before opening that first meeting. I played with the backgrounds, adjusted and readjusted my speaker and microphone, and changed my sweater twice. There is something about teaching through the lens of a webcam that is incredibly intimidating even for the most seasoned professional. The screen of black rectangles intensified this anxiety for me: were the students listening and taking notes? Or were they logged in to class but doing something more interesting instead? 


All of this angst surrounding teaching remotely has made me even more nostalgic for the return to traditional in-person learning. But then, I wonder, how much will have changed? What will the new normal look like? I’m desperate to hear from those of you who are back in the traditional classroom. What has changed? For better or for worse? Please share.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.