What Do I Even Write About Fall 2020?

What Do I Even Write About Fall 2020? November 24, 2020

As you may have guessed, the fall 2020 semester kept me too busy to blog much (or at all). The challenges were immense, and I’ll outline them here for the curious.

a human hand reaching up out of a large body of water
Photo in public domain; from Unsplash by nikko macaspac

I wasn’t expecting to be on campus this fall, but a contract came through. I was to teach 4 sections of First Year Seminar (FYS) on a topic of my choosing, and the course would be offered face-to-face. That all sounded good, but then the semester drew near, and it was not, in fact, all good.

Due to social distancing guidelines, in most of my classes, we didn’t have a classroom space big enough to fit everyone at once. So, one challenge I faced was deciding how to structure my classes if I couldn’t teach everyone at once in the same space, along with all the ongoing conversations about the benefits of having material be synchronous or asynchronous, what to do about deadlines, how much we should be forgiving of extenuating circumstances, and so on.

I ended up deciding on a sorta hybrid/hyflex situation where 1/2 my students would physically come to class one day of the week and the other 1/2 would Zoom in, and it’d flip the next day we met. My university had installed some cameras and microphones in many classrooms, in order to make it easier to Zoom in students, but some early tests run by colleagues revealed that the tech wasn’t always up to the job. So I used my work laptop with a Snowball mic on loan from the campus technology center to operate Zoom from, and then I’d run around with the laptop and mic if I wanted the Zoomers to hear what the in-person students were saying in a discussion. It was, as you might imagine, a lot of scrambling around, made more difficult by the fact that we were all masked so I really had to PROJECT my voice and my facial expressions in order to come through….which was tough, as a quiet sort of introverted person.

So I had to craft each lesson plan from scratch to accommodate having 1/2 my students physically there and the other 1/2 on a screen to my side while I faced the in-person students, and flailed between both modalities. I had to come up with a way to evaluate participation that wasn’t based on attendance (in order to not penalize students who were put into quarantine, or students who couldn’t even Zoom in due to traveling for funerals, which yeah, that happened). I chose to semi-flip the classroom, providing some slides with class concepts and a brief recorded lecture to accompany them most weeks, in order to allow for more discussion and activities while we met (despite the fact that I’ve never taught online or done a flipped class before).

Normally I’m up for implementing new ideas in my teaching. But coming off existing burnout to an entirely new situation, one where I’ve been hired to teach in-person during a global pandemic…wow.

I felt like I was back to being a completely beginner teacher, without any tried-and-true strategies, despite the fact that I’ve been teaching college for 16 years or so. The emotional whiplash of feeling like I didn’t have a handle on my finely-tuned craft, the career I’ve been scrambling to make a living at for over a decade, was… pretty bad. I cried once a week most of the semester, and I’m not much of a crier.

How does one practice self-care in a situation that feels so draining and hopeless? Goodness knows I tried, by putting time into home-cooked meals (I love cooking, and I like eating healthy), by continuing to teach dance (mostly on Zoom), by reading as many novels as I could.

I also struggled with how much of my time and identity to sink into my job. I probably erred on the side of too much; I felt I had to invest tons of time into teaching in order to do right by my students. Showing up for them made for a better semester for them, I think, but it also left me exhausted. I’ve taught a 4-class load before, but again, teaching in these conditions is pretty damn unprecedented. I also had a few COVID-19 exposure scares, so managing that (finding a place to get tested; adjusting my life to be quarantined for a week or so at a time just in case) was an additional burden.

Doing all this while on a one-year contract, unsure if the pandemic hiring freeze will be lifted, added another layer of stress. I didn’t successfully decide upon a plan for a new career over the summer, nor did I successfully obtain health insurance (it seems the Indiana Medicaid office just… thought I was still employed? rejected my application multiple times for reasons I don’t understand?) so knowing that I might be dumped back into the same situation come May is, well, excruciating. And I can’t selectively turn off how much I care about my job; I can’t seem to compartmentalize it, for better or for worse. I’m either all-in as a teacher which includes caring about whether I can still have the job or not, or apathetic and distant; the latter protects me emotionally from potential rejection, but it doesn’t lead to good instruction.

Despite all this, I enjoyed many teaching moments. I nicknamed my class “critical thinking thru fairy tales” and I got to see my students grow intellectually. I dazzled and horrified them with lesser-known fairy tales like Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia” (a 17th-century rape-y Sleeping Beauty) and Charles Perrault’s serial-killer “Bluebeard” and Madame d’Aulnoy’s queer-as-heck “Belle-Belle.” We read Kaylnn Bayron’s new novel Cinderella Is Dead, which is notably a fairy-tale retelling (ish?) with a Black and queer main character. We did some fun creative exercises, such as doing a DIY Decameron exercise saying how you would implement a modern-day fairy-tale retreat during plague times and writing an AITA Reddit-style post (Am I The Asshole?) from the perspective of a fairy-tale character.

So there was a lot of good stuff this semester. I’m incredibly lucky to have a job, and to be able to teach my expertise of fairy-tale studies. I actually wrote a research article from scratch and am partway through another, rekindling my love for academic writing. I’m just so burned out and exhausted that it’s tough to feel grateful for the good stuff, and that in itself is a red flag for how much my mental health has been crumbling lately (yes I’m in therapy, yes I’m trying all the self-care ideas, but as many have pointed out, slapping an individually mandated self-care bandaid onto problems perpetuated by larger systems and institutions is insultingly inadequate).

What do I even write about fall 2020? I feel a bit like a broken automaton put in front of a typewriter, and all I can do is write the same phrases about how tired and broken I am, how much I wish to be repaired to my former state of reveling in artistic and intellectual plenitude.

Beyond ruminating on the pedagogical stuff that occupied my every waking moment, I don’t know what to say. I’m surviving, not thriving. I’m too fatigued to be grateful for much (not great with Thanksgiving on the horizon). I’m going to try to blog more now that winter break is around the corner, since writing is one of the things that still gives me joy…when I can manage it at all.

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