The past few weeks have been a veritable whirlwind. Where did it go? So much has happened so fast. Hopefully, finally, we are starting to settle down. The turbulence, while likely still somewhat bumpy (keep your seat-belts fastened), looks as though it will become less so. We can hope.
At California State University, Sacramento, like other colleges and universities around the country, the spring term is about to begin. Instruction at Sac State begins one week from today, although we do not officially go back “on the clock” until the 20th. I learned long ago that what the university designates as “work” time and the actual time I have to allocate for doing my job are often vastly different. In fact, as “non-tenured faculty,” I don’t even have my semester contract yet. That’s normal, too. Weird, but normal.
However, what is not normal is also, unfortunately, beginning to become normal. Since midway through Spring 2020, all of Fall 2020 and this coming Spring 2021, most classes at Sac State and throughout the entire 23-campus California State University system have been and will be online, distance, virtual, instruction. Prior to last spring, that was not normal for the vast majority of courses throughout the system, and certainly not at Sac State. If the reduced anxiety and increased comfort I feel going into the semester at just a week out is any indication, normalcy has gotten at least its foot in the door. And, no, I do not like it.
I do not like the distance between my students and me. I am a “present” teacher, I establish a rapport, a relationship with my students that constitutes a kind of a deal. It’s not spoken, but, rather, an understanding based on each of us doing our part. Being there to uphold our end of this “bargain” is part and parcel of how I present myself and my material. I didn’t plan it that way, I didn’t learn that in “professorin’ school,” that teaching style is an evolution of my style poured into my teaching — of my personality — and is based on who I am; it is a version of myself that is part of every relationship I have with everyone. As a result, I present an authenticity that is best conveyed in real life. It can be done virtually, but it is challenging and takes a great deal of attention to varied, scattered and often difficult to read inputs from students. Presence, virtually, is different — and, so far, not normal.
Today, the batch emails go out. For most of my 100-plus students, this will be my first contact with them. That old cliché about first impressions has proven itself many times over; I am a believer. While I have learned quite a lot about how to better navigate and utilize this online environment over the last two semesters, I am hopeful this will be the last one. That said, I expect it also to be the best. I will be focusing my energies in the areas where students seemed to respond well and eliminate areas they did not. Ultimately, I want them to engage — with me and with each other. The best way to foster that is in a classroom, but there are other ways and I have some experience now that will help guide me. This is, despite the “distance learning” model we are forced to work with, an exciting prospect. I can say, without (much) reservation, that I am looking forward to the new semester.
Every new semester, especially the first week, brings with it a version of all the fears and insecurities — the trepidation — of that very first semester. It is the kind of adrenaline producing fear that is almost intoxicating — it is exciting. Last semester it felt more like dread. Dread can be described in many ways, but one thing is sure, there is nothing exciting about dread. That sense is gone, the excitement has returned. The online model leaves too much to be desired, but it very likely will be over by the fall semester. When it is all said and done, for me, for my students, and for everyone else, we will have learned to get through yet another of the trials and tribulations of living a human life. We will look back and remember those we lost, marvel at how we managed to get through it all, realize and remember that we are strong.