ReaderWriterVille

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Tag: personal

LFH: I’m losing count of the days

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, and don’t ask me how many days it’s been since we went into isolation. 40? Something like that. We landed in STL on March 13th, came straight home and the great sequestering began. So that was 41 days ago. Tomorrow will complete six weeks. It feels much longer in some ways and shorter in others. Mostly longer, though.

Yesterday I taught my last two Zoom sessions. It was bittersweet. I’ll miss my students and I’ll miss the structure that teaching twice a week provided, but I won’t miss the exhaustion, stress dreams, and wakefulness in the middle of the night. I read that everyone is sleeping badly now and having bizarre dreams when they do sleep. There are reasons for this, but no remedies. But last night we both slept reasonably well, and I’m sure it’s because we aren’t mentally preparing for the next onslaught of Zoom sessions. The cognitive drain of Zoom is so much greater than face-to-face teaching, or any other kind of meeting, really.

On the happy side of Zoom, though, I had my first two Zoom Happy Hours. One was a replacement for our semi-annual conference dinners (one of the conferences would have taken place this past weekend) and the other was a Blast From the Past get-together with regular drinking buddies from my NYC days (only one of us still lives there now). It was terrific to catch up, even though in both cases the conversations had their depressing phases. Higher education institutions are not in good places now and things are only going to get worse. And we (the Zoom Happy Hour people) are the lucky ones. We’ll still have our jobs in four months.

My university furloughed 1300 people this week, mostly from the medical side, but the Arts & Sciences furloughs are coming. Budgets are being reworked. And so on. There is just so much uncertainty. It seems highly likely that we’ll be teaching at least part of the fall semester online, but no announcements have been made. The possibilities include starting online and finishing face to face, starting the semester later, and probably other options I haven’t heard about.

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LFH: Days 22-28

Another work week, another set of fires to put out. But I think they are mostly quashed and just smoldering at this point. It’s better to have something to do than the reverse, though. The College fielded a survey of the undergraduates and it reinforced my anecdata that they like having synchronous classes to show up to. It structures their days and gives them a little bit of near-normalcy. Unfortunately, most of their professors seem to have landed on the same approach to moving online, which is to give them more written work. And we thought we were being so original!

I went into Canvas, a course organization platform I do not like at all but which is now my most visited site, and checked to see if any of my students had disappeared. But all of them are at least checking the material, so that was a relief. Not everyone is “engaging” at the same rate, but I don’t think anyone is so far behind they can’t catch up. I’ll know better in a couple of days after I go through all of the students’ materials one by one and see where they are. I should have done this a week ago but my “spare” work time was taken up with all the other admin. Now that is mostly wrapped up and I can put some extra time into course maintenance.

I decreased the effort level needed for the final assignment of the class. Usually the students do a group project followed by a short paper. The group project went out the window as soon as we were back from break, and I replaced that and the short paper with a research paper or take-home exam. But after seeing the results of the survey and hearing anecdotally from my students that they were feeling overburdened by the overall changes to their classes, I revised yet again. They can write shorter papers with less research (plenty of thinking but not as much digging for material) or there is a second option where they have to write short reviews and reflections on each of the assigned readings. They had to do some of the latter anyway, so this involves doing it for all of the readings, not just some. I also left the take-home exam option because some students want that.

I wish there was more I could do. I want them to come out of the class knowing the material and having expertise in the subjects, but the usual assessment techniques seem unhelpful in this environment. I know they’re showing up because I can see what they’re doing. Some of my students have family members with the virus. Some have underlying conditions which put them in the risk category. Some are in hotspots and can’t go out and don’t have congenial workspaces at home. Some are cooped up with a bunch of family members. And yet they are there, reading the material and doing the worksheets and coming to the Zoom classes.

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LFH: Days 14-17

I really fell behind on these posts. Although the days are starting to develop a rhythm, so each day doesn’t seem like a Whole New Thing anymore. I thought I’d be more excited when Day 14 finally arrived, but not really. We made it through the entire 14-day self-isolation period without developing any virus symptoms. Now we just hope that we can stay symptom-free.

After my great Linux Achievements on Thursday, Friday was Zoom-conference-free. It was lovely. I still had a ton of stuff to do but I got through the most pressing tasks in the morning and was able to get out and take a walk in the park in the afternoon. It wasn’t too busy so maintaining distance was easier than the last couple of times I was out and that made it less stressful. The weather improved as well and we’ve had sunshine and warmer days, and the trees are starting to flower and leaf. Every little bit helps.

I made up for my Zoom-free Friday by spending over four hours on video conferences on Saturday. This was the replacement system put in place for our scholarship weekend activities. Although it was tiring, talking to the scholarship candidates was as enjoyable and heartening as ever. They are so accomplished and mostly really sweet, and this batch felt even more like that. After four half-hour conversations with short breaks in between, we got an hour off for lunch and then convened as a group to make the decisions. All the finalists are already admitted and everyone gets at least a half-scholarship, so no one goes away empty-handed. We still took nearly an hour and half to rank the list, but that’s par for the course. That done, I shut down my computer and took a break. I should have gone out for a walk, but it was Saturday and nice and I knew the park would be packed, so I took a nap instead. 🙂

We watched another of the Maigret episodes in the evening and tried to relax. It’s hard, because the news just keeps coming. We here in STL are luckier but watching what’s happening on the coasts and other cities reminds us that we still have a ways to go.

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LFH: Day 13

It was a relief to get through the teaching part of the week. I turned my attention to the admin stuff that I had put aside while I was figuring out classes and Zoom. In addition to the usual department and university tasks, I also needed to finish setting up my laptop

A couple of weeks before spring break I finally pulled the trigger and nuked the Windows 10 OS on my work laptop. I got Debian 10 up and running and installed a few of the additional programs I knew I wanted, and I got the dock, external keyboard, and mouse working. But I was short of a fully satisfactory system, and now I also had to manage new video and communication programs. I’d been switching between computers and between different Zoom apps and it was frustrating because each option had drawbacks.

Yesterday morning I managed to get the Linux Zoom client for Debian installed successfully, and what a difference that made. It seems to be full-featured and I can keep it running in the background. I also discovered that Microsoft Teams has a Linux version and that turned out to be relatively easy to install as well. Once both were up and running I uninstalled Google Chrome. I also installed my preferred alternative to Microsoft Office for simple tasks, which is the desktop (non-server) version of OnlyOffice. I’m a long way from a Linux expert so getting everything I wanted felt like a major accomplishment. And I got my bluetooth earbuds to work after a little bit of tinkering and dowloading.

That done, I logged into Zoom for yet another admin meeting. I’m on a college scholarship committee for incoming students. It gives research-focused students a full scholarship in one of four areas, and I’m on the one for social science. I’ve done it for years and I enjoy it a great deal. Usually we invite the finalist candidates out for a weekend and show them the campus and then interview them. The university visit is frequently a deciding factor for these kids, who are highly sought after. Obviously this year the campus visit, which would have taken place this weekend, wasn’t possible, but the College decided to keep as much of the schedule as they could, switching to virtual hangouts with current scholars and then video interviews with the committee.

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LFH: Days 11 & 12

I missed writing up Day 11 yesterday because I was busy making PowerPoints for my classes. I should have done that on Tuesday, which is what I’d promised the students, but Tuesday I was busy putting out administrative fires and holding Zoom meetings. So here’s a recap of both days, what I can remember.

The administrative stuff is winding down a little, but we still have upcoming faculty meetings that we have to prepare materials for. As part of the department’s governance this semester I’m included in a bunch of stuff that in ordinary times would have been mostly routine but is now more work. On top of that we’re still trying to find solutions for students whose study abroad programs ended abruptly. Luckily it’s a subset of the overall population of study-abroad students, but each one takes work. Then there’s the book chapter I completely forgot I had to finish revising this past week, so that was another round of emails with my extremely understanding editor who was mostly worried when he hadn’t heard from me. And so on.

I know I did some other stuff on Tuesday but I can’t remember what it was. On to Wednesday: up early to finish the slides for my classes, which turned out better than I was afraid they would. I had technical glitches in the first class (the whole screen-share while seeing the chat window thing, plus my microphone and earbuds not working well together on the Surface Go). But we eventually got those problem straightened out and had a decent class, with less than usual interaction but more than none. We went the whole class time and then I had 35 minutes to catch my breath before a committee meeting which I had to leave after an hour because I had to teach my afternoon class.

That class went really well, with plenty of interaction and some very good discussions. I noticed that on both teaching days the classes that started with technical difficulties didn’t rebound as well as the classes that went smoothly from the beginning. Which is not surprising, I guess. Also, the material in yesterday afternoon’s Privacy class was more engaging, so that probably affected it.

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