TWL: Finally February to Already April to Mad May

I wake up an hour before my alarm almost every day. Before I even open my eyes to check the clock, I think, “What will happen today?” My brain clicks on and spills ideas like marbles: coffee, shower, it’s raining, gas tank is empty, out of fruit–wait, what? I get to teach today. That’s why I woke up early. I have the most fun job in the world. I teach smart students my favorite subject. I ask them to think and they do. They listen. They come to lecture. Some even put their phones away when I ask. They discuss hard problems. They try and try and try. I am so impressed by them.

Now on the tails side of the teaching coin we have the hidden tiring parts of the job: writing assessments, grading, meeting, proofreading, coordinating, never ever ever resting. (Well, actually the summers are lovely and restful.)

Like my students, I don’t have a five-day work week. Saturdays are work days. Evenings are for working, too. Lately in the evenings I’ve gotten outside to walk for an hour. And lately, on Saturday mornings, I’ve been stealing hours to bake. But every Sunday evening I preview the week, look over lectures, check the labs, answer emails, check the quiz, and get all the ducks lined up to march. The meetings. And grading. And office hours. And deadlines. And planning. And And And. Cramming twelve months of work into nine makes academic life grueling.

Last week I spent every second writing exams. This week I’ll grade them. It’s final exam time. Already. We climbed the mountain of April only to fall off the cliff. This slower-than-cold-maple-syrup semester blew by. It’s an impossible paradox how the days can feel so long while the weeks seem so short. I hope my students are ready. I hope they don’t feel too stressed. I know they can do it. I also know college is hard. And at this point, my biggest contribution is only hope. Like so much of life in a pandemic, it’s out of my hands.

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Good news: weekly US COVID-19 new infections lowest in seven months.

Bad news: India’s new cases at almost 400,000 per day. They will likely catch the US soon.

This is a GLOBAL pandemic.

Covid and college

On camera monitoring while taking their online exams some of my students read the questions aloud and mutter to themselves, something they could not do on exams in person (face-to-face, we call it, and abbreviate FTF). In a giant silent lecture hall with fidgeting classmates, loud sighing, and incessant paper shuffling during in-person normal-life final exams, tension wafts like steam. Alone, they swear a lot; sometimes they look directly into the camera and let the bombs fly. They don’t cry quite as often alone on camera as they do in a group but one student declared bone-crushing sadness.

Online or FTF, one thing remains rock solidly consistent: obsession with grades. Give students a free response exam and they ask for multiple choice where they can “at least guess.” Give them a multiple choice exam and they ask for free response where “at least they can have partial credit.” So I give partial credit on my multiple choice questions. Seems a perfect compromise to me. The complaining continues. I also give 10% bonus questions on each exam. Still they are all consumed with the score instead of the learning, the study plan, or the effort to show up to class. It seems the best exam score comes from understanding the material. In such cases, question format and partial credit don’t matter. Hairs don’t require splitting. With their A tucked in their pocket, such students quietly carry on.

College is beyond odd in a pandemic. Surviving teaching a college course from the professor perspective during a pandemic feels surreal, so taking a course must be like living on another parallel universe to my students who did not sign up for this version of reality. Despite a pandemic that has wiped out 2 million humans worldwide including family and friends of my students, they continue the struggle to survive and succeed in their college courses, earn a degree, and get on with their lives. In normal times I carry them as much as my back can take–even the heaviest ones who just can’t get down once in a while and walk on their own. But damn, COVID, give my kids a break. They are trying.

Teaching gives my odd pandemic life purpose and a reason to get up every day. The spring semester starts this week. I will teach 250 students online again. I’m hopeful for the vaccine and a return to normalcy someday, and I’m looking forward to the sweet day when I can lecture to 150 students in a giant lecture hall again, to see their faces as I speak, to hear their questions and the shuffle of papers and sighs while they all take their paper exams together in that cloud of stress brought on by the little exam before them, and not by the instability of the outside world.