Small Steps: Maintaining Community in the Remote Classroom

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Rhonda Cobham-Sander speaking in a classroom
Rhonda Cobham-Sander 

I made small changes to my course, Childhood in Caribbean and African Literature (ENGL/BLST(BLST) 362), when we moved to teaching online during the Spring 2020 semester. I offer this course as a general elective in English and Black Studies. Its goal is to produce confident, informed readers of Caribbean and African literature who can delve into literary works from these regions without being intimidated by unfamiliar names, linguistic conventions, or settings, and without limiting their responses to the kind of literary voyeurism one often encounters in reviews of works set in “exotic” cultural locations. The example I often use is that if you read a Caribbean novel in which a child character is hit by an adult, and all you take away from it is that “in country X, they abuse children,” you’ve missed the point. Rather, you should ask yourself: “How does the writer represent violence against children, and how do those literary choices frame what the work conveys about the nature of childhood, or the construction of gender, maybe, or nation building, or the human condition more generally?” And, perhaps, most importantly: “How do these literary insights challenge me to reframe my relationship to similar aspects of my experience in the world?”

The course design scaffolds students’ progress towards closer reading and more engaged writing. I divide the class into groups in the first week of the semester and assign each group a book from the syllabus; students then present this book to the class before I say anything about it. With the help of reference librarian Missy Roser, students learn how to use dictionaries, reference works, and academic databases to find out more about their author, as well as about the time and place in which their work is set, and to familiarize themselves with culturally-specific terminology and stylistic patterns they encounter. Each week a different group shares its findings with the class through notes, slides, and links they circulate before class but the actual class presentations focus mostly on how the text works, from the students’ perspective, at an imaginative level. Over time, students become invested in their books and friendly rivalries emerge as each group tries to “sell” the merits of the increasingly complex texts. These motivate students to complete the reading and contribute to discussion. By the middle of the semester, each student has built a portfolio of writing that documents their emerging literary interests as well as their reflections on how the readings map onto their lived experiences and preferred writing techniques. At the end of the course, we bring together all these ways of knowing, when students choose a new book from beyond the syllabus as the focus for a longer essay.

When teaching abruptly moved on-line in the middle of the semester, the class already had settled into a predictable  pattern, and the student groups that had not yet presented already had completed most of their library-based  work. My first concern was to ensure that students could access all of the readings. I also had to address some logistical challenges. Initially, I was anxious about using Zoom, so I hired one of my students to provide “student tech support.” Finally, I came up with a couple new strategies to maintain community. To mitigate the awkwardness of the first week of online meeting, I declared a Pajama Day, to which I may have been the only person who actually showed up in pajamas. However, I think this helped students feel less self-conscious about having their classmates and me see them in their homes. I also made a point of greeting family members who wandered into the screenshot during class. I sometimes asked students who seemed distracted or withdrawn to stay behind after others left the Zoom meeting, so that I could check in about their well-being, and I emailed students immediately after class if they failed to show up. Finally, we took some time near the end of the course to revise the questions on the self-evaluation that counts for 50% of the course grade. We adjusted the self-evaluation form together, in real time, as students brainstormed which questions it still made sense to count. The process provided students with an opportunity to engage explicitly with the course goals. 

Students’ responses to the changes we had to make were positive on the whole. As one student summarized in their self evaluation: “Obviously, class discussions and presentations were altered significantly, however I do not feel like the class was deprived of anything due to the crisis. I think each student has made an effort to maintain the kind of classroom dynamic that existed before we all returned home and, despite our new surroundings, I found classes to be productive and insightful.

Below are examples culled from the self-evaluations of specific ways students felt they learned from working collaboratively, listening to each other's presentations and listening to their classmates read from papers in which they experimented with different styles of writing: 

Students appreciated their classmates’ presentations. One student made a point of noting “how impressed I was with all of the presentations that were given in the class, as they each provided essential and interesting information about the books we were discussing.

Students learned most from the moments when they listened to their classmates deal with difficult material in their presentations. One student recalls a discussion Samantha Schriger and Logan Demming led on Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Annie John, in which they wrestled  “with a fractured portrayal of a relationship between a mother and child,” as “intriguing, but uncomfortable at times... I learned appropriate ways to dive headfirst into discomfort when analyzing a text for/with a class.” Another student recalled how in addressing students’ discomfort with negatively portrayed characters in Naipaul’s novel Miguel Street, the presenter, Eniola Ajao “asked us to all think about the criticism that Naipaul received for his book and consider what it means to write a book that only offers representations of “failures”. Her comment pushed me to think [more deeply] and helped me to understand Naipaul’s stylistic decisions and their effect on his readers.” A third student recalled a question Samantha raised during another student’s presentation about whether “Mengiste’s use of photography in The Shadow King ..was something violent or whether it was something redeeming or transformative, which I remember sparked an interesting debate with Prof. Cobham-Sander, Sam and Eniola who had different views.” 

Many students found that the audio visual elements incorporated into presentations, both before and after we moved online, enhanced their appreciation of difficult texts. Charissa Doerr’s early presentation of Camara Laye’s  memoir The African Child, and Maddy Matthews and Chandra Rhys’s later presentation on Nothng’s Mat, in particular, received high praise, The visual elements in both presentations, as one student noted “acted as experiential learning tools to understand something about how the books worked.” Madison and Chandra’s illustration of a family tree showed me how confusing these relations were, illustrating through a visual experience why a ‘mat’ is a more true medium of defining family.” Another student noted that “when Charissa made us draw on the board, we learned through the experience of drawing the descriptions ... in The Dark Child, recognizing the level of detail within the text. 

As class transitioned online, the presentations helped students remain engaged at a difficult moment. Vanessa Marques’ and Trey Crowder’s presentation on Werewere Liking’s challenging experimental novel Love-across-a-hundred-lives during our chaotic last week on campus, helped the class stay focused. Although the details of that week remained a blur for one student she credits Trey’s “contagious enthusiasm” with inspiring her “to [keep reading the novel] after we had finished discussing it (I wasn’t able to finish it before class that week).” Another student recalled how Aniah Washington’s passion for Binyanvanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write about this Place, which we read just after the transition, left an indelible impression: “It was clear that [Aniah] had a deep understanding of the book and that she really wanted to share with the class why she found it so important. During that presentation, I really appreciated how we delved into certain moments, like when Wainaina describes the Michael Jackson video, because it ... helped solidify some of the main themes of the story for me and also helped me identify other similarly important moments when I finished the book later that week.” 

Students’ investment in the books they presented motivated other presenters as well. For Julissa Fernandez and Jaclyn Chetty, whose presentation on J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood followed Aniah’s, their classmate’s enthusiasm set the bar for what they wanted to communicate:  “I wanted to be vulnerable when stating that I didn’t love Coetzee’s novel,” Julissa reports. “I wanted to show others what it was like to crave a different reading experience to their own – I wanted the transformative experience Aniah felt. I think that [our approach] allowed people who did enjoy Coetzee more to speak up and tell me why they did, pushing others who felt like me to reassess their thoughts about Boyhood.”

Having students read their essays out loud to their classmates helped build students’ confidence around revising their written work and deepened their insights into the novels we read.  For one student, listening to Chandra Rhys read her personal essay in response to Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John “was not only deeply moving, but also helped me to ground the issues discussed in the book in real life. [Previously] I [had] found myself unable to relate to Annie’s attitude towards her mother. [Chandra’s] retelling of the first time she spoke back to her mother ... helped me to separate all the details of Annie’s relationship with her mother from the underlying frustrations. Chandra’s response challenged me to think more about my own relationship with my mother and the ways that I was in fact able to relate to Annie.”  Another student recalls that the papers Jonathan Paul shared, in which he attempted to imitate a specific author’s style, were “always beautiful, but more than that I found them incredibly brave. I was nervous doing imitations of books, because it always felt harder and I worried about performing them badly, but it felt like he [enjoyed] working with the language of these authors.” Jonathan’s example encouraged her to experiment with new forms. A hesitant student writer adds, “I recall Jonathan detailing the revisions he made in the second draft of his imitation and explaining his choices in a way that was honest, reflective, and unself-conscious” After discussing specific ways Jonathan’s revisions helped illuminate the original text, this student reflects: “Jonathan’s example taught me important lessons about sharing my work with others.”

The comments in the self evaluations show that students valued their collaborative work throughout the course, and that the camaraderie around collaboration we had built on campus helped sustain the class after we had to move online. Moreover, students were able to articulate what they learned from working together and from their classmates’ papers and presentations. Finally, the self-evaluation process itself allowed students to reiterate and reinforce the goals of the course and to assess how they met those goals. It closed that loop and made their learning explicit to themselves.