Adapting to an Online Classroom: Two Perspectives

Brooke Comer


Student Responder: Laila Sadaawi 

When I found out that I would be teaching online in the Fall semester of 2020, the first thing that came to my mind was “engagement” and how I could inspire and motivate first-year students. I had some practice over the summer teaching a senior writing seminar themed around Netflix; students chose a film or television series that resonated with them and explored a social problem contained within the framework of that movie or series. Their papers analyzed or argued a range of social justice issues found on the big and small screen. This worked well--but I found myself working 10-hour days as my students needed significant conferencing time. This Fall, I put my 1020 students into themed groups to enable timesaving team conferences. The 1010 classes were a bigger challenge, especially since I had not taught a tandem before. I chose Filming Difference: Perceptions of Nations, Borders, Race, and Identity, created by Doris Jones, which introduced RHET students to critical analysis through Joan Didion, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King while CORE took them from Film Noir to Kurosawa. But student response was impacted by the nature of distance learning. One student shares her feelings about learning online:      

What were your thoughts when you learned that your first semester at AUC would be taught online? 

I still remember the day I found out I’d be spending my first semester from the confined space of my room, the waves of disappointment and despair still fresh in my mind. I spent the better part of that day on the phone with my friends, each of us sharing the idealistic dreams and aspirations of the “university experience” we had held onto for so long before they were suddenly snatched away. After being told for so many years that university would be “one of the best chapters of my life”, it felt like I had been robbed. Exploring the campus, making unexpected friendships, and interacting with a new, diverse community were all unfulfilled promises that, in true dramatic teen spirit, made life seem like a series of pointless sunrises and sunsets. Still, I trudged on, determined to make the most of a less-than-favorable situation.    

Does love of writing make an online writing class more tolerable? How so? 

If I’m being completely honest, writing essays for RHET and CORE has been one of my few escapes from the burdens online learning has forced upon me. Assignment after assignment crowds my headspace, leaving it in a never-ending state of exhaustion and stress, yet the writing assignments feel like a breath of fresh air, a window to an unconfined, limitless realm of thoughts and ideas. It doesn’t always feel so free, however, with a few assignments starting off on a bit of a rough patch, but once the thoughts start rushing through my mind, a euphoric sense of accomplishment, pride, and emotion consume me. While the points being raised interest me and allow me to explore my stance on various topics, they only do so to some extent; the screen of my laptop becomes a barrier that makes it tedious to engage in a lively debate or conversation simply because the lack of any kind of proximity lessens the gravity of any topic. It quite simply makes class all the more distant from reality. This is not dissimilar to what one experiences when watching a TV show or film: While it may possess an enjoyable plot and intriguing storyline that invites the occasional chuckle or gasp, one wouldn’t normally start talking to the characters. The participants in the Zoom meeting are no longer students and professors as they morph into two-dimensional constructs behind a cold, glass screen.            

How do you compare the online teaching/learning experience in RHET/CORE classes to that of other classes? 

As a science major, my classes are mathematical and scientific in nature, with RHET and CORE being the only exception. In my other classes, more engagement occurs from students who, struggling to understand the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus or other similarly complex concepts, are desperately asking questions in hopes of improving the subpar grade they are currently stuck with. Despite the reduced interaction, RHET and CORE classes have an unparalleled ability to keep me alert and focused at all times. I often find myself drifting off in my other classes, but the material in these two RHET and CORE classes has never failed to keep me mentally engaged throughout. 

What adjustments do students need to make to learn online?            

Personally, I’ve found that a change in location has gone a long way in keeping me attentive in class. The simple act of moving to the next room proved key to slightly ameliorating the boring repetitiveness of it all. Days meld into each other due to the monotony online learning brings, and spending them holed up in a room with no movement or change of scenery would only add to the depressive state of being confined to the boundaries of your home for such prolonged periods of time. Taking notes is extremely helpful, yet I found it more beneficial to pay more attention to what’s being said instead of risking missing an essential concept in the process of jotting down a previous, less important note. But above all, I recommend reaching out to fellow classmates, because no one can understand the struggles of online learning more than those who are enduring them, and that kind of solidarity and support is guaranteed to prove itself priceless at times when things seem too much to handle.

How differently would the RHET/CORE classes work if we were on campus?

I think there would definitely be more engagement and interaction in the on-campus version of the RHET and CORE classes. Students cannot simply remain muted or invisible, and I believe that being among classmates and listening to interesting topics being raised would encourage a much greater level of participation. When students have their mics and cameras off, it essentially opens the door for them to close themselves off from the class, refraining from commenting unless they absolutely must. I would also like to believe that the workload would at least seem lighter, given that we would have time to discuss the criteria and rubrics during class.      

Does the film theme make the CORE online learning experience more bearable? If so, how? 

Absolutely! Film is a timeless topic, and one so malleable that it can be adjusted to each individual’s tastes and preferences. There is no right or wrong answer in film analysis, which makes it a beautiful theme to explore with complete creative freedom. This theme allows for differences in perspective and expression, which greatly contrasts with the claustrophobia that accompanies online learning, making it a more bearable experience.

Can you have meaningful interactions with peers when working on group projects?     

It is definitely possible to connect with classmates during projects, and it mainly stems from the shared sense of determination to achieve the highest grade possible. Group projects provide both relief and pressure, as each student feels like the overwhelming workload is now being shared among others, yet still feels pressured to perform well because his or her work now affects others, too. 

What can RHET/CORE instructors do to engage students? 

I think the main thing I’ve noticed is the professors’ determination and desire to maintain the on-campus class environment in the online classes. They find it so essential to emulate the on-campus lectures that they overwhelm the students with additional assignments to fill in the metaphorical gaps created by the literal distance. I believe that this is the root of the majority of online learning issues; professors shouldn’t try to replicate an environment that isn’t there to begin with. They should adapt and find new ways to teach and engage the students that don’t involve an assignment every other day. Piling up assignments will accomplish nothing but overwhelm students. A different approach might be acknowledging the added burdens of online learning and providing worksheets and helpful documents that could alleviate some of the confusion and stress clouding students’ minds. A few of my professors also hold optional discussion sessions after class to allow students to ask any questions they might have, and I find this extremely thoughtful and helpful.

Would you recommend your online RHET/CORE class to new students?   

I would recommend it to students who are willing to work on improving their analytical and writing skills. It is a course that allows students to explore different areas and topics so they can discover their own style of expression. Writing is nothing more than articulating the loose thoughts that cross our minds and finding freedom in the empty page and the unlimited possibilities it holds. Any student who craves that sense of liberating expression should feel right at home in any of the RHET and CORE classes.