The Humanness of the virtual world 

Last March, when the week-long mid-semester break turned into a global pandemic, one of my sassy senior students sent me a meme.

Published: 01st August 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st July 2021 01:55 PM   |  A+A-

online classes

(Express Illustrations)

Last March, when the week-long mid-semester break turned into a global pandemic, one of my sassy senior students sent me a meme. A white-haired professor looked bewildered in the foreground while a college kid snickered: “You’re telling me my professor, who doesn’t know how to turn off autoplay on YouTube, will teach online? This ought to be good.” 

I did not miss the hint. As a self-declared Luddite, forever harping on the wonders of smelling books and holding classes under trees and distributing photocopies of readings to my class, what did I know about online teaching? 

The first day back, my camera went rogue. The second day, there was a power-cut. Before the third class, I spent hours trying to scan pages with my phone and shaky hands, until my students put me out of my misery by locating PDFs. (Don’t ask me how, I maintain my moral high-ground by not asking questions.) Before the fourth class, I consulted an expert. 

My niece Meenakshi, all of 11, had by then attended online school for several-hours-a-day, six-day-a-week, over a month-and-a-half. She was not wildly optimistic about my prospects. “Your students are likely to be quite bored,” she said. “Since your classes are 90 minutes while ours are only 40 minutes and we are SOOOOO BOOOOORED. But you should try to be interesting and don’t ONLY talk about the syllabus and have some activities. Don’t give too much homework. Students are human beings.” 

As the enormity of the crisis facing the world began to sink in and Meenakshi’s advice was deployed, my students and I rallied. What was learning to navigate GoogleMeet for one’s class when other professionals were saving lives and feeding migrants and trying to come up with vaccines? Academics complain a lot—but this time we kept our mouths shut, as we navigated a whole year of Zoom, interrupted as it was by Covid-deaths, cyclones, border-troubles and, eventually, the horrors of the second wave that left India gasping. 

Here we are now: the beginning of the next academic year. A new set of students entering college; a new lot entering the work force (I don’t envy them). We have begun to talk of opening campuses by and by, of hybrid classes. And, oddly enough, it makes me want to take stock, to ask if alongside the losses we gained something too.

If I compare first-years on campus to first-years who studied online, it becomes clear that the physical space of college is the thing that transforms personalities. Online, despite the change in course loads, it felt like an extension of school. And that extra year of innocence was something I found utterly charming. 

My students and I would log in from different parts of the country and the world, and sometimes the sunlight would fall on someone’s face at a particular hour as they huddled in a verandah for privacy, or there would be tall mountains outside a window, or a sudden rain would send someone scurrying inside. Sometimes we changed our backdrops to match the setting of our text. Sometimes a pet made an appearance. Sometimes, siblings barged in. Sometimes, parents came in and asked embarrassing questions loudly, and my students (and, on one occasion, I) blushed furiously. 

Often, mid-class, I would rush to my bookshelf and excitedly bring something out to show the students on camera. These—and so many other such—small moments, unique to online classes, lit up my pandemic days. Turns out, like students, teachers are human beings too.

Devapriya Roy 

Author and teacher; her latest book is Friends from College


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