It seems as if in March 2020 we all got swept into a fast-moving stream at the same time the world shut down—an oxymoron if there ever was one.
Go home, stay home, figure out how to teach from home, but without your school computer or old-fashioned paper files (or newfangled electronic ones unless you thought to download them onto a thumb drive) or resources except for these online tools you’ve never used before. Here—we’ll give you a quickie seminar on how to put up your course materials online and use Zoom. You’ve never used Zoom? You have but only as a participant? Well, here are the basics. Tell your students that attending classes is optional for the rest of the semester but that you’ll try to hold them on Zoom. If you can figure out Zoom. Oh, and spend the summer putting all of your classes online to teach over the next academic year. Which will be your last because you’ll retire in May 2021.
And, by the way—no one ever said—you’ll never set foot in your college office to work again. In fact, you’ll never see your students in person again for the next two-and-a-half semesters.
No one said that because no one knew. And I have to say that I was certainly not alone in that rocking, leaky boat. Every teacher I knew was jammed in there with me. I have the kindest and most patient dean (thanks, Robin!), but she, like all of us, was at a loss, yet daily responded to the anguished cries of her professors trying to Make It All Work.
That we did Make It All Work Somehow still stuns me… not least me who had liked the idea of creating asynchronous courses that students could do without attending class but had never done the work to create them.
I have now. And weirdly, I’m glad I did, even though it took a hell of a lot of work for one academic year. I’d decided a few years ago that I’d retire about the time I turn 63, which will be at the end of July. That it would come at the end of one of the most tumultuous moments in history, of course, was a surprise.
So for each of the past two semesters I’ve taught seven classes—five of them synchronously on Zoom at regular class times, and two asynchronously where I never saw the students, just communicated with them through email and other electronic means. One of those classes was the Express (former newspaper, now news site) where the editors and staffers saw each other only onscreen in small rectangles and had to figure out how to cover a campus that most never went to yet still had a lot going on. And they did so with professionalism and compassion, two of the most important qualities in journalists.
In the midst of all this, I realized that I needed to clear out my school office, though we weren’t supposed to be in the building. And that began a number of stealth visits to gather up those old-fashioned paper files to bring home and discard—because there’s no one on campus to empty the recycling bins or wastebaskets. I knew one thing: I couldn’t do it alone.
And this is when I looked around and made one of the smartest moves of my academic career: I hired a former student to organize my life.
For decades people have asked if I’ve had a student assistant or a grad student to help me, and my response has long been, “I’m the student assistant.” So no. Doesn’t work that way for most community college professors. Divisions, sometimes departments and often offices have paid student help, but I didn’t. Occasionally I’d pay friends or former students to help me grade papers, but I usually did it all. That was my job, and while I loved it, it got to be too much after a whole lot of years.
But Danielle McKinney came along and saved my bacon.
Not long ago Dani was an Express co-editor-in-chief with her good buddy Rose Vega, and over the past year I hired the two of them to assist me—Dani as general home office/life organizer and Rose to moderate my online Writing as a Healing Art class. Now both Sac State journalism majors, these two have shown extraordinary patience with this old dog as she’s had to learn new tricks.
I’ve long been proud of the fact that my late husband and I were early Macintosh adopters in 1984 (his farsighted idea; I said, “But I’ve got a typewriter”). Dick bought me a new iMac for my home office last spring, but the computer sat looking expectantly at me in its lovely box for months. It was all I could do to teach not at all well on my older Mac laptop. I just couldn’t face setting up a new computer. I knew it would ask me questions I didn’t know the answers to. And I was exhausted trying to figure out things I didn’t have the answers for.
Dani, who had been slowly but surely helping me reorganize last spring, said in June, “Let’s set up your iMac.” And though she hadn’t done exactly that, because she’s 26 and so smart, she figured it out with no apparent angst. And suddenly I was back to using a 21.5-inch screen instead of a 13-inch one. Which made all those little Zoom rectangles bigger. Which made Zooming so much better! Who knew?! (Everybody but me!)
So after last summer’s clean out of my home office to purge and rearrange files in my three large filing cabinets and the installation of a new backyard shed that could hold the thinned-out papers, I knew it was time to tackle the school office.
Once again, Dani came to the rescue. We did it in stages, in between classes and office houring online, bringing home the paper files first, opening boxes in my living room—me on the sofa, Dani on the floor. Me handing her papers to recycle, Dani pulling paper clips off them and hauling things to the big blue bin on the driveway.
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve finished the clean out of STS225, my Sac City home since the summer of 2015 when the journalism department moved out of the old trailer we’d occupied for 20 years and into this brand, spankin’ new building with the photo department.
As photo department chair Paul Estabrook said, “It’s like photo and journalism were going steady all these years, and now we’ve finally moved in together.” It was exactly like that. And it’s been a terrific partnership.
But now it’s time for me to leave the building.
So I did, with a kind photographer in tow to mark the occasion. (Thanks, Dickie!) Because of the steadying presence of Dani and Dickie, I managed not to blubber my way through it. And I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve left my office cleaned out, though I know the powers that be will need to come in and thoroughly sanitize it for the next occupant. (Jon Hanson, I left you some of my favorite tea and my trusty pencil sharpener since I already have its twin at my house.)
Weirdly, I may have done some of the best teaching of my career over the past two-and-a-half semesters. Not that I taught journalistic/writing skills more effectively. But I think I became more compassionate and understanding as students had their lives falling apart around them, many in far worse ways than mine. I can’t count how many students got sick, how many family members of my students got sick, some who died, so many who lost jobs and homes and loved ones. Every time a student asked (via email, of course), “Can I have an extension on this assignment?” I said yes. Every time a student wanted to talk by phone or Zoom, I made that a priority. I did some of the best amateur counseling (as does every teacher) of my career during this pandemic.
This was my silver lining. That and a whole lot of new tech skills.
I believe that, if we’re smart, we all remain lifelong learners, and I’ve had the great good fortune to learn so much from so many people—not least my students and former students. I know I’ll continue to do so from home, using the Zoom skills and others I’ve acquired over the last year as I lead writing workshops and publish other people’s books and work on my own.
And Dani and me? Our partnership continues. We still have work to do sorting and tossing. She’s up for the challenge, and I am most grateful, as I am to Sacramento City College for giving me a home for three decades and all kinds of students to teach me what I most needed to learn.