History Department Chair, Dr. Jeanne Petit, shares how remote teaching has been going for her during this time.

My New Classroom

It was all so breathtakingly fast. On Monday, I was warning my students that we might have to do distance learning, on Wednesday, I told them we were doing it for sure (now go take that test, HIST 161 students!), and by Thursday, they were gone. By the next week, as I began to set up my virtual classroom, it started to become clear that I would not get to see my students together in person again.

It was so fast. And it made me think about humans who have lived in times of abrupt change, whether because of war, environmental catastrophe, or, like our times, pandemic. I now have a more visceral understanding of how quickly old routines can be replaced with new realities.

My old Monday-Wednesday-Friday teaching routine revolved around tromping down to the Chapel Basement, room 16 to teach World War I America at 9:30. Ironically, things became disrupted just as we had just arrived at the point of class when the 1918-1919 influenza was ravaging the world, causing untold more deaths than the war that was concluding. After that class, I would head back to Lubbers Hall to teach my US survey class in good old Lubbers 120, one of my favorite rooms. We were just finishing our section on the Cold War when our class was forced to move off campus.

Dr. Petit’s makeshift classroom at home.

Now I am in my new classroom–a computer set on a puzzle box on a paper-strewn dining room table (those who have been to my office will know that this is not out of character). Instead of walking in and chatting with early comers, I now log in and wait for the distinctive “bloop” noise of students logging in themselves. Instead of answering lingering questions at the end of class, students blink out in a second or two.

I can’t say I like this new classroom. I miss the physical presence of my students, the conversations, the verbal back-and-forth. But I have been pleased by the ways we’ve been able to recreate our classroom communities in new ways, all of us figuring out how to unmute ourselves and share our ideas.

I want to thank my students. You have soldiered on this semester even with the disruption and distraction. I know it has taken me three times longer to accomplish anything, and I have so admired the way you have read complicated texts, completed papers, found ways to do awesome presentations on your research, and participated in “office hour” meetings with me.

More than that, though, I commend you the way you continued to engage in the study of history, continued to learn about the Red Scare and the Harlem Renaissance, the Brown v. Board decision and the 1970s oil embargos. As we are living through a “historic” event in real time, I believe the study of the past is important. Knowing history can give us perspective–we see the endurance and frailties of humanity and how people had to make agonizing decisions with uncertain outcomes. You stayed with it, and I am more grateful than I can say.

I hope next fall we are back in the classroom again, studying the past in physical community with each other. But this experience has renewed my faith in my students. Whatever comes, we will find ways to learn together.

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