My frustration with Covid is not health-related.
For some reason, even with the initial panicking, supermarket robbing, emergency online teaching, I was relatively calm, sometimes even amused and excited, because none of this had ever happened before in my life. And to stay at home and to take care of the girls and to stockpile as if a war were coming and to learn online teaching skills and to meet people via Zoom and Teams and to listen to my husband talking about evacuation plan ABCD were top comedy. I was secretly feeling a guilty pleasure that out of this mundane, strained and workaholic life in Hong Kong, finally we could use a bit of long-abandoned adrenaline and switch to a real survival mode, not just when we were riding the roller coaster in Ocean Park.
BUT I still wanted to create a strong sense of personal touch in the student-teacher relationship. So, for my favourite course, Introduction to Literature, before the semester started, I did an online survey and asked for students’ mailing addresses and sent all worksheets and lecture notes via SF express. I wrote a letter to them, “The pandemic has shown us that the only thing predictable in life is change, but despite the changes and difficulties you are going through, we will face it together. I’m sending you the teaching materials so that you have something physical to reach you and to touch you.”
Distance Learning Lacks the Personal Touch
Ah… speaking of something physical. I missed the physical presence of students in the classroom. When zooming, it was very difficult to get reactions, so I just had to imagine their reactions. Sometimes it felt like talking to a wall.
In order to provide that personal touch that I’m so obsessed with, I started offering individual essay consultations in addition to the lectures.
I enjoyed the simplicity of organizing these consultations. Just a click and the student was invited. Then normally I would share the screen and we would go through the essay line by line together. Students seemed more engaged than they had been in a face-to-face setting, more willing to ask questions.
I thought to myself: this is going so well; I should give more.
For the second essay, I arranged peer review sessions so that students could learn from each other. I shared their writing in small groups and arranged online meetings. Just a click, Zoom, and boom! They were all there!
But… in a particularly awkward session, when I shared an essay on Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, voices came up from the dark Zoom room:
This is going so well…
“Miss, can we write more than 650 words?”
“Thomas’s essay is more than 900 words.”
“I didn’t know we could write more than the word limit.”
“I don’t think it is fair.”
“Oh,” I said, caught off guard, “try not to focus on the number of words. See how brilliant his close reading of space is? Thomas relates the open air to the freedom of the protagonist. That is amazing! And the analysis of the sister kneeling by the door. He interprets that as female figures submitting to patriarchal society.”
More voices joined in:
“Miss, I know the essay is well written. It is a wonderful piece of work. BUT can we write over 650 words? The word limit you set in the assessment guideline? I didn’t know we could break the rules.”
“Miss, in another course, if we do not follow the word limit rule, we get 15% penalty.”
I could not respond. My brain was dead blocked. I couldn’t believe that they would not read the essay and appreciate its exquisite craftsmanship, that they did not care to learn and improve, but would instead focus on the word count. The fucking word count!
Justice is Served
On the way home, I welled up several times, but I reminded myself to drive safely. I was disgusted by the group of people I so wholeheartedly taught. I cursed myself for investing too much in the course. I also wanted to find a way so that the student would not be penalized.
No. The only thing on my mind when I arrived home was, “How can I protect Thomas from the mob?”
That night I received a WhatsApp message from another student, telling me that their group chat was exploding like a volcano: the course had too much work, its contents too difficult, and now, apparently, unfair marking.
For God’s sake, I had not even given them grades!
I wrote the entire class an email, trying to appease them by saying I would treat everyone fairly. So please wait till the next class so that I could explain.
BUT they could not wait. A phone call came first thing in the morning from an administrator. Students filed a complaint about my course. Justice needed to be done.
So, it was official now. I had to penalize Thomas for writing too much. To carry out “justice”.
What happened next was that everyone got what they wanted:
Thomas got marks deducted from his essay, but his final grade was not affected: all his essays were simply too brilliant. I wrote him the best recommendation letter I had ever written in my life. It took me a whole afternoon to write and a whole evening to revise. I used up all my English vocabulary of balanced and believable praise. He went on to study in a top university.
The rest of the class were happy that Thomas got punished. (Well, at least they seemed happy.)
I had a deeper understanding of human nature: jealousy, herd mentality, scapegoating, and brutality. It was a better lesson than reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. My favourite students and my favourite course taught me the best lesson. I had been scalded by my own passion.
Even now, I still cannot forget that night. The night that I cried all the way home.
I believe if the lectures had been conducted in the classroom, I would have been able to detect the tension between the good students and the mediocre ones. I believe I would have been able to handle the conflicts better, without feeling that I was stuck in that dark Zoom channel, with only my face visible.
My frustration with Covid is not health-related. My frustration is that I could not teach students properly, and that I could not confront them, that I could not tell them in their face that they were wrong.
I could not really touch them.