Trinity Term Teams: Testing Times to Teach - Grant Tapsell, Fellow and Tutor in History
As a fanatically dedicated technophobe, the prospect of a term spent teaching online via something called 'Teams' sounded better than a bout of food-poisoning, but not by very much. The joy of teaching within the Oxford system is meeting the students in person and in small groups in a college room. How could that be replicated in pixelated form?
In some respects, the answer was 'surprisingly well'. Having just finished my 70th and last online tutorial, I can report precisely zero significant connection problems. The technology held up startlingly well. This was true whether the students were in Hawaii, Malta, Pakistan, or Singapore, or just a few streets away in Oxford. Another major anxiety also proved groundless: would students work less hard at home, perhaps especially towards the end of term? Not a bit of it: I noticed no decline in standards. All of the students I worked with produced high-quality work on time, and clearly derived a lot of satisfaction from maintaining their scholarly interests amidst the wider pandemic problems.
Was everything just as good on 'Teams' as meeting in person? Emphatically, 'no'. I was fortunate mostly to be working with students I knew pretty well before lockdown. Establishing rapport with a minority of new students from other colleges online was challenging. Reading the non-verbal signs that are clear in a 'real' tutorial is much harder when all that is available is a face on a screen. Prompting debate between tutorial partners who are not sharing a sofa was often tough. Spontaneity also took a bit of a beating: hard to leap off one's chair to fetch a book from the shelf to hand over to a tutee when not in the office. And all this despite the fact that I was exclusively teaching tutorials: classes with larger numbers of students will prove challenging, if, as seems likely, they are necessary next academic year.
I am already sick of manager-types using the word 'nimble' during the current crisis: it has rapidly become the new 'robust'. Nevertheless, Oxford teaching has indeed thrived, not just survived, in lockdown, but the experience has certainly made me appreciate the privilege of 'normal' tutorials with renewed force. For the general success of Trinity Term 2020 tutors and students must thank not just college and university IT teams, but also a particularly unsung group of heroic figures: librarians. The speed with which a vast array of resources were located and made available online was staggering, and no praise could be too high. Let us hope this is remembered when next year's budgets are agreed.
Remote Trinity 2020 - Alice Garnett, 2018 English Language and Literature
If I have learned nothing else from this term, it’s that a degree from Oxford is far more than extensive reading lists, weekly essays, and hard work; it’s formals, bops, libraries, and (dare I say) Bridge Thursdays. We all know that part of what makes studying at Oxford so great, and what makes all the hard work worthwhile, is the atmosphere. Without the aesthetics of the city’s architecture, the ambience of the Radcliffe Camera, and the hustle and bustle of gowned students on High Street it became impossible to romanticise our intensive studying. Sitting at my desk, in my childhood bedroom, simply was not the same – my surroundings could not be further from the ornate ceilings and open spaces of the Rad Cam. You cannot do an Oxford degree virtually when so much of what makes it special is so visceral. Microsoft Teams has nothing on the cosy atmosphere of a tutor’s office (usually brimming with books and interesting art – in my case). People don’t buffer in real life, there’s no grating feedback, people don’t forget to take themselves off mute – although we were able to laugh many of these technical hiccups off it was, at times, frustrating. This was a term of technical difficulties. I’m sure I’m the only one who developed a deeply embittered resentment of their slow rural wifi during this term. At times, I think it would have been quicker for me to walk from LMH to the Rad Cam than to wait for a singular page to load, one very slow pixel at a time.
Reluctant as I am to sing any praises about this term, I have to give credit where credit is due; my tutors, fellow students, and the wider college community really did rise to the challenge of remote Trinity. In spite of everything, weekly tutorials went ahead, feedback was as good as ever and myself and my peers still managed to produce some pretty good work. I say ‘pretty good’ because there’s no way I produced my best work – what with many textbooks not being available online and my attention span struggling under the crippling ennui of lockdown life. Fortunately, I am blessed with some of the kindest, most empathetic, tutors Oxford has to offer; none of them were under the deluded impression that lockdown meant more ‘free time’ to spend reading, thinking, and writing.
The hypothesis that ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ was put to the test this term. If, like me, your ‘extracurricular activities’ at university mostly consist of clubbing and hanging out with friends then this remote Trinity proved this theory correct. The weekly Zoom meetings with friends had nothing on the Saturday morning brunch-in-hall catch-ups and post-bop debriefs. Whilst so many things have been translated onto the virtual world with success (like dating and shopping), I don’t believe an Oxford term is one of those things.
An online Term - Christine Gerrard, Fellow and Tutor in English
Last night I walked round the LMH gardens for the first time in over three months. I was touched by their wildness and beauty, and saddened that so few students this summer would get to see them. The Covid-19 pandemic, for much of Hilary term still only a distant rumble, hit us in ninth week with the force of a tsunami. At 5pm on Tuesday 17th March all of the Bodleian libraries shut down ‘indefinitely’ (ominous adverb) with only a few hours’ notice. Deep in the countryside ten miles north of Oxford, I checked my email at 4.15pm. In a state of shock, I leapt into my car and drove as fast as speed cameras permitted to the English Faculty Library in Manor Road to retrieve whatever books I could, for what I had fondly anticipated to be an unbroken summer of research. The scenes inside - queues of students pushing trolley-loads of books towards the checkout - felt like the academic version of the mass supermarket panic-buying that swept the stores the following week. Yet this hasty snatch and grab helped only some. Many research students were abruptly severed from their archives and libraries, and scientists from their labs and experiments. Some students – especially international students - had to remain immured in college, separated from far distant family and friends. Fellows and tutors were by necessity shut out of their college rooms for weeks on end (I wept when I was finally reunited with my beloved study in Old Old Hall!). We have all had to adapt, to cope, to find new ways of teaching, of communicating, of socializing, of keeping the academic work and LMH spirit going in innovative ways.
Even those of us a bit nervous about using technology have rapidly adapted to a set of new teaching methods for the Trinity term, in which, for the first time, all our students have been taught online. We have hotly debated the respective merits of Zoom and Teams for tutorials, classes, and college and Faculty meetings. Many colleagues, particularly in the sciences, have innovated with online whiteboards. Online lectures, recorded on Panopto, seem to have proved widely popular with students. The day after lockdown I conducted a three-hour D. Phil viva on ‘Teams’ originally scheduled in Examination Schools. The external examiner, me and the candidate (dressed in full sub-fusc!) debated earnestly from our respective kitchens and bedrooms. I felt utterly exhausted at the end, the so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’. Yet though nothing can replace face-to-face tutorials, I’ve felt in some ways even closer to my students than before, as we connect in bedrooms and attics from Slough, Matlock and Yorkshire to passionately discuss and debate literature. Students have worked week on week with online resources, turning out full, detailed essays regularly throughout the term. Their efforts have been heroic. Finalists had to sit their Finals at home, separated from their cohort and without all the camaraderie and occasion that normally helps propel students through Finals. They have faced uncertainty, pressure and unequal circumstances. When the bedroom morphs into the exam hall, and you end by uploading your scripts and sending them off into the void, there is a sense of anticlimax: no shared celebrations, ‘trashing’, parties, or punting. I am looking forward to our English Schools Dinner, even if it’s going to be delayed by several months.
Now that we have made it through to the end of term I can’t help but feel incredibly proud of the way in which everyone in the LMH community – students, tutors, college officers, support staff alike – has risen to the occasion. The wonderful ‘LMH Together’ Facebook page (daily photos, videos, musical performances, news, advice, games, jokes) has helped keep that sense of community alive. I particularly loved the Principal’s posts from the LMH archives displaying the hand-drawn items created by students during and after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that felled the entire LMH community (only one Fellow remained untouched, and one student died). The beautifully drawn sketches, irradiated by an irrepressibly playful humour, testified to the reciprocal tenderness between tutors and students in a time of crisis, and helped remind all of us in this present crisis that these things too, shall pass.