What if this Crisis Had Hit 25 Years Ago? 

by Joseph Bentz

It’s hard to find a bright side to this pandemic. Universities have furloughed thousands of employees, enrollments have dropped, revenue has plummeted, and campuses that continue to function in person have endured devastating waves of illness.

Many of us who teach in the humanities complain about the frustrations and limitations of remote learning, and understandably so. As a literature professor, I miss being with students in person. I miss the magic that can happen when students gather in a room, hover over a shared text, and dig out its meaning. I miss the conversations before and after class and the unplanned encounters on campus sidewalks. I miss having students and colleagues unexpectedly pop into my office and start a conversation that sometimes turns out to be the most important discussion of the day. 

However, as challenging as this crisis has been, one possibility that would have been even worse keeps creeping into my mind: What if this pandemic had struck 25 years ago? How would universities have handled it? Without adequate technology to teach remotely, would some universities, including my own, have had to simply shut down? 

Today, despite the challenges, at least our work is still possible. I can’t meet with my students in a physical classroom the way I would prefer, but I can still meet with them. Every day I use technology that would have seemed almost miraculous when I started my teaching career a few decades ago. I interact with students inside my virtual classroom. I share paragraphs and poems on my screen so that all of us can focus on the same text at the same time. I show video excerpts. I bring up a whiteboard and write notes on it just as I would in a physical classroom. I receive their papers online and mark them with suggestions. I monitor online discussions that students have with one another and with me. We take all this for granted now, and we even gripe about it, but maybe a little gratitude is called for also. Without all these tools, we would be stuck. We would be cut off from one another. We would probably even go out of business. 

I’m still grateful for what the technology makes possible, but my relief at being able to continue the work that would have crushed us a generation ago is tempered by the pain this pandemic has inflicted on so many. Some have lost loved ones to the virus, and others have been sick themselves. University staff have faced devastating furloughs, budget cuts, and an uncertain future. 

I started teaching literature and writing at Azusa Pacific University 30 years ago. Online learning did not exist. We didn’t use terms like synchronous, asynchronous, hyflex, hybrid, or dozens of other words that are part of everyday conversations about education today. Our university did not even provide any internet connection when I first arrived. If you wanted to use email or any other internet service, you set it up yourself, using a dial-up system with America Online or something similar. I used it, but not much. Accessing the internet for any kind of content was slow and frustrating. If you could get it to connect at all, you had to watch a webpage load one little element at a time—a graphic…wait…a little bit of text…wait…a photo…wait…wait…. It would have been ridiculous to think that such a technology could ever help us in the classroom, let alone become the classroom. 

When my university first switched to remote teaching rather abruptly mid-semester in March of 2020, I almost panicked. I can’t do it, I thought. I teach in person. That’s the only way I have ever taught, and it’s the only way I have ever wanted to teach. I have carefully structured my career to avoid those online courses. I’ve never used Zoom! The technology never works! I’ll bumble around and look like a fool, and nobody will learn anything. 

After allowing myself some time for ranting—and grieving—the loss of my face-to-face classes, I did what countless other professors across the country did—I set about learning how to make it work. Zoom wasn’t that hard after all, and Canvas had features I had never paid attention to. I kept teaching. The students kept showing up. My adjustment period wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. The students and I did the work. We connected. We laughed. We sometimes forgot we weren’t together in person.

One thing that made that spring semester bearable was that we thought this ordeal would last only until summer. Surely by May, or June at the latest, we figured, the virus would be under control and we could get back to normal. No way could this last until the fall semester. We would certainly be back in the classroom by then. 

It didn’t work out that way. It soon became clear that we would be remote for at least one more semester, and probably an entire school year. My university ramped up training for online and remote teaching, and I signed up for lots of it. If this was the way I had to teach, I wanted to learn how to do it right. It was encouraging to see the way my fellow faculty members embraced the challenge we faced. People who had been at my university even longer than I had, and who didn’t want to bother with email when it first came along, now sprinkled their conversation with tips on things like Flipgrid, Padlet, Screencastify, and Loom. 

In other fields of the humanities, music professors learned how to train their students remotely. Choir directors blended voices from afar and created beautiful videos. Science professors developed ways to do labs online. Art professors taught painting. Theater professors taught acting. Somehow, it worked. 

However, let’s face it. Not all of it works so well. Students in a Zoom class are more distracted than in an in-person class. I can’t keep them from paying attention to other things at the same time they’re trying to be present with what we’re doing. I don’t get to know the students as well. It’s harder to learn their names. I wonder whether I would even recognize many of them if I saw them on campus. Moments of humor get squashed by all those muted microphones. It’s harder to read the mood of the class or to tell when they’re anxious or not understanding something. We all get “Zoomed out,” we get exhausted more easily. 

I’m still grateful for what the technology makes possible, but my relief at being able to continue the work that would have crushed us a generation ago is tempered by the pain this pandemic has inflicted on so many. Some have lost loved ones to the virus, and others have been sick themselves. University staff have faced devastating furloughs, budget cuts, and an uncertain future. 

My students have been my biggest inspiration to do all I can to make this experiment in remote teaching work. They keep going even though they have lost so much. Much of the college experience has been ripped away from them. Dorm life is gone, social lives have been disrupted, and all those late-night conversations and gatherings have been taken away. Their extracurricular participation in sports, theater, music, has been curtailed or eliminated. Many of them sign in to class from home, stuck in a corner of the bedrooms they grew up in, their movement into the next phase of life stunted. Still, they make the best of it. They write, respond, create. They find ways to connect with one another. They join in from around the world. Some of my literature students are taking my class from South Korea. When we meet on Zoom at 10 a.m., it is 2 a.m. where they live, but they still are eager to take part. 

I want the crisis to end. I want to get back on campus. When I do, I hope I will come back as a better teacher. I will return equipped with new tools from the remote learning world that I can put to use in the face-to-face classroom. But more than anything, I hope I never again take for granted the simple joy of walking into a classroom and saying “Let’s get started” to a group of bright, eager human beings who have gathered to learn.

About the Author

Dr. Joseph Bentz is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University in California, where he specializes in American literature. He is also a faculty fellow in APU’s Honors College. He has done much of his scholarly work on American novelist Thomas Wolfe and is a three-time winner of the Zelda and Paul Gitlin Literary Prize in Wolfe studies. He earned a Ph.D. in American literature from Purdue University. Bentz is the author of eleven books, including four novels and seven nonfiction books. His most recent book is 12 New Testament Passages that Changed the World, published in 2019 by The Foundry Publishing. More information about his writing and speaking can be found at his website, www.josephbentz.com.