KIERAN: Hello, I’m Kieran Lindsey…
DAN: … I’m Dan Marcucci, and this is Wired Ivy. We have combined 20 years of experience in the virtual classroom.
KIERAN: Dan lives in Pennsylvania, I live in Missouri, and we work for a university in Virginia. As part of a geographically distributed team we know from personal experience that online faculty and staff benefit from having access to their peers.
DAN: You may have been teaching online for a long time now or relatively new… you may have been thinking about a move to online or suddenly find yourself doing it… regardless, you are welcome in this virtual salon.
KIERAN: Our goal is to create a collegial community for real academics working in virtual classrooms… a safe, supportive space where we can learn from one another and share what we’ve figured out.
KIERAN: It’s approximately one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, a milestone that’s hard to overlook. Anniversaries offer a chance to pause, peer over our shoulder at where we’ve been, assess where we’re standing today, and peek at a still uncertain future. With that in mind, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to reflect on the whirlwind — perhaps the better atmospheric analogy would be tornado — of the past 12 months.
Back in September 2020, Dan and I spoke with Liza Wieland of East Carolina University and thought her story would sound familiar to many of our listeners. Liza had some limited experience with teaching online, primarily for summer creative writing workshops but, like so many higher ed faculty, she had to shift to remote emergency instruction midway through the Spring 2020 academic term. By Fall 2020 she was teaching in an accelerated 7-½ week format, having her first experiences with synchronous Zoom classes, and trying to overcome the connectivity limitations of her students.
During that autumn conversation, Liza indicated that she’d be open to revisiting some of the topics we discussed at a later date. Six months later, she and Dan had a chance to record a follow-up, Wired Ivy’s first longitudinal interview.
We really want you to be a part of this discussion, too. Please share your pandemic teaching story with us, for possible use in a future episode, by leaving a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy or send an email to email@example.com.
DAN: Wired Ivy’s guest today is Liza Wieland. Liza is a distinguished professor of English at East Carolina University. Prior to that, she was a professor at Cal State Fresno. Lisa teaches courses in creative writing among a bunch of other things in English.
She is the author of nine books, including poems, short stories and novels. Her 2019 novel, “Paris, 7 A.M.” was heralded at BBC.com as one of the 10 best books to read in the month of June. When she’s not writing and teaching, she serves as the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Development at the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences.
Liza, we’re so happy to have you with us today. Welcome to Wired Ivy!
LIZA: Thank you! I’m thrilled to be here!
KIERAN: Welcome, welcome! It’s great to meet you.
Let’s begin with some background. Tell us about the English Department and your teaching at ECU.
LIZA: Well, the English department is the largest department in the College of Arts and Sciences. It encompasses a lot of different specialties, sub-specialties… composition, technical writing, creative writing, literature, linguistics… I’m sure I’m leaving some out. I hope my colleagues will not be angry with me for doing so.
And we’re a pretty important service department because we teach composition to every student in the university. So it’s… we have a lot of fixed-term faculty, in addition to between 50 and 60 full-time faculty at various levels.
My area is, uh, creative writing. Very few faculty, actually. There are four of us left now due to retirements and people moving on and that sort of thing. And we teach, primarily, fiction and poetry in workshops.
KIERAN: I’m assuming a lot of those courses you’re talking about would normally be taught face-to-face… or what is the breakdown between face-to-face, hybrid, and online?
LIZA: Nothing is hybrid, although that was kind of the design going into the fall, And now everything for undergraduates and for most of the graduate students in English is online.
There is a kind of a quiet bias against online teaching for our creative writing workshops, for the reasons you can imagine. The community that gets established by sitting around a table is pretty important. The trust. When you’re talking about what they think of as their baby, as an extension of themselves, when you’re talking about somebody’s poems or stories. So being, being able to see and, you know, have sort of body language cues and that sort of thing among the workshop is really, really important.
That said, we do teach some online workshops in the summer. It’s a 5 week, 5½ week session. Those have tended to be taught online. I’ve taught them online, years and years ago, when I worked in the summer. Now the Dean’s office sort of employs me in the summer, so I don’t do that.
I was never a fan but it was, it was a way to do it. I just, I still, even having slogged through a second half of the spring semester online and now just four weeks of this fall block online, I still… I’m still not saying, but you know, you do what you have to do.
KIERAN: There are reasons other than a pandemic that have compelled instructors to teach online. That’s one driving force behind the push to call the current Covid response “remote emergency instruction.” A thing that differentiates an online course is intentionality, taking time to think things through, making decisions about how to meet the learning objectives, what works for certain audiences and in certain delivery models.
DAN: So I got from what you said, that all your courses right now were fully online.
LIZA What ECU did, somewhat precipitously, was to break the, the 15 week semester into two, 7½ week blocks. And so not only is there the adjustment to online for creative writing, and I can talk in more detail about that in a minute, but there’s also the compression of a 15 week semester into 7½ weeks.
LIZA: I mean, I said to my husband this morning, I am, I’m having to read and comment on 8 stories and 20 poems in the week, and it will be the same next week, and it will be the same the week after that until the block ends.
It’s very different, in, in so many ways. I mean, the thing you said about having time to think about objectives and to be intentional about what you want to do… we just didn’t have that time, and now we don’t have the time to sort of deploy it, even if we had time to think about it.
DAN: Well a 15 week semester sort of has its rhythm that you become used to if, you know, that’s how you’ve been teaching. The times I’ve had to go to a 6 week or 7 week or an 8 week term, myself, made my head spin, so I can’t imagine doing that quickly in a different format.
KIERAN: For one thing, you have to dial back the number of assignments you can give, right? You simply can’t grade fast enough to provide students with useful feedback in a shorter semester. Plus every assignment is more heavily weighted.
LIZA: In, in both of these classes, I, I had to cut back from two stories to one, which… they don’t have a chance to sort of improve on the second story. The, the first story is the story, and then it becomes the story that goes into the final portfolio. And so there’s time to revise, but there isn’t this, “Oh, I won’t do that next time.”
KIERAN: Do you know if the decision to switch to a 7½ week block… was that because they expected courses to be taught hybrid and they were trying to reduce the number of students coming to the physical classroom?
LIZA: Sort of. The, the hybrid idea was that for the 7½ weeks you could have some face-to-face and the students would maybe spend more time on a class, but they would only be taking half as many classes as they usually do. So if they’re taking five courses in a semester, they would take two in one block and three in another. But it just, it, it didn’t really work out that way, because many faculty did not want to come to campus at all. So there was no face-to-face component.
And then there was the choice of synchronous or asynchronous. And we couldn’t do some students come to class on Tuesdays and Thursdays and other students come to class on Mondays and Wednesdays for the same course, because then the professor’s doing twice as much work, and people were quick to pick up on that.
DAN: So when you say you’re teaching two classes, you mean you’ve got one in this block and one in the next block.
LIZA: No, I have two in this block.
DAN: You have two in this block, which is basically equivalent of teaching four classes, as far as intensity goes.
LIZA: Right, which people do. Many who teach composition in, in our department and in, in the community colleges do that and more. I haven’t taught four classes in a semester perhaps in my entire teaching life.
KIERAN: I can’t imagine that creative writing is a subject that’s well-suited to an accelerated format.
LIZA: No, it isn’t. And I also chose to teach it synchronously. We work in WebEx ‘cause Zoom is not supported by my institution. And sometimes they have connection problems and their faces disappear and they can usually figure out to mute their mics and not talk over each other. Sometimes they raise their hand, physically, in the screen and sometimes they do a little raised hand icon, and I’m like, where are you? Who’s…?
KIERAN: How many people are in the class?
LIZA: In the Tuesday-Thursday class there are 15, and the other class has 20 in it. It’s pretty overwhelming, and by the end of the day, I’m just sort of beat.
KIERAN: Well, yeah. In classes where there are more students than fit on a single screen of faces, it’s as if some of your students are in overflow rooms — you have to make an extra effort to see them and keep them engaged, and that’s not trivial while also trying to lecture.
LIZA: And in the spring, I, I went completely asynchronous to, to finish out another creative writing class I was teaching. So this was this, I mean, I’ve never taught synchronously before. It’s, it’s literally eye opening.
I miss the table. I miss the table that they’re all sitting around and I don’t have to start calling on them to, to respond at the beginning of the alphabet or the end, just so I can keep track.
DAN: When you have that interface that you’re describing, does it feel like exactly how you would never organize this type of class, which is they’re all sitting there looking at you and not looking at each other?
LIZA: Pretty much, pretty much. I know that they, they can see each other in the same little boxes that I can see them in. And they do look at each other, but I, I don’t know, but it’s, it’s funny, cause that’s how it is really in a regular class.
KIERAN: But the same set-up feels different in a virtual space. In a physical space, students may be sitting in rows or at a table but they’re scanning the room, and when they turn their heads the view of the room changes. While on a video conferencing platform if students turn their head they’ve effectively left the room, however briefly.
And from the standpoint of an instructor, standing at the front of a physical room or seated at a table, when someone raises a hand we catch that in our peripheral vision field in a way that doesn’t happen when we’re looking at a screen full of faces… and we can’t see the faces on the 2nd or 3rd screen at all unless we intentionally scroll to those screens.
It’s exhausting… and that’s one reason instructors choose an asynchronous delivery format. There are many others but this a critical negative aspect of synchronous.
LIZA: I really had no idea since I’d never done it. And I also felt like I had this obligation to these, these students I had at one point promised them that I would be present and we would do class face-to-face even though they would have to be six feet apart and masked and, you know, how would that work for, for talking? But then it, it occurred to me that I am the sole caretaker now for my 93 year old mother, and there are other health problems in the family.
And so what they’ve done now though, all the undergraduates got sent home. Undergraduate instruction is completely online.
KIERAN: Did you and other faculty get any kind of training or assistance with online instruction when this first happened, or over the summer? Did ECU have any mechanisms for getting people up to speed?
LIZA: Well, there were plenty of workshops and, you know, the sort of thing you could attend virtually, voluntarily. The other wrinkle was that the, the university moved from Blackboard to Canvas. In August your Blackboard account went dark, and if you didn’t know Canvas, well, you better learn it. Which is exactly what I had to do.
DAN: Holy moley!
LIZA: I know! [laughing] It was a lot.
DAN: So thinking about this, this challenge of teaching creative writing online, some more and, you know, drilling down on that a bit, you know, I think of creating creative writing as something that’s inherently a solitary activity. I mean, you write by yourself. So in some respects, you think, okay, that’s great for people to be all over the country because you need to be hiding in your rooms and writing.
But at the same time, the creative writing courses that, that I’m familiar with, that I assume you’re teaching, are really workshop style courses where the learners, the writers are working with each other.
DAN: That suggests you’ve got to get together and workshop. Am I perceiving that correctly? That you’ve got this tension between the need to write by yourself, but then the need to get together and discuss your work.
LIZA: Right. And that tension exists, you know, whether or not the courses were in a pandemic or not. Tension is a great word for it. I mean, I feel it as a writer all the time, between the quiet of the studio and the community that writers need to function, to not be alone all the time.
And some of them are getting that, um, most of the graduate students in, in the course of 15, are in Greenville and, they meet. They have distant coffee, they have distanced walks. We decided, actually, yesterday in class that, um, we’re going to make a podcast called Afternoon Walks with Max and Ashton, who are two students in the class who always say, prefacing their comments, “Well, on my walk with Max…”
DAN: I love that (laughing).
And you’ve alluded to this already but, clearly, an effective workshop requires a very high level of mutual respect and you have to develop what we would call a psychologically safe space for the students to be able to work that way. I could see that would be a challenge in a classroom. I’m wondering, what are your thoughts about going forward in creating that in this WebEx space that you’re working on. Are there special challenges that people aren’t in the same room?
LIZA: It feels pretty good in that, in that respect. The, the special challenge… there’re two of them. One is a bad connection, you know, not enough bandwidth so that people fade in and out, and sometimes you can’t hear the commentary. And so it’s sort of the, the dream of community gets broken. You get woken up from it actually. And the other challenge is that, if there are students who aren’t engaged in the class… it’s pretty easy to just sort of check out.
KIERAN: Do you ever break them into smaller groups so they’re interacting in groups of 3 or 4 SAY, rather than 15 or 20? Most LMS allow break-out rooms and the instructor can pop in and out to see what’s happening in each space, if the class is taught synchronously.
LIZA: I don’t do it with the smaller group. I, I, I never have really liked group work even in, in face-to-face. I just, I got a bad taste for that when I was in graduate school… the teacher who reads the newspaper while the groups talk about their social life.
But in the larger class they write a short story and then they write three poems. The workshop of the poems does exist in groups. It’s asynchronous so they can get together whenever they want.
My original thinking about that was they were in the same dorm, they’re, they’re the creme de la creme of the honors college called the EC Scholars, and that they could meet in a, in a group dorm and then they post their discussion in the discussion board. And those are groups of five, and there’s four of them.
But now they’re all, they went home, so they’re all spread all over the place and they can’t meet face-to-face but, but still, they have their, their group.
DAN: I’m really interested in the references you’ve made to blending the synchronous time that you have with the LMS, with the resources for students to share work. Is that something that sort of was designed from the beginning? Is it’s an innovation that you’re you’re making up as the need arises? How is that…
LIZA: Yes, I am making it up. It’s lots of sleepless nights in the last week.
I mean, the other thing that impacted my teaching was that when undergraduate education went completely online, classes on Mondays and Tuesdays were canceled so the kids could get home and get moved out and what have you, so that further compressed my schedule. I had to figure out a different way to get them to do as much work as they needed to do. And then I keep up with them by email. they keep up with each other through Canvas. So I, you know, I’m glad to have that other resource, but is that what you were asking?
DAN: Yeah, basically, it’s how are you using the LMS in a way that encourages the students to continue to interact with each other?
KIERAN: I might even rephrase that as “what do you have them do in the physical classroom and what do you have them doing in the LMS space?
LIZA: The honors class, the synchronous classroom has become lecture, which I hate doing but it just seems like the best use of time. So I talk briefly about the five stories for the week and what problems I see.
DAN: And these are stories that the students have written. Yeah.
LIZA: Right, right. Their own stories. And then ask if anybody has a comment there in synchronous time. And some do and some don’t. And then I give them issues to, to address in the five stories and that they do that on the discussion board, on their own.
KIERAN: As far as giving each other feedback… do you have them create their work in a shared document space, using a wiki, like a Google docs, where multiple people can view, add comments, you can look at previous iterations? How does that work?
LIZA: Yeah, they, they don’t do it in a Google Doc, although plenty of them use Google Docs and that’s what comes to me. I have them post a link to the story in the discussion. And then when I deliver, once I deliver the focus question they can go in and comment on that particular story. And as I said, there’s, there’s 5 a week, so they’re not overwhelmed by 20.
And so that all happens in the discussion, and the way the platform works is that the students have to post before they can read the other comments. So they gotta say something original but there can be threaded replies so they can bounce off of each other.
I have a hard time conceiving of a draft in which, like a Google doc, in which other students can go in and mess around with it. I mean, I think that’s a proprietary writer thing. Like, okay, this is my draft. Hands off until I’m ready to show it to you.
Those discussions, or the focus question… is that a meta discussion across all five stories or does each story gets its own discussion?
LIZA: Each story gets its own discussion and they’re organized loosely by elements of fiction. So when I’m reading a story, I think, well, the setting in this story is the problem, or it’s, it’s the weak link or the place that could be improved. And so I, I construct a question that’s particularly about setting. In another story, the character may be underdeveloped, and so then that, that discussion question has to do with character.
DAN: There is the option of, um, using the software Perusal. I don’t know if you’ve used that… but in that case, the students would upload a PDF of their story. It’s designed as a collaborative reading software. They don’t have editing rights on the story and they’re not changing any words on the story, but there is a conversation, a, a group reading conversation, about the story that occurs within, within the software is how that works. It’s something our Canvas supports, as an add on.
KIERAN: That’s right… we spoke to a guest in a previous episode who told us about using Perusal for reading assignments in her undergraduate classes. She mentioned one benefit is that it’s easier to tell whether or not a specific student has read the assignment because they are able to make comments on the pdf document in real time, and respond to the comments of others.
DAN: Just kind of run us through a practice session of what one of your modules looks like? I mean, what kind of direction do they get? They have several weeks to write a story? How does that work?
LIZA: Well badly. That’s how it works.
LIZA: They had, they had almost no time because to get 15 or 20 stories they had to produce something pretty fast. We started August 10th, which was, again, two weeks earlier than we usually start. The honors class had about three… had about two and a half weeks to produce a story.
LIZA: I know. I gave them models all in the fiction module on Canvas, and they could, you know, read around in the examples. I gave them tons of interviews with writers and TEDtalks and lots of poems.
And actually we started out with monologues. So I gave them a rash of monologues ranging from Hamilton to, to some standup, to some spoken word poems to this sort of wonderful interactive version of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. So they, they have, had a lot of “look at this, look at this, look at this, look at this,” before their first story was due. The good thing about the honor students is they come in with pretty good training.
DAN: Those monologues that you were talking about, for example, is that something they did live or did you have them record it and post it to Canvas?
LIZA: They did them live. They had a choice of two: one was “Where I’ve Come From and Where I’m going,” and the other was “How I spent my Covid Summer.” They had to deliver one… they could read it, you know, and it was mostly like, not acting. But it was a great way for them to get to know each other, for me to get to know them.
KIERAN: Circling back a bit to the issue of synchronous versus asynchronous delivery… are the majority of your students at ECU from North Carolina, or at least the East Coast, or do you have a more geographically dispersed student population… which raises feasibility issues for synchronous courses.
LIZA: East Coast for sure… North Carolina for more sure. Eastern North Carolina, I would say the majority are really from right around there. Some, some from Greenville.
DAN: Are there specific aspects of your courses that you’re currently thinking, “I really need to innovate or solve this issue or outcome” or do you think, “Okay, I can make this through the term here.”
LIZA: Well, I mean, I only have three more weeks to go in these classes, so I feel like we’ve finally fell into a bit of a rhythm this week. So I think what’s happening is sustainable for the rest of the block.
KIERAN: Do you notice any difference between how they interact with each other in-person versus on a video conference or in a text discussion board? As a culture we’ve sort of stumbled into different etiquettes for virtual spaces, for good or ill, than in-person exchanges, although virtual seems to be spilling into face-to-face interactions. I’d love to know if you, as a writer who is attuned to words and tone and dialogue, have you observed variations within different channels of communication.
LIZA: Well, interestingly, I, I can’t answer that question yet because the first discussion is happening right now. And so I’m really curious to go see… but I feel like they know they’re being observed. I mean, they know that I’m sticking my nose in there.
KIERAN: Good point. It’s not possible to be anonymous in the LMS, the way someone can just make up a persona on Facebook or Twitter and have no accountability.
DAN: I do think there’s a dynamic set up from the spoken monologue at the beginning. I mean, I think that’s a great idea because it’s a very writerly way of doing introductions in a class, right? And it also sort of puts everybody in the group in an equally vulnerable position.
DAN: So, so, you know, “I can’t be an ass.”
DAN: Can I say then on our podcast? Oh yeah, it’s our podcast. Well, but we still don’t… we’ll have to see how these offline discussions go.
LIZA: Yeah, I’m very curious. I think looking at my grade book this morning, a lot of them have, have weighed in on these first spots. So I’m going to spend some time maybe later today, but over the weekend, going into to see what’s going on. And the monologue was just a fluke. I, I’m always looking — and this is my secret about how to work and teach at the same time — for ways to make the, um, my, my writing and my teaching kind of dovetail, or cohere.
And I’m writing a novel right now about three women who are generationally related, who are all in, one way or another, involved in productions of Hamlet. So I’ve been thinking about monologues and I’ve been thinking about theatrics. I tried to get this class when, when it was, I was first assigned it to take place in the black box theater on campus, but that was a no go.
Um, and then, you know, obviously it’s a no go now. Um, so, well, you know, I didn’t, I didn’t think like, Oh, this is a great way to get them to be vulnerable in front of each other. I thought this is a great way to get my work done [laughing]. I’m such a cheat.
DAN: I don’t think… Well, and we always have to be efficient with our time as well as with their time, with the students’ time.
DAN: So I think anything that does, that is great.
LIZA: Yeah. I mean, something like… the one pedagogical tactic that’s, that served me, you know, for years, as I’ve been writing novels is to have them do in-class writing. I tried this synchronously last week and it was just kind of a wash, but…
DAN: Like a timed writing.
LIZA: Yeah, yeah. And so, and I do it too, and they love the quiet. I mean, it’s why people work in coffee shops, right? They love the sense that people are around…
KIERAN: There’s that ambient noise… you know it’s not directed at you, you don’t have to respond, but it creates a kind of bubble. I’ve been seeing people try to create something similar in the virtual space, where the idea is to set up a Zoom meeting, for example, but it’s a synchronous work time. There might be built in breaks for some social conversation but you’re there to work on a creative project. There’s accountability, because people are expecting to see you there, and there’s some responsibility to make sure one lone person doesn’t show up. It creates space to work and a break from isolation.
LIZA: Yeah, yeah. I’ve seen that, yeah, yeah.
DAN: I’m wondering what insights you have, going forward, about trying to teach creative writing in online classes. Any thoughts?
LIZA: Well, I, I can see how it could work. I mean, I, I’m not going to say I’m a convert but I have more of a sense it can be a very valuable tool for students. I’m so old school it would be hard for me to say, Oh yeah, I’m on board with this, I want to do it this way forever.” But I, I understand how it can have advantages, or be advantageous, for a certain kind of student.
DAN: That actually sort of segues nicely into something else we’re curious about. We kind of want to take advantage of your position as the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Development. And a question that we’ve been working on, thinking about a future season… what is the impact of online teaching for faculty careers?
Since you’re particularly involved with tenure promotion in the largest college at your university… wanted to dig into that a little bit further without getting into specific personnel issues, obviously. Do you see any impacts that online teaching is having on faculty careers or do you anticipate any that might occur?
LIZA: Um, well, yes. I mean, one of the first things that happened in the college, in the university, was that faculty in the tenure stream had the option to, to change their clock, you know, move the clock, their tenure clock, back a year. So that happened right away.
Faculty have had to put their research aside and run as fast as they can, swim as hard as they can to get these online classes going, and we’re going to have to think about that going forward as tenure stream faculty enter their third and fourth and fifth years before tenure.
And the other way that it’s been impacted, that I’m dealing with right now is how peer review happens. There was guidance about, you could have a peer review in your classroom if you weren’t at seating capacity. So the peer reviewer could come and, and also distance from the kids.
DAN: This is, specifically, peer review of teaching you’re talking about…
LIZA: Which is an essential part of the tenure process. Faculty have to have a certain number per year to get to the final eight, I think it is. So now there’s some question about how that’s going to go and will we be able to get enough peer reviewers? Those are the ways that, immediately, it’s being impacted.
DAN: Those peer reviews, surely there’s vast difference between if your peer reviewed in a synchronous and an asynchronous class. It must be completely different methods for doing that, right?
LIZA: Nobody’s really addressed that yet. That will probably come up this week. But, you know, I haven’t, I haven’t even been approached about that question. I’m loath to bring it up, but I’m actually kind of grateful that you reminded me of the difference between those. Yeah.
DAN: Yeah, there’s always those two big buckets of course design and course delivery that you know are important. But when you’re doing an asynchronous course online the design becomes very, very upfront.
KIERAN: Do you have many adjunct faculty or is it all full-time, tenure/tenure-track?
LIZA: It depends on the department. English… beaucoup. There’s fixed term faculty, and then there are temps who are hired for one semester, maybe a year. Fixed term faculty can, get used to be able to get, uh, multi-year contracts.
KIERAN: I still hear people say they are taking a contract adjunct gig to get teaching experience, thinking it will make them a more attractive hire if a full-time position becomes available. They’re surprised to find out that doesn’t give them an inside track.
LIZA: That’s exactly right, yeah. I feel like it’s not an illusion anymore. When I first started teaching at ECU, it was. There was the sense that you work in the trenches long enough and then you can get on. And it’s happened but it doesn’t happen anymore.
DAN: Liza Wieland… It’s great talking with you. I really appreciate your coming on and sharing your experiences and thoughts.
LIZA: Thank you. It’s great to talk to you both.
KIERAN: This was a great conversation. Thank you.
DAN: We’ve established that there are several questions we’ll have to check in in future months so… be warned.
LIZA: I’d be glad to.
KIERAN: That conversation with Liza took place on September 4th, 2020. She had made it through a mid-semester pivot to remote instruction the previous Spring term, and the new Fall semester at East Carolina University was underway. At the end of that discussion, Liza said she’d be glad to talk with us again and we definitely wanted to get an update on her experience. Six months later, Dan and Liza scheduled time to reconnect, which happened to be when much of the U.S. was in the throes of a major winter storm. As such, you’ll detect some sound quality issues but nothing too distracting or distorted. Thanks for your patience with the limitations of technology and Internet networks.
DAN: Liza, welcome back to Wired Ivy after a long winter.
LIZA: Great to be here!
DAN: Let’s go straight to the big question: how has the last six months been, both for teaching and working remotely in the pandemic? I believe your direct quote from September was, “not a fan.”
LIZA: Not at all fan. Not even close. It was awful. I was teaching two creative writing workshops. It was just kind of a mess, and compounded by the fact that many of my students are in rural communities and don’t have reliable Internet connections. And so people were zipping in and out — and not zipping, fading in and out. You know, you’d start a conversation with a couple of students and then in the middle of it in the middle of a word, one of them would be gone.
I never really saw their faces because, in the interest of connection, people turned off their cameras and, and turned off their audio. I really hated every minute of it. So I’m not teaching now and I’m so glad.
DAN: And to be clear, you finished your two workshops in October and haven’t had any courses since then?
LIZA: Not teaching. And then it was convenient because the administrative part of my job for this year, really, really ramped up at the beginning of October.
DAN: When we spoke in September you were just about to start a period of peer discussions in the writing workshops. I’d like to follow up on how those discussions went? Did they achieve your learning objectives?
LIZA: The graduate class was better, partly because they are accustomed to workshop and many of them, probably half of them, were themselves teaching and dealing with the same constraints and problems. So that was better and was also a smaller class. We could really talk and listen to each other. The other class, the undergraduates, well, there were freshman. They’re honors students, so they had a certain kind of capability but it was just too big a group to discuss their work. And so what I ended up doing, and maybe this gets to your next question, I broke them up into much smaller groups of five. They did most of the discussion among themselves… the whole group read everybody’s stories, and it was 20 kids. Everybody was responsible for some commentary.
It was just too free-for-all. So I came up with very specific questions for each of the stories that the students had to answer in writing and then we would sort of rehash that in class. So it was much more focused. And those questions got at the key elements of fiction: plot, setting, character, language, etc. It was desperate measures in desperate times. It is something that I think I’ll keep around for a class of that size.
DAN: I know in the past you had been suspicious of small group activities in your in-person workshops. This is an interesting innovation you devised for managing a distributed group. Did these small groups work asynchronously, or did they schedule a synchronous Zoom session?
LIZA: I don’t know. They figured it out on their own.
DAN: So there was no transcript or evidence from the discussions?
LIZA: No. Well, you know what, actually, that’s not true. Canvas has that in function as Blackboard, which is a discussion group and there was a record of responses in there.
DAN: How did the learners respond to the workshop? Were they dissatisfied, or put out by the whole thing, or did they really just take the whole thing in stride?
LIZA: They were first years. Most of them had never used Canvas, so whatever I threw at ‘em, they did. They were glad to be doing some creative writing because most of them are headed toward the sciences. They’re biology majors, chemistry majors. Writing a poem was just like sweet relief to them. They were just all really sad that they couldn’t see each other, they couldn’t see me.
DAN: Would you teach an online course the same way again? Or would you make changes?
LIZA: Well I know this is not the question, but I would do anything not to teach an online creative writing course ever again.
DAN: Sometimes, it’s not the question that’s important — It’s the answer that’s on point.
LIZA: Yes. I would do things differently. You know, this is a time problem. Nobody has any time including the students. But I would do much more required one-on-one conversations with them, like, like we’re having right now. I just didn’t do that. I didn’t have time to. Sometimes a student would request it — one in particular who was really gun-ho — so I would require that of students rather than just make it optional.
DAN: When we spoke before, you said about online workshops, “I am not a convert.” I think I know the answer, but have you been converted now?
LIZA: No. One of my colleagues called me on the telephone with this great plan she had to start an online MFA, Master of Fine Arts, program because there’s not one nearby and it would be all online and that was unique and would draw, probably, more people than if they had to actually show up. And I said, “No. I am not interested.” And she was shocked. She thought, oh, I would go for this because I’d want to stay home, and teach in my pajamas, and… no.
DAN: Not the way you see it happening.
I am wondering about the long term impacts of this year of teaching tenuously. Many educators have been forced to learn new technology and adapt their techniques and be innovative. Based on your experience or what you hear from the other faculty, is the sudden pivot to emergency remote learning going to have a long-term impact or is it really just a blip?
LIZA: I, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a blip. One of my colleagues in creative writing taught a hybrid class and he had students from hours away. He seemed pretty enthused about that for the purposes of maintaining the, the MA program in creative writing, getting students to become minors in creative writing. So, and I, and I understand. And he’s about my age, so it’s not like he’s some young whippersnapper with lots of energy. So I think some people will, will kind of embrace the hybrid model.
In terms of non-instructional activities, my department chair said, I think sort of quietly but it sounded like she meant it, she was never going to have department meetings in-person again.
DAN: I would like to take a minute and revisit your role as Associate Dean for Faculty Development. We had touched on this before… is there an impact from the pandemic on faculty, particularly on junior faculty, as far as workload or how they are being evaluated?
LIZA: Both. I mean, I think the junior faculty tend to be more adept at, at technology but they lost, particularly those who have labs and those who travel for research, and those who are mothers and had small children, have small children, some of them lost a year’s worth of research. And I’m hearing about it. Part of this job is also to be Lucy at the psychiatric desk, you know, from Charlie Brown. So, yeah, it was a pretty hard year.
DAN: One final question: when we spoke before, you said that your personal response to emergency remote education was you really missed the table at your writing workshops. I think you meant both the table as metaphor, but also the actual table you would all sit around. I’m wondering, are you still missing the table?
LIZA: Yes, I profoundly miss the table.
DAN: I think there are many people who are looking forward to sharing their table again in the future.
Liza Wieland, author, distinguished professor, associate dean at East Carolina University, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us here on Wired Ivy.
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