Magazine Reflections

Finding the Bright Side

Ideas for staying positive during challenging times

Winter 2021

Some of my most heartening experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have been while enacting unrehearsed Zoom Shakespeare plays with colleagues and students. I usually experience telepresence events as rather flattened interactions, each of us insulated in our own island-box. But somehow, Shakespeare transcends such constraints. While reading his plays, we forged authentic connections and experienced the range of joy, dread, loss, excitement, surprise, fear, and frustration that Shakespeare’s characters embody.

I found myself laughing—breaking character—while reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream with my Emory students in August. I was pierced by Hamlet’s grief while reading with Emory’s emeritus faculty during a summer colloquium. And as prisons across the United States and United Kingdom are locked down in quarantine, I bonded with other faculty who, like me, teach Shakespeare inside prisons, as we performed Zoom plays together on Saturday evenings. Shakespeare gave us the same emotional liberation that we hope he brings our incarcerated students.

—Sarah Higinbotham, assistant professor of English, Oxford College of Emory University

It’s tempting to think of this school year as different, like, “Maybe next year we’ll go back to normal.” I try to avoid that perspective and instead focus on creating bonds with my students and helping them bond with each other.

In my online classes, I incorporate lots of low-stakes group activities and discussions through Zoom breakout rooms. When given a bit of space to chat with each other, students participate so much more and actually get to communicate, facilitated by having a shared task and goal.

In the fall, I taught one in-person class: a first-year seminar called (Mis)Communication in the Digital Age. In the past, I often gave treats to students: stickers, candy, cookies, doughnuts. But last October, I sewed each student a face mask made out of a pattern related to online communication as their “treat.” We spent the semester discussing online chatting, texting, and emojis, so I wanted them to have a fun (and useful) reminder of our time together.

—Jack Hardy, assistant professor of linguistics, Oxford College of Emory University

Developing and finding community during these troubling times, even if we do not always share the same physical spaces, is a great way to remain optimistic. Connecting with good people who hold similar interests and values yields personal and professional rewards. Twitter, Facebook groups, webinars, and emails are digital tools we can use to reach out and schedule time to talk with colleagues online.

We also hold a responsibility to practice what we preach and make ourselves accessible to our students. We can demonstrate an ethic of care by sending personalized email check-ins and holding one-on-one meetings. In our classes, we can form communities around affinity groups focused on common goals (promoting LGBTQ+ acceptance, for example, or lessening stigmas about mental health) or overcoming common challenges (such as digital fatigue and time management). I am confident and hopeful that bringing students and faculty together to share knowledge and experiences will leverage our collective strengths.

—Brett Ranon Nachman, doctoral candidate, graduate student researcher, and Fairbrother Fellow in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is also a recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities

Image: Jack Hardy shows off face masks, each decorated with a design related to his course material, that he made as “treats” for his students. Image credit: courtesy of Jack Hardy