Saving connection

We were going over verb tenses when the internet dropped. My wife was in the office that two months ago was just our bedroom. She said her connection also quit.

I tried an alternate Wi-Fi address — the "booster" sitting on our fridge, another recent addition to our home office — but it wasn't registering. After realizing my laptop had no ethernet port, I put it in a backpack and hurried down to the car. The plan now was to get to campus, where I hoped there was a connection.

Randomly losing internet as a teacher during a livestream lecture is the equivalent of suddenly being beamed up out of the classroom. I figured the students had shrugged and, as I would have done, headed for the virtual door.

Throughout my seven years of community college teaching, I have made it a point to avoid teaching online. The classroom energy is one of the best parts of my job. But when the coronavirus struck, I found myself suddenly shifting to this other world.

A nearby yipping dog quickly taught me that our forested campus had been a sound sanctuary. As sociology professor Anabel Quan-Haase recently pointed out on OPB, videos of toddlers or pets sauntering into office meetings once went viral. They're now commonplace. Sound and sight intrusion reflects the dissolution of private and public life challenging online educators, as well as students, everywhere.

The empty campus that afternoon was surprising. I'd not been ready for the missing tables in the commons, where students used to sit and chat by the tall windows.

I had not been to my office in a couple months. Besides a fresh coat of paint, it felt mostly the same. I jumped back online.

There had been no mass exodus out the digital door — students had hung on. Class resumed.

Despite its challenges, there are some things about teaching online to be thankful for. One is the internet itself. Until losing it, I hadn't realized how much of a lifeline it has become, giving us a mode of interfacing unthinkable throughout most of history.

The chat box in Zoom is another space where teaching has been enhanced: students can comment, provide links, broaden the conversation. Recordings of classes allow for the flexibility to take care of a child or pick up a work shift.

Discussing time travel in my teen and children's literature course has been a respite from the onslaught of dour news. In composition, we not only talk verbs, but also about the proliferation of videos showing animals seemingly re-wilding towns and cities, the arrival of a meditating Barbie and other offbeat essays that allow us to examine the age old art of rhetoric. Despite occurring in little digital squares, the discussions continue.

Leaving campus, I thought about what else I'd taken for granted: adjusting window shades and the scratch of pen on paper. The scent of dry erase marker, and the voices of colleagues in the hallway.

But the fact that students are logging on, reading and reflecting, grinding out and revising essays, should inspire us all. We've Band-Aided the community with duct tape and wires. I wish I could be in the room clapping while they walk across the graduation stage. Instead, I will clap along in my room, hoping the connection stays strong.

Paul Lask is a writing instructor and adjunct faculty at Oregon Coast Community College. His essay, “Coring the Forest,” was awarded a first place award in the Health & Science category (small publications) from the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2019. He's published work in Willamette Week, Travel Oregon and Fail Better magazine.