UC Berkeley professor: How I’m teaching ‘Ethics in the Age of Trump’ course online during the coronavirus crisis

What changed? How are his students reacting? It’s all in this post by Kirp, a former journalist and member of President Barack Obama’s 2008 transition team.

By David Kirp

On March 9, Berkeley suspended in-person classes. One day later, I was teaching online. It is hard to overstate how overwhelmed and underprepared I felt.

I’m about as far from being a techie as you can imagine, and the way I teach made the change seem especially daunting. Socrates lives; I conduct my undergraduate class at Berkeley largely as a discussion among 80 students. I communicate the rules of the road on the first day of the semester — come to class having done the reading and prepared to talk — and the class has bought in.

Here’s how I conduct the class: I pose a question and a sea of hands emerges. I look for a student who has not participated much during the term, and a back-and-forth exchange ensues. More hands pop up, students with differing views. The exchange shifts from student-professor to student-student, and perhaps another classmate joins in. Sometimes I cold-call students whose facial expressions show that they are intently following the conversation. If students congregate after leaving the classroom to continue the discussion, I feel that I’ve done my job.

Can I transform this way of teaching into an online experience?

The course that I am teaching, “Ethics in the Age of Trump,” adds another complication. While you’d be pardoned for thinking that the title of the course is a self-canceling phrase, the past three years have given an ethics and public policy instructor an embarrassment of riches to teach, from lying to corruption, racism to xenophobia and, lastly, the possible threat to democracy.

In December, I rewrote large chunks of the syllabus in anticipation of the impeachment trial of President Trump, in which the House voted to impeach him for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. While it is barely two months since the Senate acquitted the president, impeachment has receded into hazy memory, and the coronavirus pandemic that rules our lives has also taken over the course.

The ethical issues are daunting and devilishly difficult: When medical supplies are short, how should they be rationed? How should the balance be struck between the economy and public health (and is that the right way to ask the question)? Should we adopt China’s approach to curbing the pandemic or opt for Sweden’s laissez faire strategy?

After some hand-holding by a patient IT staffer, I am ready to take the wheel.

Here’s how the online class goes: I pose a question and Zoom “hands” pop up on the screen. In lieu of the customary one-on-one exchanges, I collect several students’ responses to a question, weaving a response before asking another question.

No technology has the capacity to capture the bursts of energy and the “aha!” moments that a lively classroom discussion can generate. As one student emailed me, “It’s much more difficult to capture the immediacy or urgency of a raised hand on Zoom than it is in person, where someone can raise his/her hand at the spur of the moment and flail it around to get the instructor’s attention.”

Instead, I call on the students in the order they raise their hands, and while some think that’s fairer — no more “flailing” — it is inevitably strained. As one student wrote, “We have been having fewer discussions than we usually did in class. For me, it stems from not being able to ‘read the room.’ When we are talking about a topic like race and discrimination, it’s hard to jump in without reading how people may respond.”

Some aspects of teaching work better with Zoom. I can elicit differences of opinion by polling the students, then connect students with differing views. Instead of having to move chairs around, I can create breakout rooms with a single key stroke. I use that feature a lot, because some students have an easier time talking among a half dozen of their classmates; when we come together, the groups report back.

Initially, I hated this way of teaching — the virtual hands, the miniature heads popping up on my laptop screen, the contrived exchanges — but I’m surprised at how rapidly it has become my standard operating procedure. The students, who live much of their lives on line, have generally had an easier time making the adjustment.

“We have all adapted so quickly and completely changed our lives,” one student emailed me, when I asked members of the class to describe their reaction to the revamped course. “Before this, if you asked anyone to change their life completely in a matter of days, they would say it was impossible. In a sense, we are doing the impossible — that shows us how resilient we really are as students, as teachers, as citizens.”

Another student called it “a testament to the power of trust, collaboration, and social solidarity in times of crisis.”

My office hours used to be sparsely attended. Now they are online, and though I have doubled the number of hours I am available for these one-on-one conversations they are fully booked. Sometimes the conversation focuses on what we have discussed in class. But often these talks center on personal matters, as I have become their counselor as well as their professor.

In an instant, these undergraduates have had their lives turned upside down — obliged to move, having to figure out how to return home, struggling to make ends meet without the part-time jobs many of them rely on.

They talk about the difficulties of living with their families, where they are treated as if they were still in high school. They are passing the time, taking up gaming again or painting their bedroom. I hear a lot about feeling lonely and adrift: “I miss my friends, I miss walking to classes, I miss the Cal community. This crisis has made me realize how important social face-to-face interaction is for my lifestyle and happiness.”

As socially conscious citizens, these students appreciate how incredibly fortunate they are to have a home to return to, health insurance to rely on and a decent Internet connection that makes virtual bonding possible. Berkeley has more than its share of low-income students — about a third of the undergraduates have Pell grants, which are awarded to youth from poor and working class families — and my students worry about classmates who aren’t living middle-class lives.

It seems likely that I’ll be back in the classroom next spring, teaching “Ethics in the Age of … Who Knows Whom.” I’ll say farewell to Zoom, newly aware of what I have taken for granted about the power of the classroom experience.

But this online semester has taught me the value of being the adult in the room, inviting conversations that venture beyond the syllabus, and I hope I remember that lesson.

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