Of Chairs and ZoomBombers

by Gavin Doyle

With COVID, much of what I’ve relied on for my teaching—immediate interactions with students, a close community of supportive learners, and hands-on exercises—felt like they’d be lost. 

How was I supposed to teach ACTING over a webcam, for instance? I’ve been unsuccessfully arguing with UWB for years that I needed chairs in the Performance Studio because good scenes and monologues—good theatre—needed to be “grounded” with a sense of place. It can’t always be heads floating in space on an empty stage. 

empty chair on stage.
Empty chair on stage.

And yet, I was now faced with the prospect of teaching an entire class not only without chairs, but without a room. Or any bodies. We were just voices heard through crackling headphones and jagged pictures seen through a screen. It felt like punishment for sins committed in a prior life.

But, yet… we persevered. We adapted. And, more than that, we learned. Working over Zoom, my students stayed engaged and interested in the work. They formed close bonds with their virtual classmates. They were supportive of each other. We did regular check-ins at the start of each class. We did breakout rooms for small group discussions and workshopping. We used shared Google docs to jointly create characters and write monologues with peer support. The students’ weekly journal entries in Canvas showed careful reflection. Things had not fallen apart. 

Sure, it wasn’t perfect. Our first class had Zoombombers, our second class had me kicked out of my own session several times due to poor internet, and much of my “go to” warm-ups were just impossible. Half the students kept their cameras off. Not my preference, but I didn’t want to push it—I’m teaching from by bedroom closet (with my clothes hanging behind me), so I intimately understand their desire to NOT showcase their own bedrooms. 

I can’t say that I’d now voluntarily transition to all-remote Acting classes. But, it was far from a disaster.  I’ve learned new ways of doing things digitally that I will continue after we return to “in-person” teaching. For instance, I routinely have logistical/space problems when I want students to simultaneously work on lines, or show scenes to each other. The problem of how I can have twelve different scenes being practiced in the same classroom is now solved for me—Zoom breakout rooms worked really well.

For my non-performance classes, I’ve been recording mini-lectures, using Canvas discussions, and requiring student blogs—though, with the help of this LC in past years, those are tools I’ve used in the past. And so, they were not as shocking to my system as Zoom has been.

I had plans this quarter for the personal webspace our LC purchased for each of us, but COVID derailed that. Instead of creating a personal site, I used the space to create an online 5th Grade classroom for my son. It was actually a good learning experience for me. I found myself using Wacom tablets and digital whiteboards to explain math concepts, sharing google documents to start “round stories,” and integrating forms to collect quiz answers. And so, while I was not making what I’d originally intended, I was practicing a new digital language.

And, I think, that’s what I’m taking away from this quarter. Things may not have gone to plan. It’s not been a polished draft. But the work has been there, and my vocabulary has expanded. Chairs? We don’t need no stinking chairs. We’ve got the open web.

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