Teaching during a Global Pandemic
By Jacqueline Jackson '22
Professor Rings sits in the basement of his house in Downtown Tacoma explaining the difference between being online versus in the classroom during a global pandemic.
The room is more dimly lit and quiet than a classroom, and the discussion feels homey. There was no hum of a projector or the fan of the computer or students rustling around in their backpacks or eating whatever it is they bought at the Lute Cafe before class.
Professor Mike Rings is a Resident Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Pacific Lutheran University. He started at PLU in the Fall of 2015 teaching Writing 101 and then became a Visiting Professor in the Philosophy Department the following semester (Spring 2016). Professor Rings has been teaching since he was in graduate school at Indiana University in 2005. He received his PhD in philosophy from Indiana University. During Fall 2020, he taught three classes —A writing course on “Pop Philosophy,” a philosophy courses on “Ethics and the Good Life” and an International Honors course on “Empire, Agency, and the Arts.”
Since the transition to online learning, Professor Rings has found that “it is nice to be able to share a lot of images and videos and audio in an interactive way… I really like that. There are some of the tools that are cool about Sakai.” Sakai has allowed professors to communicate with students about what will be happening in class over the course of the semester and also allows us to submit assignments during this pandemic. Dr. Rings’ main Sakai tool is the Forums tab, which allows students to interact with each other and answer questions or responses, allowing him to interact more with his students and create more of a discussion. However, Professor Rings does explain that “it is really hard [online] because my classes are all discussion based. A lot of it is built around having face to face discussions with students in the classroom, not just me, but they discuss with each other.” Professor Rings feels that during full class discussions on Zoom, the students are talking to him rather than to each other, whereas in breakout rooms they talk to each other more.
Furthermore, instead of meeting with classes multiple times a week as he would in person, Professor Rings decided that meeting with classes over Zoom once a week was best. However, being on Zoom does not allow Professor Rings to gauge student engagement: “It’s difficult to know if I am reaching students or not. I am not sure how students are doing.” While educators can never know everything about how students are processing, Dr. Rings explains that in the classroom, it is easier to evaluate because he can physically see students facial expressions or by their body language. The feedback on Zoom is not as conclusive. Rings also admits that “[Zoom] is an exhausting mode of interaction” because he feels he has to be “extra animated” compared to in the classroom. He has found it to be harder to carry the energy in the class while being online.
One of PLU’s biggest selling points is the small class size, so students can interact with professors more easily and more personally. Rings explains how it is different building relationships with students and among students online: “I use the breakout rooms a lot in Zoom so people are in smaller groups and I occasionally chime in and visit those smaller groups.” He tries to keep his schedule pretty open so his students can contact him whenever they need help. He has gotten rid of his regular office hours, keeping an “open door” so students can make appointments with him at any time.
In spring 2020, classes jumped online suddenly with little time to prepare for the rest of the semester, whereas in fall 2020, professors had more time to prepare and figure out what would be the best way to teach classes online. Dr. Rings explained that in fall, he uses an online forum through Sakai, and students have to answer at least three other posts along with his regular assignments and readings and the weekly Zoom meeting. He makes video lectures that students can watch on their own, and now when he gets together with his classes, he makes it as interactive as possible.
After talking about what classes look like online versus in person, I asked Professor Rings what he tries to do to minimize screen time, as well as his ways of getting breaks when everything professors and students have to do is online. He learned during the pandemic experience that he pushes himself and works more: “I can work even more than I used to. I can focus more on my work.” Dr. Rings used to prefer working in a coffee shop and now he cannot. He believed coffee shops made things go faster and were easier to get through because of being out in the world with people instead of being confined to the four walls of his office: “I found my limits pushed and my habits pushed.” Dr. Rings talks about how he remains active by going for runs with his partner and keeps his mind focused by playing music at the end of the day. He says that “we still have been getting out for runs.” He lives close to Downtown Tacoma so he and his partner get to run through downtown and by the Museum of Glass which gives a nice change of pace and is fun. He and his partner have also been doing a lot of yard work with their son, Felix. Professor Rings discusses how he listens to music a lot and when he gets the chance he plays music to “keep myself sane [and] mentally healthy.”
While talking with Professor Rings, the hominess makes him seem relaxed. Without the bright lights and the loud background noise, he seems at peace while we reminisce about my own experience in his class. He is comfortable with his online classes, responding to all that is going on, but always with a big smile on his face.