My New Normal: With My Students Scattered, Engaging Them is a New Challenge

A creative writing professor looks out of his home office's window.
"The most vital moments in my creative writing courses are when my students push past any classroom awkwardness to a level of true empathy," wrote Jerrod Schwarz, who teaches creative writing from his home office due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Jerrod Schwarz, 28, is an adjunct professor at the University of Tampa in Florida. He teaches creative writing and edits poetry for Driftwood Press.

The class sat in silence. Tissues were being passed around, and I held in my own tears. We had just listened to one of my Poetry Writing One students read her poem out loud, and we were still reeling from the details: a mother fighting illness, a father missing and a child learning the stark truths of an empty refrigerator. 

It was only the second week of classes at the University of Tampa, but we were already witness to a host of difficult and challenging topics that students rarely get to share in an official college setting. 

The most vital moments in my creative writing courses are when my students push past any classroom awkwardness to a level of true empathy. Empathy makes students engage with a piece of creative writing on a whole new level. What may have been a dry and technical concept during a lecture becomes a tool in expressing trauma, in crafting complex expressions of pain and growth. 

These shared experiences are often cumulative as well. I assign more challenging writing prompts as the semester continues, with the assurance that helping each other evolve as writers will compel stronger and stronger work.

COVID-19 has changed this semester in a profound way. Instead of writing on a board, I upload lectures to YouTube. Instead of talking through a concept, we email about it. What was once a vibrant workshop of 15 students has now become a much more intimate one-on-one peer review with students randomly assigned into partners each week. Simply, there is more silence now. 

Like any pivotal moment in history, there are the rain clouds and, at minimum, the hope of silver linings. The rain clouds are battling my own anxiety while recording lectures from home. Is the mic working properly? Are my PowerPoint slides succinct but informative? Do I sound engaging and focused, or can they tell I’ve been checking the latest death tolls? Rain clouds are knowing my students are travelling back to problematic households. Rain clouds are giving second, third, and fourth chances because turning in an assignment an hour late feels like the least of anybody’s problems. 

It’s easy to settle into these clouds, to resign the semester and my own teaching goals by thinking Nobody expects perfection, right? Most of the students took the class as an elective, anyway. Even with a career as fulfilling as teaching, maintaining enthusiasm has been one of the hardest battles of my quarantine. 

Meshing my home life and job adds to my anxieties. Trying to communicate the idea of illness to my toddlers who just want to visit their grandmother, being emotionally available for my wife after some of her toughest nursing shifts to date and trying to maintain contact with vulnerable friends and family. I can feel these important responsibilities whittle away at my teaching focus. 

A family of four set up for a family portrait in their front yard.
Jerrod and his wife, Seneca, carry their three-year-old daughter, Emerson. Emerson’s twin, Briar, watches. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

As I felt this drain, I turned to reading. For the past few weeks, I’ve been drawn to writers who lived during periods of isolation like the one we are experiencing now. Emily Dickinson secluded in her home, a genius poet writing her profound, existential poems on the back of envelopes. Sylvia Plath churning out new work from her hospital bed. Soren Kierkegaard furiously penning a new branch of philosophy amid the diseases claiming his family members one by one. 

COVID-19 has forced all educators to give up aspects of our classroom, and I think we would all admit these losses still echo through our teaching goals. However, the silver lining of my own isolation has been in letting my students write like Dickinson and Plath and Kierkegaard: to exist fully within this global moment of separation and transform my class to meet these new expectations. 

For this reason, I’ve chosen not to recreate a shoddy clone of my class through Zoom. I’ve chosen not to expect students to peer review each other with the same intensity or camaraderie. Instead, we are reading more. We’re writing more. I am crafting assignments with the expectation of solitude, not with the vain hope of recreating an in-person experience. And it’s starting to work. Students are drafting poems and stories and essays that are more intimate, quieter, and just as complex as any of their work before quarantine. 

As our cumulative seclusion continues, I expect more hiccups, more unforeseen challenges to teaching long distance. In the past two weeks, however, I feel renewed in the knowledge that teaching in a time of pandemic does not have to perfectly mirror a classroom. 

We may not be passing around tissues in person anymore, but right now it’s enough to know my students are filling their loneliness with work that accepts our global isolation, that pushes them to exist within seclusion and find the art inside.