Sweet Technology 12/5/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

The contract offer arrived today from my college, and once again, it contained a surprise. See, for the second semester in a row they are asking me to teach an advanced course (junior or senior level), this time biochemistry. It’s quite a leap going from physical chemistry (this semester) to biochemistry, but the real surprise is that typically these higher level “fun” courses are taught by full-time faculty, leaving the entry level courses for the adjunct faculty like me. Admittedly, I’m far more experienced than most adjunct faculty because I was the only full-time chemistry professor for several decades and I have taught both of these courses several times before whereas most adjunct faculty are just getting started and looking for experience as they wait for a full time faculty offer. I’m more on the back end of my teaching career, but it’s a surprise, nonetheless.

Last year, in the spring semester, I was teaching principles of chemistry and first year chemistry labs, far more common for adjunct faculty. The contract arrival had me thinking about this, and I realized that it was spring semester last year that Covid-19 forced the school to shut down after spring break. That means that we are very nearly one year into the Coronavirus anniversary. For an entire year, we have been fighting this deadly pandemic (some of us more than others). Although I cannot say precisely when Americans first became aware of the problem, its anniversary is very soon based on the academic calendar.

Last year we faced a problem. Many people were still talking about the Covid-19 “hoax” when we started spring break, but I predicted that the students would be gone just long enough, and around other students from across the nation on spring break to return and give the Coronavirus gift to the campus. That was when the first spike hit, the one that shut much of the country down (ironic since the next two spikes would be worse still but not result in a shut-down). In response, my college gave the students and extra day of spring break (if memory serves it was only one day), and then decided all courses would be remote for the remainder of the year. So, suddenly, the chemistry lab that I was teaching had to be done remotely. The scramble was on, and some faculty went to “virtual labs”. These are lab simulators, but I never liked them because they’re little more than directed video games. I used collaboration technology and performed the labs live as the students viewed. The students lost the tactile practice that labs are supposed to provide, but they could see the actual experiment being performed, take notes accordingly, see when something fails (yes, even for professors things don’t always work well) and get the sense that it was more than a game.

This technology is more important, though, than just for classrooms. As I write this, my soon-to-be ex-roommate (as I anticipate moving into my new house in a matter of days) is on a Zoom call with his mother (I believe) in the other room. His daughter spoke with her mother via video conference on Thanksgiving. My friend speaks with her family and children with this same technology routinely.

When I think about this technology, it makes me wonder what it must have been like during, say, the plague. Even in the Swine Flu breakout, people could at least speak live on the phone, surely a step down from today but still allows for real-time conversations. But when people were afraid to travel for fear of happening upon an infected community, they were truly isolated. I think about my friends and how they would fair without this videoconferencing technology.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no substitute for the loving embraced of a hug, but what if you couldn’t see them either, or speak with them? This isolation has been challenging, and even as we relax our standards of isolation (perhaps unwisely), many are still having far smaller gatherings than they used to, keeping a distance on visiting, and even wary when shopping. When I lived in New York City, I realized that I could never really relax outside of the apartment because I always had to be aware of the dangers around me, and even had a man start following me one night. You just always had to be vigilant, and for a year, we have all had to be vigilant. Maybe as we approach the anniversary it’s the wrong time to say this, but frankly, I’m grateful for the technology to see and hear our loved ones real-time.

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