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By Jonathan Zimmerman
On the first night of the Democrats’ 2020 convention, the host Eva Longoria acknowledged the obvious: “We had hoped to gather in one place.” So had the Republicans, of course, who likewise shifted their convention to a mostly virtual format because of the coronavirus. And so did you, if you’re teaching at one of the thousands of colleges that have moved classes online for the fall.
Until very recently, many of us expected to return to our physical classrooms at least part of the time during the new semester. Now that most of us can’t, what can we learn about teaching from this summer’s virtual political conventions?
If you think that’s a ridiculous question, I understand why. Conventions are akin to propaganda — not to education — and aim to inspire the faithful and persuade the fence-sitters, rather than to challenge, inquire, and teach. But if you watched carefully, you could nevertheless pick up a few lessons — perhaps especially on what not to do — that might help you improve your own online teaching.
Lesson 1: If you plan to give lectures, record them beforehand. President Trump mocked taped speeches by Michelle Obama and others at the Democratic convention, promising that more of the GOP’s addresses would be live. And so they were. But without live audiences, it didn’t make much of a difference. When we lecture in class, we rely upon our students’ facial expressions, body language, and other reactions to energize the room. None of that comes across in a live lecture on Zoom, and you can control the quality of a lecture much better if you’re recording it.
Lesson 2: When you record lectures, don’t pretend you’re speaking in front of a crowd. That’s what the GOP’s Kimberly Guilfoyle seemed to do, in the most widely ridiculed speech of either convention. Shouting at the top of her lungs for six ear-shattering minutes, the former Fox News host appeared to be conjuring the roar of the audience. Try to do that, and you may well end up a meme. Your students will cancel you (and your class) faster than you can say “drop-add date.”
Lesson 3: Don’t go to the other extreme and pretend there’s no audience at all. In a study of contrasts, Guilfoyle’s boyfriend, Donald Trump Jr., was lethargic, glassy-eyed, and detached. In short, he was boring. The goal, for all of us, should be somewhere in between: Try to be accessible but not agitated, connected but not contrived. You don’t need to act like a carnival barker or a megachurch minister, but you do need to seem like you care. If you don’t, nobody in your class will, either.
Lesson 4: Try to prerecord other activities, too. One of the most popular innovations this year was the Democrats’ virtual roll call, including a Rhode Island party chairman who announced his state’s delegate votes while standing next to a plate of calamari. Suddenly everyone was chatting on social media about Rhode Island’s “official appetizer” (yes, it really is) and the chef displaying the dish, who was clad in a black face mask and a cook’s coat and cap. By comparison, the Republicans’ “live” roll call from Charlotte was deadly dull. So if students are presenting to the class, for example, consider asking them to record their talks beforehand, instead of speaking live. With more time — and more digital tools at their disposal — they’ll engage “the audience” better than they would if they were simply talking synchronously on Zoom.
Lesson 5: Vary the stylistic menu. Whether live or recorded, too many speakers at both conventions used the same dull format: standing stiffly at a lectern, eyes straight ahead. (The echoes in the empty auditoriums didn’t help, either.) Michelle Obama’s speech won plaudits, in part, because it used multiple camera angles; ditto for Jill Biden’s talk from a school classroom, which diverged from the dull venues of most other speeches. So try to spice up your own visuals. Change your speaking position and your backgrounds (virtual or real) whenever you can. Err on the side of less formal. It will make a difference.
Lesson 6: Try to build in other surprises, as well. An online class allows you to control content, pace, and style. But that also means it can descend into robotic predictability, unless you deviate from the routine now and again. Some of the most compelling moments at previous conventions were unscripted: think of Al and Tipper Gore’s kiss in 2000, or Clint Eastwood‘s talking to a chair in 2012 (I’m not suggesting you do either of those in your virtual class). This year’s GOP convention added a few unexpected twists, including President’s Trump’s pardoning of a convicted bank robber and his appearance at a naturalization ceremony for immigrants. Those moments — whatever you think about the ethics of using those people without their knowledge as political props — got people’s attention. Anything that you can do to alter the rhythm of your own virtual classroom will help to keep your students engaged.
Lesson 7: Use humor — but judiciously. Some of the best television came on the last day of the Democratic convention, which was hosted by the actress and comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Even Republicans admitted that they chuckled at her one-liners about President Trump. (“When Donald Trump spoke at his inauguration about ‘American carnage,’ I assumed that was something he was against, not a campaign promise.”) But we can’t all be Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Her repartee with the former presidential candidate Andrew Yang fell flat, because, well, Yang isn’t a professional comic. Odds are, you aren’t either, so if you’re going to try to be funny, do it in small doses.
Lesson 8: Splice in music, art, and other eye/ear candy. John Legend’s and Common’s performance of “Glory” — in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis — stole the show at the Democratic convention. (And I’m not just saying that because Legend is a Penn grad!) Of course, we can’t all be performers. But nothing prevents us from breaking up our classes with images, video clips, and recordings. This much we know: Students would rather look at those things than at you or me.
Lesson 9: Ask how it’s going. Then ask again. During the conventions, the airwaves were full of debate about the online format itself. Are we looking at the future? Or will voters want to return to the old face-to-face ceremonies, after the coronavirus crisis is over? In education, the students are our voters. Keep asking them what’s working in your virtual classroom — and what isn’t — and whether they’d like to come back to the campus classroom once they can.
Lesson 10: Meet informally with your students, when possible. President Trump accepted the Republican nomination before about 1,500 people on the South Lawn of the White House, where they mostly ignored the mask and social-distancing recommendations of his own scientific advisers. But the Democrats’ postconvention party — in a Wilmington parking lot — showed that you can still gather safely, even in large numbers. Some colleges are allowing professors to meet informally with their students, in outdoor settings and other places, and you should jump at that if you can. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for being together.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, which will be published in the fall by the Johns Hopkins University Press.