Charlesgate Professor Faces Challenges Going Virtual

As people all over the city adjust to virtual meetings for a gamut of events that would typically be held in person, college professors have to adapt their lectures and lesson plans to students who are not only no longer together in the classroom, but are now spread out across the globe.

One such professor is Parker James, a Charlesgate resident and a history professor at Brandeis University. “I have had to adapt to Zoom,” James said, referencing the videoconferencing program. James currently teaches a course called East Asia in the Modern World, which is a survey of northeast Asia (and some of southeast Asia) from about 1600 to present day.

“Brandeis made the switch [to online] very quickly,” he said, and he was expected to immediately go online without ever having done it before.

He said that aside from the technical challenges creating online lectures brings, he has 106 students spread across 12 time zones. That means it would be impossible for him to do a live lecture at regular class time, so he has no choice but to prerecord his lectures.

This has come with its own set of challenges. James said that Brandeis recommends uploading prerecorded lectures to its cloud, which he said takes 72 hours and would set him too far behind. “I have stopped uploading to the cloud,” he said. Instead he sends it out over Google Drive to his students.

However, since he has 70 students in the People’s Republic of China, Google does not pass over the firewall there and students are unable to access the drive. So he has asked students to download a VPN software, which he said has been working so far.

“Two hours of prep has turned into a day of prep,” James said. He said that the fact that the lectures are all recorded have caused anxiety and self doubt, especially since this is the first time in his 18 years of teaching that he has ever recorded and listened to one of his own lectures. He said he doesn’t like the sound of his recorded voice, nor does he like cameras, but he’s willing to face both for the good of his students.

His students are able to follow along with his PowerPoint on Zoom as he delivers the lecture, so they aren’t focused on his face the entire time.

“I’m probably my harshest critic,” he said. “I just miss my students so much and thank those who write back to me.” He said he tries to make his lectures entertaining, and even though it’s a big class, he cares about each of his students and said it means so much to hear from them during this crisis.

When everyone is in the classroom, he typically has review sessions after lectures and then gives exams. After going online, he said, the assignments are to watch the prerecorded lectures, as well as some free movies pertinent to the topics that are available on YouTube. The way a classroom works has to be modified to fit all of the challenges that this virus has created within the world of education.

“There’s no way of monitoring whether they’re actually doing it,” he said, but he hopes to possibly have an essay prompt at the end of the semester that is weighted towards the lectures.

Previously, James said that teaching was the easiest thing in his life, as he is also a member of the Charlesgate Alliance and has been putting in a lot of effort with the organization. He’s also working on a book project with a writing partner, but now much of his focus has shifted to his class. “Teaching has waxed,” he said, and is now the biggest and most time consuming thing in his life.

But James said that hearing from his students creates pockets of happiness in an otherwise uncertain time. “It just means so much,” he said. 

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