My 3-year-old son barged in on my first Zoom session | Duke Kunshan University

My 3-year-old son barged in on my first Zoom session

Lindsay Mahon Rathnam’s has been using her children’s playroom as a temporary workspace

By Lindsay Mahon Rathnam
Assistant professor of political theory

I officially started at DKU in January, so I was only three weeks into DKU life when the coronavirus situation erupted. I’d been teaching Fundamental Questions of Social Science (FQSS) with Lincoln Rathnam (my husband) and Philip Santoso.

My husband and I were standing in the arrivals terminal of Osaka airport when we got the email about DKU moving classes online, trying to keep our 3-year-old son Peter from running wild; he’d been cooped up indoors for much of the past week and had energy to burn. I was definitely distracted!

Initially, I felt relieved we didn’t need to cancel Session 3. I’d just spent the past year on maternity leave with my youngest son, Edward. I was so happy to be back at work and was really enjoying my work in FQSS with my wonderful students. It wasn’t until later, when I wasn’t chasing after two small children, that I had time to reflect on the logistical challenges we faced.

I’ve had no previous experience teaching online, so it’s new to me. It’s exciting that I get to learn something along with my students. I’ve definitely had to ask for their patience as we try to figure things out – redesigning a course that’s already underway has felt at times like building a plane in mid-air. But everyone has seemed pretty game for the challenge.

I’ve been lucky to have such great colleagues. Actually, teaching with my spouse has probably been an advantage during all this upheaval – we’ve been able to discuss FQSS when we’ve been sitting in an airport terminal, driving in the car, after we put the kids to bed, etc. No navigating time zones or playing email tag! Our kids are sick of hearing about it. “Stop talking about that,” Peter demanded the last time we tried to talk about our course at the dinner table. (Sorry, kiddo. You’re out of luck.)

There’s been some definite advantages to teaching online. We’ve moved much of our class discussion onto online forums, which has the advantage of giving students more time to reflect and engage with one another. And because traditional seminar formats can privilege more extroverted students, online teaching can be much more inclusive. Online forums give everyone a chance to be heard and participate.

I have to confess, too, that I like the glimpse into people’s lives that we get from online teaching. For example, I love it when a pet joins in on our Zoom session, and I can see a dog or cat following along as I try to explain some feature of Hobbes’ state of nature.

Still, I find I miss the classroom environment. I usually try to read students’ body language and facial expressions when I teach – it helps me gauge their understanding of the material. That’s harder to do online. We have a couple of different methods for trying to re-create the classroom experience. FQSS has one weekly plenary lecture and three small discussion sessions. We pre-record the main lecture and post it on the Sakai learning platform, and that seems to be working fine, although you can hear my 1-year-old, Edward, babbling in the background of a recent lecture if you listen carefully. (I like to think he’s trying to help teach.)

Our live Zoom sessions allow us to have personal interaction with students. I’m proud of how engaged they are. Across time zones and continents, and sometimes dodgy internet connections, they are still committed, present and ready to go. Everyone has remained dedicated, which is just amazing.

But when you’re teaching outside the classroom, life happens: Peter barged into my very first Zoom session. We’d put him to bed before class began at 8pm here in Durham, North Carolina, and my mother-in-law was watching Edward. My husband and I co-teach, and our Zoom sessions are scheduled for the same time, right in the middle of our kids’ bedtime. Peter woke up, couldn’t find anybody, and ran screaming into my room and had to be dragged away by my mother-in-law, who was still trying to watch the baby (who began crying, too, of course). As she dragged Peter away, he yelled out “BUT MOMMY, I LOOOOOVE YOUUUUU!”

I was a bit flustered, I’m not going to lie. That doesn’t happen on campus.