Life in Hell: Online Teaching

Photograph Source: Adrian Sampson – CC BY 2.0

I had long heard rumors from academicians about how “online teaching is a nightmare,” “online teaching ruined my life,” “online teaching sucked the brains out of my head,” “online teaching is a new and insidious form of labor degradation,” and the like.

I foolishly tended to write these complaints off as hyperbole, saying “it can’t be that bad.”

No more. I get it now. The COVID-19 era, which turned my formerly in-person adjunct class into an online course, has been instructive.

If anything, by my experience, online teaching is worse than anything I had heard or read. It has been a nightmare.

Online teaching the first time through became a health menace for me this spring. It has been lethal, both mentally and physically, to have been hit with a massive requirement of extra, unpaid online labor, requiring energy I didn’t have for hours and hours of typing, typing, typing, into a computer screen and calling, calling, and calling tech people and internet providers and computer companies on the phone.

Unpaid and extra new online tasks and madness? Oh, indeed:

# Hours researching and ordering a new Dell computer in a (partly failed) effort to be up-to-technical speed for the online transition.

# Hours tracking and calling about the long COVID-era delays in getting the computer-delivered.

# Hours spent in online shopping for and purchasing of a camera for my old computer to have a visual presence until the new one arrived in the spring quarter’s fifth week.

# Hours spent trying to get past online parasites to obtain camera drivers direct from Logitech.

# Hours and hours spent trying to get through instructional videos on the D2L Web-based teaching system, Panopto videos, Zoom, and more.

# Hours and hours spent trying to determine when students are available for online text-based classes.

# Hours and hours typing, typing, and typing responses to students on the bizarre and unwieldy D2L system and via email. (I did finally determine that it was not physically possible to respond to all text comments).

# Hours spent setting up and trying to maintain a Facebook group for the class after D2L participation strangely disappeared early in the class.

# Hours and hours spent typing up and sending out group emails trying to keep geographically scattered, distracted, distant, unresponsive and in some cases traumatized students on board and focused on a “low-priority” class (“just history,” of no special importance).

# Hours spent trying to determine why XXX.edu’s Outlook email system wouldn’t let me download papers from students and what to do about it.

# Hours spent setting up a new Yahoo account specifically for the submission of student papers and sending out the address of the new Yahoo account.

# Hours spent adding and juggling different browsers in accord with the idiosyncrasies of XXX.edu’s software (Internet Explorer “does not support D2L” but Chrome shuts down downloads via XXX.edu’s Outlook email …hence Firefox.)

# Hours and hours spent on the phone with (genuinely nice and smart but often overwhelmed) people at the XXX.edu online help desk and XXX.edu’s instructional technology office (usually with them having to take over my personal computer).

# Hours spent trying to fix my H-P ink-jet printer after a foolish effort to print off students’ papers for grading (I hate reading papers on a computer…it always gives me a headache). (With their glitchy process for registering that you have changed a cartridge. H-P has earned a special new place in the pantheon of corporations I hate on a highly personalized basis.)

# Hours writing comments on papers via Track Changes. (Yes, grading papers is part of the job, but the online method of doing this has been a big time-adder for me. Track Changes is new to me as an editor [though not as a writer] and [for me at least] far more time-consuming than marking and writing with a red pen. It also gave me an intimate new look at how shockingly awful many students’ writing skills are, something that has added considerably to the amount of time I have spent doing comments.)

# Hours and hours spent trying to somehow make Zoom work via XXX.edu (this after my wife and numerous friends told me that private Zoom was “super-hack-able”).

# Hours spent filming Panopto video lectures that were erased until I got the hang of the idiosyncratic process (this had me nearly in tears during the second week).

# Hours spent trying to edit a couple of Panopto videos that had been marred by household and neighborhood noise and interruptions.

# Hours spent taking my computer down to sit outside the (closed) University of Iowa library in effort to hijack its powerful Wi-Fi to upload videos after Zoom (seemed to have) crashed my upload capacity (exactly why that crash occurred in Week 6 is still a mystery).

# Hours spent trying to explain to students how D2L works (as if I really knew).

Especially taxing have been he hours I’ve spent emailing with students like X1, who was angry over the creation of Facebook group for the class and who told me (no joke) that I have no right to comment on his failure to copy-edit his paper because he found a typo in one of my many group emails.

Another good soul-crushing online time-suck was student X2, who handed in a paper brazenly stolen from an online Website (with a few small word changes). He denied his plagiarism and then confessed by saying that “I frankly think that writing papers is a waste of time.”

(I would have reported X2, but I decided not to since I could not stomach yet more time typing, typing, typing into a computer screen, as would have been required if I’d gone to Academic Integrity.)

It gets worse. I have also now spent hours and hours responding to false charges lodged against me online (how else?) by (an) unnamed student(s) and sadly taken seriously by a university dean. One such charge claims that I am “unreachable.” That is nonsense: I have made my XXX.edu email and two of my private emails fully available to all students. I check each one of these email accounts twice daily.

Another bogus charge claims that I gave a bad and punishing grade to a student’s online comment because I disagreed with it. That is sheer nonsense. Online comments have no “grade” in my class. And I have explained again and again to students (and I reiterated my explanation quite clearly in the instance in question) that there is no grading penalty for disagreeing with me or any of my assigned authors – and no grading boost for agreeing with me or my assigned authors. I merely require that students show some meaningful engagement with my arguments and those of my assigned authors.

Another false complaint relayed to me and taken seriously by a dean claims that I told students that they “all write like fifth graders.” Nope: I said I would no longer read papers handed in without students having first done an elementary copy-edit. I sent a few papers back to students, asking them to use the editing function in Word and suggesting that they read their first drafts aloud to themselves. I recommended the university’s first-rate Writing Center as a student resource and I added a few specific comments on things like punctuation and paragraph breaks.

I had to explain all this in a long email to the academic authorities, who took the charges seriously because the Dean of Students took them seriously. In a recent email, I asked if any student or the dean had provided any actual evidence for their charges. The response: crickets.

There is no extra pay for the time spent responding to absurd charges, just as there is no extra pay for the endless hours I’ve spent trying to work with the instructional technology, the tech staff, computer and printer companies, and so on.

Online teaching for me has been a bad dream, even more base and cruel than what I had heard. I would only wish it on my very worst enemies.

Three things have made it especially horrific in my experience this spring:

(1) The inherent awfulness of online teaching has been significantly exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, which has made coordination exceedingly difficult and has all kinds of collateral consequences.

(2) I already spend a lot of time on a computer due to my ongoing writing career. The last thing a writer wants is another job that involves hours and hours and hours of typing, typing, typing into a computer screen. Give me a janitorial position before that!

(3) As a teacher I am employed as an adjunct, paid per course, not by the hour. Prior to the online transition, the hourly rate was decent. With the extra work involved in Covid-era online instruction, it is more like sweatshop labor. By my best guess, the labor time has at the very least doubled (it may have tripled in my case). Along the way, the work requirements have interfered with the other paid work I do, which now earns at a higher hourly rate (it did not before).

As Daniel Falcone writes, paraphrasing the political scientist Stephen Zunes, “the work has doubled and the rewards have been diminished.” And, I would respectfully add, the harassment and abuse have escalated.

I’ve been searching through my long employment record trying to recall a worse occupational experience: my second job ever, as an 18-year-old dishwasher in a diner (Augie’s) on Chicago’s North Clark St. The dishes and silverware and plates piled up endlessly, far beyond my capacity to load and wash them. Every ten minutes or so, the restaurant’s Greek owner would come back and yell at me. This went on for weeks until one Friday night, when it was especially bad, I just put my coat on and walked out the back door into a black alley and never returned. I sacrificed two week’s pay and it was worth it.

Walking out of an online curse (I am going to leave that typo – this course is a curse) is not an option: students are depending on a grade for this quarter and their folks have paid (absurdly) big tuition, so I will stick it out.

Thank God it is almost over – the nightmare ends in two weeks and I have some serious and relevant intellectual and political work to do full time when it does. We are living and dying, after all, under a new American and global neo-fascism in a period of dire capitalogenic epidemiological, ecological, and economic crisis. This no freaking time to be spending hours online and on the phone trying to make yet another idiosyncratic XXX.edu program work, trying to rally alienated students who have other priorities, and arguing with people who think it is authoritarian bullying to want college-level students to edit their papers and write complete sentences that end with a period instead of a comma.

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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