Teaching in person

by Harry on December 9, 2020

Here’s a piece by Deborah Parker at Inside Higher Education which describes what it has been like for her teaching in-person this semester. My experience has been almost exactly like hers, the main exceptions being that nobody spoke in Italian in my classes, and that attendance was close to perfect.

Speaking for myself here: teaching in-person has been almost completely normal. It turns out, for example, that once you have met in masks two or three times you stop noticing the masks. Sometime in October I bumped into a student with 3 of her friends on a walk and we had an extended conversation for about 20 minutes. Afterward I realised I had no idea whether she, or her friends, had been wearing masks (I was, but they didn’t have to be) — later she told me that she and one friend were maskless and the other two were masked, but honestly I had no idea. It shouldn’t be surprising that sitting at a distance feels normal – there’s a fairly rigorous social norm already of leaving an empty seat between oneself and the next student if one can. [1]

I would say that teaching in a mask is more tiring than normal teaching: I imagine that has something to do with speaking louder, and presumably getting less oxygen. But the teaching I’ve done over zoom has been exhausting, so teaching in a mask is less tiring than the available alternative. And there are many compensations: one gets to move around, share smiles and laughter with the students, hear the ambient noise, and share a sense of camaraderie.

Our protocols ensured that there were plenty of cleaning materials, and students would clean their chairs and desks before class, despite my observation that, given how little in person teaching was happening, the last person to use their desk and chair was… them!

The following passage by Parker addresses what had been my biggest worry about masks and social distance — small group discussions:

Wearing masks does not complicate speaking up in class, much less in a foreign language. I asked my students if they felt masks inhibited their speaking abilities, and every student said no. Sound on Zoom is already compromised since most students use the default computer microphones and speakers. I simply ask them to speak up. Small group activities are also not unduly compromised: students can address one another across the desks. The configuration is not a huddle, but it works.

That’s exactly right. In the first few weeks I would regularly tell students to speak up, but they got better at it pretty fast. And the small group activities worked at least as well as usual: the configuration is not a huddle, but it doesn’t need to be, because the next small group is at least 6 feet away! They had to speak a bit louder than usual to reach others in their group, but the noise each group produced was less problematic than it would usually be for other groups.

I say small group discussions worked at least as well as usual: in fact, I’d say they were even better than usual, and I think that reflects the pent-up energy and total commitment that students brought to the room. Most of my students had only one in-person class (mine) and for some it was their only synchronous class: they were determined to make the most of it. This Washington Post article talked to a couple of my students. For one: ‘this is her only in-person class. Hands down, she said, it is the academic highlight of her fall. Her remote courses often feel like a struggle in figuring out how to teach herself. “I’m not getting what I should out of those,” she said.’ Many have echoed her in saying that the class they took in person was the highlight of their week.[2]

I’ll write separately about how I managed remote attendance (badly at first, better eventually). But the remote option meant that most class sessions saw full attendance and the rest saw nearly full attendance. Basically students only missed class if they were too sick to function.

And they were extremely considerate. Before the semester began, some colleagues expressed concerns about students coming to class with symptoms, and other expressed concerns about having to enforce mask wearing. I confess to being completely bemused by these worries: my expectation was that students wouldn’t come to the room if they had symptoms, and that they would wear thick masks. I was right. Students who I knew were desperate to be in class would email asking to be included on the zoom, explaining that a friend had tested positive or that even though they’d had a negative test they weren’t confident in it because they were tired. One student, among the most enthusiastic to be in person, stayed home one week because her allergies were playing her up and she didn’t want to make classmates anxious. One non-normal feature of the semester is that I have not, once, heard anybody cough, or sneeze, in a classroom. Another, which really helped with the auditory issues, was that nobody brought food — so no crunching or crinkling.

My own choice for teaching in person was based in 3 judgements. First, and most importantly, that the skills I have would produce more learning, probably a lot more learning, in an in-person class than on zoom. Second, that it would be safe for me and the students, and that if there was reason to doubt its safety the administration would shut it down quickly. And third that students needed to be in in-person classes for their own mental wellbeing.[3] I’ve had plenty of evidence to confirm, and none to disconfirm, those judgments.

In particular, numerous students have expressed gratitude for being able to have one in-person class which makes their lives feel a bit more normal, and that this was the class in which they learned the most. I tell them that I’m grateful to them for giving it a go, because, like Professor Parker, I feel good after every class. Here’s how Professor Parker ends her piece:

I don’t know if I’m brave or more dedicated than others, but I’m happier. I feel good after every class. What I do involves some risk, but I’m also always reminded of other workers who face greater risk. And I feel that there is something essential to what I do, as well

[1] This is a norm that, in normal times, I prohibit students from following, but its a norm nonetheless

[2] If you click the link you can see me teaching in mask and a very loud orange sweater which my wife and daughter begged me not to wear that day.

[3] Suppose a student suddenly has a serious mental health issue. How differently will they interact with you about it if they have only seen you in class over zoom than if you have been meeting them in person regularly, and they have frequently hung around with you and a few other students after class?



hix 12.09.20 at 4:12 pm

People are using bad microphones on zoom sounds like a rather bad reason to teach in person: That is a problem that can be fixed easily by throwing very little money compared to the annual budget of a university per student at it.


Harry 12.09.20 at 4:19 pm

“People are using bad microphones on zoom sounds like a rather bad reason to teach in person”
Depends on where you sit. Sure, the university could fix that (though actually fixing it for 25k students is logistically non-trivial). But if it doesn’t, that’s a reason for me, and Professor Parker, to teach in person. But still a much less weighty reason than many others!


Alan White 12.09.20 at 4:53 pm

I’m with you on this Harry–even the best Zoom experiences cannot substitute for the physical presence of others especially for enhancing exchanges and participation. The fact that several countries were able to corral the virus pretty effectively with mask mandates alone also speaks to the probability that carefully managed classroom situations are safe. Best of luck to you and your students.


Sashas 12.09.20 at 8:18 pm

I am very happy to hear your success, Harry, and this post still leaves a very sour taste in my mouth.

I know you and I have had very different experiences with UW administration and policy-making. Your confidence in them (“if there was reason to doubt its safety the administration would shut it down quickly”) is, I believe, misplaced. I’ve stood outside the Witte dormitory and watched the entirety of that outbreak-riddled dorm stream through a single doorway to go get their UW-mandated rations from Gordon Commons next door. Nobody was keeping 6ft distancing because the administration had set up a scenario where nobody could socially distance.

You mention that for most of your students yours was their only in-person class. I believe that you were able to hold your class in person without outbreak at least in part because it was their only one. I think there’s something to be said for giving each student access to one in-person class. I think your first and third judgments are correct.

What I’m seeing is I guess a lack of recognition of privilege. I want us all to be able to teach in person. But I can’t and I won’t advocate for it because systemically the effects would be ruinous. I know you haven’t said we should all teach in person. You haven’t even implied it. You should be able to share your experiences teaching in person during the pandemic–so few of us have had an experience quite like yours. But when your success in this mode feels like it rests on your colleagues’ lack of access to it, I would appreciate if you widened the scope of your report just a little bit and acknowledge that.


Tyler Bickford 12.09.20 at 8:58 pm

“ Constant vigilance is required to include the students on Zoom. At times, they cannot hear the students in class very well. Attendance can be spotty.”

I think this merits more than an aside. My concern has always been that the students making the hard but responsible choice to stay home this semester would also get the worst educational experience. I think in-person can be fine during the pandemic, but I don’t see how hybrid can be better for the students participating from home than all-online. I had a student waking up at 6am in Alaska to take my course in Pittsburgh this fall, and if she were then also having to try to watch me lecture from a stage in a 2000-person capacity music hall…

Also this was a 90-student class. Parker reports one class at 13? I mean yes you can do pretty much anything with 13 students.


hix 12.10.20 at 12:43 am

You won’t find that many people and I’m not one of them (albeit some of those will show up here soon) that will seriously argue a small discussion oriented class would be better on zoom than in person with mask regarding teaching quality. This really comes down to arguing corona risks.

Video conference technology still should get a fair chance to do as good as it can. And in my experiences, often the opposite is the case, creating self-fulfilling prophecies that video conferences are bad and/or that no one wants them. I got an 8 Euro webcam and a so so laptop. That made me the person with the best technical equipment in a couple of videoconferences. Naturally those were difficult.

Students (in rich western nations), as mandated heavy users at this point should have decent equipment, even when they are rather poor and have to pay themselves. Anything else is just irrational.


Harry 12.10.20 at 1:19 am

“What I’m seeing is I guess a lack of recognition of privilege”

My previous post on this said:

“A colleague in the Economics department emailed me after seeing the article saying that, quite apart from admiring the picture of the back of my head, he envied me the in-person experience, and wished that the campus had a physically distance-able space for his 420-person class. The email brought into focus the thought that I’m kind of a free-rider here”

So, yes, I acknowledge my privilege and have felt like a free-rider all semester, for exactly the reason you give.

That said: there was plenty of space on campus for more in-person classes than were actually taught to be safely taught. I was on campus nearly every day in several buildings, and I’d say there was room for at least 3 times as many small in-person classes than we actually taught, and for them to be done safely. And, for educational quality and mental-health-of-students reasons, I wish we had taught more of them. I didn’t want anyone being forced to teach in-person if they had good reason not to, and understand why many colleagues didn’t want to. That said, I regret that some who wanted to teach in person (and some who have talked to me about wanting to teach in person next semester) felt/feel pressure from colleagues not to do so.

It doesn’t follow from the fact that everyone can’t do desirable thing X that no-one should do desirable thing X. We were/are in a situation in which we should do what we can do safely to preserve the quality of the education we provide, and that means, among other thing, optimizing the number of in-person classes. In my view the optimal number in the circumstances is more than we ran. The optimal level next semester would be more than we are going to run, but I deliberately chose not to press for more in-person classes next semester because i) I judged it impossible to make much difference and ii) I think that ensuring more meaningful synchronous learning experiences for students is a more tractable and more urgent problem.


Harry 12.10.20 at 1:28 am

Tyler — at Madison all classes over 50 students were online, same next semester, and I think was the right choice. Departments were required to ensure that no student would lose in terms of time-to-degree by taking all online classes, and as far as I know all did so. So there was no need for anyone to remotely take an in-person course. I did enable remote participation for students who were temporarily quarantined/locked down/whatever and did so, in the end, pretty well, but only with a lot of work on my part. Next semester, fortunately, I am teaching 2 sections of the same class, so I’ll have a stand-alone ‘remote session’ for students who can’t be there in-person. It will take me an extra couple of hours a week.

An aside. For some students staying home would not have been a responsible choice. Some of my students are safer, both in terms of COVID, and in terms of their mental health, not being at home.


Harry 12.10.20 at 1:34 am

Hix — thanks for that, I agree with all of it. One thing we’ve been doing here is recording high-quality small discussions on zoom, so that they can be used for professional development. Something I am planning to do next semester is use some of those recordings with students so that they can see what high quality discussion looks like (my students can all do it by the end of the semester, but I want them to learn how to do it earlier!).
A small thing. Before September Madison did not have a zoom license, and our main platform, BBCU, is clunky, and sucks up bandwidth so that students (and faculty) need much better wifi than they actually have to make interactions work. Zoom is much better. Because we have licenses for both, our instructional leadership cannot show a preference for one over the other. Fortunately, I am not an instructional leader, and can tell people to use zoom!


JBL 12.10.20 at 2:23 am

Love the sweater. (Also, owe you a response to your e-mail … guess the fact that I’m writing this comment means I don’t have an excuse of no free time, so perhaps I’ll do it right now :).)


Sashas 12.10.20 at 5:30 am

@Harry Thanks for your response! I appreciate it a lot.


M Caswell 12.10.20 at 12:59 pm

I find this report very useful. May I ask a few questions about “remote participation for students who were temporarily quarantined/locked down”?

About what proportion of students were in this situation, for a given class meeting? By what classroom technology were they participating? That is, was there just a laptop in the room with Zoom open, or was there an external camera (eg, a ‘Meeting Owl’)? Also, was there a board in use in the classroom, and could remote students see it?


Tyler Bickford 12.10.20 at 9:29 pm

Departments were required to ensure that no student would lose in terms of time-to-degree by taking all online classes, and as far as I know all did so. So there was no need for anyone to remotely take an in-person course.

I’m not sure if I’m reading this correctly, but did you guys not have requirements that all classes, including classes like yours that met in-person, also accommodate remote/online students? We had rules about classes over a certain threshold being online, but the rest of the classes were “hyflex”. They were assigned classrooms and instructors were told we had to fully include remote students while also offering in-person options. So even if we had wanted to hold an in-person class with 10 or 20 or 35 or whatever people, there was no possibility that we could do that without finding a way to also try to fully include the remote students. Given that, the only choice that seemed ethical to me was to prioritize the remote students rather than force them into a second-class status.

But I think you’re saying you did not have to include students who wanted to take your class from home?


Harry 12.10.20 at 9:55 pm

You’re welcome Sashas!

M Caswell. Ok, well.

I taught two undergrad classes. One met for 2 75 minute periods twice a week, and had 13 students. The other had 30 students. I think that is too many to have real inclusive discussions, so even before March I asked for 3 75 minute meetings — one in which the whole class of 30 would meet, and 1 each for about half the class — so each student had 1 75 minute session with the whole class and 1 75 minute session with half the class.

For the 13 person class, there was always one person coming in through zoom, and there were normally 2 or 3 — only once was it more than 3.

For the 30 person meeting there was always 1 person on zoom, and normally 3 or 4, and on two occasions more than 4.

For the half-class meetings it was usually 2 or 3.

I knew that the technology wasn’t there to support us doing this well, and was advised not to hybridize. I might have stuck with that, but quite early in September we went online for 2 weeks under pressure from the county exec and, frankly, from some faculty, in response to the rising numbers (which were associated with outside-of-class, not inside-of-class behavior). I didn’t feel that I could tell people to drop the class, and didn’t feel that I could require them to be in the room after that, so I tried many things to accommodate them.

It sounds ridiculous, but what worked best was having all the zooming students on my laptop. During the lecture part of the class (a significant but not large part of the 30 person meetings) I’d lecture to them and the class, and they could hear just fine. During small group discussions they would constitute a small group, and usually they would be the small group I would be listening in/talking to more of the time than any other. The challenge was whole class discussions/report backs, and for that, as you can see in the picture in the Washington Post, I held the laptop facing the in-person students and would walk to each student who was speaking so the computer mic would pick them up. I relied on the in-person students to call on the zoomers (whom, obviously, I couldn’t see). My arms got stronger! Because report-back was cumbersome, in the large, 30-person, class I sometimes just told the zoomers to stay in their small group longer while we did report back without them, and then had them report to the whole class as a finishing event.

This was non-ideal, but ok. As I say above, it is not what I plan to do next semester — I am just going to build in a session a week to have discussions with all the quarantined/lockdown students.

I wouldn’t usually use slides in that size of class, but I would usually use the board quite a bit; it really didn’t work well for the zoomers, so I emailed materials that I wanted them to have to hand (handouts).

One of the great revelations, which has intensified in the 2 weeks we have been online since Thanksgiving is the use of the chat function. The small groups in the larger class, and the large class itself since we’ve been online, use it prolifically, and in a way that combines fantastic intellectual seriousness with wit and humour. Re-reading the captured chat after class is a joy!


M Caswell 12.10.20 at 10:35 pm

Thanks so much for the detailed response.

The upshot for me is two things: 1) an in-person discussion class of 12 distanced students and 1 faculty member, all masked, works fine. 2) Hybrid is to be avoided, if possible, especially if live board use is desired.


John Quiggin 12.11.20 at 12:46 am

“Hybrid is to be avoided” This is a general lesson from the pandemic, not limited to teaching. With an in-person meeting, it’s fine to have one or two people connected by Zoom, but with more than that, the remote attendees are just onlookers. And if the meeting is primarily by Zoom, there’s no point in having a subgroup gathered in one place and sharing a screen – even if they are in the same place, they are better off using their own computers to connect.


Harry 12.11.20 at 2:13 am

Yeah, that’s exactly right (John and M Caswell).

As to numbers. With or without masks, on or offline, once the numbers go above 20 it is very hard for me to convene a continuous intellectually productive discussion, especially with freshmen and sophomores. With 15-17 I can basically ensure that everyone does all the reading, comes fully prepared, is fully engaged throughout a 75 minute class. Over 25 and I definitely can’t do that. The 30-person class certainly managed it this semester, but I think that was because i) I split them for half their sessions, ii) about a third of the class already knew one another and iii) being for most of them their only in person class, it was the focal point of their intellectual effort. A depressing comment: “Thanks so much for making discussion based learning still possible during this Covid-19 semester. Was my only class where a professor made an effort to preserve that and I really appreciate it.”


Harry 12.11.20 at 2:19 am

Tyler — yes that’s right. I can’t emphasize enough how little of our teaching was in person — maybe 5% of undergraduate credits (nobody seems to have the figures — indeed, I really don;t think there are figures — but no administrator demurs when I say that). Most of the students I know had nothing in-person, and none had as many as half their credits in-person. So all students could meet their requirements fully online (except, maybe, in nursing — I really don’t think they’ve figured out how to practice inserting catheters through distance learning — and a few other unusual majors). As JQ and MC say, hybrid just seems a mistake, and we believed that from the start.


Felicia Patch 12.14.20 at 10:22 am

Hi Harry, I enjoy your posts on teaching, thanks! I do want to say that everyone who wears masks gets adequate oxygen. Oxygen molecules are ~0.3 nanometers in diameter (van der Waals radius x 2), whereas the coronavirus is 60-140 nanometers. An N95 masks’s pores are about 300 nanometers, or 1000 times the size of an oxygen molecule, and other masks’ pores are larger)—oxygen sails right through. (Fascinatingly, an N95’s effectiveness for filtering viruses doesn’t depend on pore size, exactly—i’ve included a short video link below if you want to learn more.)

As a physician who cares for COVID patients all shift, I do find wearing a mask tiring. N95s are tight and feel like they provide a little resistance to each breath. I’m always grateful to get back to my office and switch back into my surgical mask. I have checked my pulse oximetry for funsies wearing both types of mask, and it’s always normal.

Happy masked teaching!


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