On Thursday, 12th of March, Colby College students were told they had to leave campus by Sunday at 5 p.m. The week leading to this momentous decision was filled with anxious uncertainty as we kept hearing about other schools sending their students home and, although Maine had at that point only one presumed case of COVID-19, it was clear that soon enough we were going to be affected as well.

Like professors throughout the world, I prepared for remote instruction. It involved first deciding the best way to continue the work of the semester and how to hold classes. I learned a new word, asynchronous, referring to teaching and learning that is not conducted at the same time for the entire group of students. I considered scheduling regular one-on-one meetings to discuss the students’ progress in my research-oriented seminar. In the end, I opted to maintain our synchronous class time because I felt the sense of intellectual community was too important. I moved our Tuesday 7 p.m. class to 7:30 p.m. so it wouldn’t be too early for a student who, having returned to Hong Kong, was 12 hours ahead of us (it also helped her get a bit more sleep on the weeks when she would have to attend at 1 a.m.!). For my other class, a humanities lab in which students worked as a team creating a website for the L.C. Bates museum, synchronous meetings were even more necessary, but required a change in schedule to accommodate a student who was home in Beijing.

The “New Normal”

I think it is safe to say that most of Colby’s faculty had never taught remotely and so before we resumed teaching, the college provided a slew of technological and pedagogical training sessions—all virtual, of course. A friend invited me to a private Facebook group for college and university professors called “Pandemic Pedagogy.” I joined shortly after it was created on March 12th; three months later, the group counts well over 5,000 members. As the campus closed, the Art Department was in the middle of a search for a sabbatical replacement, and so we interviewed the finalists remotely, which contributed to giving me a better sense of how to handle online presentations with images. Before we even resumed classes, the many training sessions, department meetings, and interviews, had made it clear that from now on, the “new normal” meant being at home, in front of my laptop (with my younger vizsla jumping next to me the minute he heard the Zoom ring).

Once I figured out technology and schedule, my classes proceeded pretty much the way they would have had we stayed on campus, with students (in teams or individually) reporting on their research. A very helpful feature of Zoom is the ability to share the screen, which we used for the students’ PowerPoint presentations and for reviewing their work on the L.C. Bates’s website. Although in no way can it replace in-person interactions, Zoom turned out to be a surprisingly effective surrogate. One evening, I had a revealing experience: after about an hour spent in our virtual classroom, we decided to take a quick break. As I got up from the living room couch and walked into my kitchen to get a cup of tea, the house struck me as surprisingly quiet, even empty. For the past hour, I had felt the students had been right here with me!

But Zoom also proved to be exhausting. I soon learned a new phrase and concept: “Zoom fatigue” (just Google it and you’ll find lots of articles on the phenomenon!). Remote instruction also brought along many other challenges. We were at the mercy of technology. Some students had consistently poor reception and one lost the use of her computer camera so she could see us but we couldn’t see her. I realized the paradox of weather’s impact on such advanced technology, when one stormy evening I feared losing power and not being able to hold class.

The kind of social leveling that takes place on a college campus was lost. Some students were stuck at home in the city (often in highly affected areas), while others were in spacious vacation homes. Those sharing quarters with many family members using the Internet at the same time often experienced uneven bandwidth. For all, the use of libraries was limited to ebooks and to articles already digitized (throughout the world, librarians were working from home and couldn’t go back to the library to scan materials). Still, what students managed to achieve was remarkable: as one of my colleagues in Information Technology observed, we couldn’t have done this 10 years ago. From our library’s own digital holdings and subscriptions to digital repositories like JSTOR (which access during the COVID-19 crisis was made free), my students learned to use Academia.edu, a social networking website where academics worldwide (apparently 99 million of them!) make their publications available for free.

In recent years, mental health issues have been consistently on the rise among undergraduates, and several of my students saw their academic performance affected by increased anxiety. One student wrote in her end-of-term reflection that “[t]he quarantine was a huge blow on our spirits.” I must say that Colby handled the situation remarkably well. Immediately following his decision to close the campus, Colby president David Greene announced the creation of an emergency fund to help students return home while also allowing about 100 students to remain on campus (by the end of the academic year, there were still about 70 students on campus and a few are remaining through the summer). Faculty and students received an additional week of vacation so we could prepare for remote instruction. I had expected that staying home would mean plenty of free time, but the learning curve turned out to be very steep. The anxiety we felt in the days leading to the president‘s decision took a serious toll and the two-week hiatus before we resumed classes felt like a time warp. Like other schools, Colby decided to loosen rules during this challenging time, for example, extending the period during which students can elect to take a course on a “Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory” basis (instead of for a grade) while lifting restrictions concerning S/U. Similarly, faculty members being considered for tenure could opt to postpone their review until next year.

Perhaps the students who suffered the most were the seniors. Not only did they leave campus unexpectedly, knowing they were not going to be able to come back for graduation in the foreseeable future, but they were thrown into a world profoundly marred by the pandemic. In her reflection for one of my classes a student wrote: “It has been extremely surreal to have my college experience end so abruptly, be expected to carry-on with school work as normal, while simultaneously forging a future in a world that is so uncertain.” But the challenges bred resiliency and another student noted: “I leave this class, not knowing what lies ahead, but ultimately learning to find satisfaction in what I can accomplish day by day.” Since concluding classes, the college implemented a remarkable initiative, Pay It Northward, rallying its alumni base to provide the graduating class with jobs, internships, fellowships, or other types of opportunities.

Plesch teaching 1

The “new normal” made us see things differently. I started collecting art historical jokes but soon stopped: I couldn’t keep up! Perhaps the most poignant was a take on René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, in which the pipe was replaced by a laptop and the famous “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” revised into “Ceci n’est pas une école”—“This is not a school” (it was a hit when I posted it on the Pandemic Pedagogy group). Museums like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles invited their followers on social media to recreate works of art, and in early May, Artstor posted similar re-creations of famous works of art, but involving dogs. One evening, while teaching the L.C. Bates lab, and listening to presentations on natural history dioramas, it occurred to me that the students appeared in their Zoom boxes in their respective habitat, pretty much like the museum’s animals in their dioramas. We joked about it but we also reached enlightening conclusions, realizing that the concept of virtual reality is central to taxidermy and dioramas while we were actually experiencing it in our daily quarantine lives.

Silver Linings

In the midst of all this unsettling uncertainty, classes took on a new meaning, giving quarantine life some structure and sense of purpose. In particular, the students working at the L.C. Bates website felt their work was more useful than ever. The pride they felt at the thought of contributing to an institution had already been increased when L.C. Bates’s director Deborah Staber reported that visitors with mobility issues were eagerly awaiting the website. And when the museum closed to the public, the project took on an even more urgent meaning. The closing of the L.C. Bates also obliged us to present in virtual form their annual summer exhibition, which, as in the past 11 years, had been curated by two Colby students under my supervision. We included it in the website my class had created, thus allowing people from far away to see the exhibition while also keeping a lasting record of it. Similarly, the Senior Show, with the works of the graduating studio majors, normally held in the Colby College Art museum, scheduled to open in the last week of classes, had to take a virtual form.

As I’m writing this dispatch, we still don’t know what will happen in September. One thing we seem to have learned is that the “new normal“ means accepting uncertainty, and this is not limited to my life as a professor, but also as a scholar. I spent the month of March wondering whether I should keep writing a paper for the conference I was scheduled to attend in April in London (it was finally postponed until next year). Similarly, a lecture in Scotland and conferences in Paris and Luxembourg were either canceled or rescheduled, but only after weeks of indecision. But hey, my London paper is now basically written (how often do you have a conference paper ready a year in advance?). More seriously, as many of the artists’ contributions to this journal show, these challenging times were also rich in lessons. Early on, I realized that my life hadn’t changed much. Living in rural Maine felt like a true blessing. A picture I posted of the countryside outside my home earned me this poignant comment by a colleague who lives in a city: “Your social distancing looks better than mine.” I couldn’t agree more.