My Zero-Minute Commute to Zoom University
“The biggest obstacle to our collective learning is the elephant in the room: a global pandemic, taking place amid existing inequalities,” writes Drew Pendergrass ’20.
During my first semester of college, I slept roughly 150 feet from my 10:30 a.m. humanities lecture. Drunk on my newfound freedom, I wanted to set my alarm as late as possible. At first, since I was used to driving to high school, I went for a conservative 9:30, leaving plenty of time for a shower and a quick breakfast. As I adapted to new habits of late-night problem sets, the alarm was pushed back to 10:00, then to 10:15. I realized the tautological efficiencies of procrastination: the less time you leave yourself to spend on something, the less time you spend on it. By week five or so, and with great self-satisfaction, I set my alarm for 10:30. This was during the age of Harvard time, so I had seven minutes to throw off my covers, rapidly assemble the day’s outfit, and quickly dunk my head in water to at least flatten my tangled hair. Somehow, I was never late.
As I grew used to the freedoms of college, I realized that this schedule was actually miserable, and that because you can get from bed to class in seven minutes flat doesn’t mean you should. It’s nice to have breakfast! More importantly, I had become caffeine-dependent, and a morning cup of coffee requires a slightly more elaborate and time-consuming ritual—though some of my friends solved this by eating a few spoonsful of instant coffee. I resolved to change my ways. Like Pascal, who went through the outward motions of attending Mass until he transformed himself into a true believer, I kept setting my alarm earlier and earlier until I transformed into a true morning person. Never again would I wake up seven minutes before class.
I tell you this because, just last week, I woke up at 7 a.m. for my 7 a.m. lab class. Never in my wildest freshman-year dreams could I have imagined the efficiencies of a zero-minute commute. Online school does come with some perks, even if class must take place at strange hours to accommodate me in Alabama and my classmates in Japan and Boston. The week before, I ate cold pizza for breakfast while “doing” a gel electrophoresis lab—something that violates every health and safety rule in the lab handbook, but is perfectly acceptable over Zoom.
Of course, the lab class pales in comparison to what it should be. We should be in the Pierce Hall basement, building circuits, preparing samples, and collecting data ourselves. The course staff has handled the change as well as they could, making videos of the experiments and collecting data in the frantic last week of in-person meetings. Our lab class is now spent watching instead of doing the experiment, talking about the details of the procedure, and asking the lab staff questions to gather the information necessary to write our lab reports. But everyone knows this does not really work. We all took the class because we wanted three hours per week of hands-on learning. Engineering is not done by theorizing. Disappointing, sure, but at least I could attend from bed. No need for PPE.
One of my lecture classes had a disastrous transition to Zoom. The professor couldn’t figure out how video conferencing worked, or perhaps didn’t have Internet at home, so he called the head teaching fellow on speaker phone, who then held the phone to his laptop microphone. The lecture was just a video of the TF looking a bit uncomfortable, while the professor crackled inaudibly. I had loved that class in person, but it was clear that I had learned whatever I was going to learn. I resolved to do the interesting readings that remained on my own, and I dropped the course.
My two humanities seminars transitioned to distance learning comparatively smoothly. Unlike my lab, which by definition could never be the same online, our discussions of books, essays, and poetry are much more amenable to video chat. I admit, though, that I have found it hard to focus. At school, I never have my laptop out in class, unless I mean to not pay attention—all my notes are in little brown notebooks, and until recently I insisted on printing out every one of my assigned readings. My strategy is to intentionally remove every possible distraction, and even then I find it hard to remain fully present in long seminars. Now, I find myself getting distracted by notifications and emails. Heady discussions of religion and literature demand disciplined thought, but (call me a Luddite) that state of mind is near-impossible to achieve on Zoom. Little things also make discussion harder. It’s difficult to read body language over video chat, which makes the conversation more stilted.
That said, all these problems with video chat will fade as we get used to the new technology. There are great tools to block notifications and distracting websites, which have helped me focus on my work, and people are quickly figuring out the best practices for online discussions. The biggest obstacle to our collective learning is the elephant in the room: a global pandemic, taking place amid existing inequalities. Harvard does a fairly good job in materially levelling the playing field while students are on campus, even as it certainly has plenty of room to grow. Just about everyone lives in the Houses and eats in the dining halls. Everyone has Internet access, and places to go to work without distraction. At home, that all vanishes. Internet connections go out, and new responsibilities weigh heavily on people’s minds. Classmates have family members in the hospital or on the front lines. Many are anxious about the future, distracted by the news, and feel that academic work has lost its urgency. Zoom or not, I’ve found it harder to engage with all of my classes as a result of a general feeling of malaise.
Personally, my home situation has improved greatly since the start of online classes. When school started back up, we were in the middle of repainting the house, so my brother (also in college) and parents and I were all stuck in one room together. This is not the ideal classroom. One day, in the middle of class, my headphones stopped connecting to my laptop. I couldn’t hear my class on the speakers because the room was too loud—my brother was in class and my dad was on a conference call—and I didn’t want to restart my computer because Zoom makes a “ding dong” noise when you leave class, and I wasn’t even sure if that would fix the problem. The paint fumes weren’t helping either. I was about at 1 percent of my normal productivity, while now I’m at a much more manageable 30 percent. And I feel like I am pretty privileged to have even that.
There was a viral TikTok video going around in the early days of the lockdown, a parody listicle titled “What the college you go to says about you, 2020 edition,” set to the music of “Funky Town.” The entry for Harvard: “You thought you were the shit because you went to the best university in the world, but now you go to online school,” essentially the same as his description of every school from Cornell, to the University of Washington, to the for-profit University of Phoenix. Websites now sell Zoom University gear, since every college student in America is now in the same boat of frantically assembled distance learning. We all go to the same school now.
Drew Pendergrass ’20 is one of this magazine’s Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows.