A Graduate Student and Online Teacher Reflects on 2020 Spring Semester

Aerial view of the Brickyard and the block S in the bricks.

Summer Walls headshot

The spring of 2020 promised to be a fresh close to my master’s study at NC State. After a grueling fall semester comprising a capstone, a teaching assignment, two part-time jobs, and my own classes, the spring was meant to be easy-breezy. I had only two classes (both electives I was eager to take) and began teaching online rather than in person. It was a slow semester. Then, as did thousands of other students across the country, I went home to my parents’ for spring break – and never came back.

Because of COVID-19, the spring simply became weird, a Twilight Zone season in my life.

Dichotomies

In my experience, life is defined by dichotomies. During my master’s, these have included instructor-student, online-face time, before-after and writer-editor dynamics. The first two were especially impacted by the disruptions caused by the virus.

During my second year, I worked at DELTA as a technical writing intern and as an instructor for ENG 331: Communication for Engineering and Technology. This allowed me to form work relationships that proved instrumental in creating my own courses, and conversely, I could apply what I learned in the M.S. Technical Communication to the documentation I created at DELTA.

I saw both sides of the pandemic. On the student side, my classes became easier as professors became more lenient or dropped minor assignments. The tests in one class became open book by necessity, which was superbly helpful for me (a humanities student in an engineering course with a statistics component!). To be honest, not much else changed for me as a student. My roles as a professional and instructor were different.

The major theme of April’s Technical Communication Association conference, SpeedCon, was Identity and the Future. As I stated in my opening speech at the virtual conference:

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a time in which technical communication is more important than ever. For example, tech writers are scrambling to create new documentation for online applications, instructional designers are helping entire universities transition to digital, and the UXers are making sure these changes are as seamless as possible for everyone. […] Collectively, we are discovering that we can push the limits in our social, professional, and technological spheres to not simply survive, but improve.

I saw this at DELTA, where projects were reshuffled and teams forged ahead through a wave of changing needs and help tickets. Everyone realized the importance of supporting instructors and drew on collaboration and their own initiative to keep NC State running. As an already online instructor I didn’t have to adapt much, but my students did. I saw grades waiver. Apathy and excuses increased. Yet, there were those who emerged as standouts. A pair of ladies carried their final project to a high A despite two absent group mates, and another student continued to submit work and participate in meetings from India, with a 9.5-hour time difference. The students who press on during trials like these exemplify what it means to “Think and Do.”

What now?

The virus had the most impact not on my grades or teaching or work… but my sense of accomplishment. Everything that I had worked for seemed to fizzle out in a sputtering “pfftht.” No celebrations, no photo shoots in caps and gowns, no commencement, no chance to hug my mentors or the ladies and guys in my cohort who provided shining examples of dedication and intellect. That particularly hurts; who knows if we’ll see each other again, now that we are off to start our new lives?

My cohort persevered through many challenges, both personal and academic. We cried and laughed and learned together. These people, my work at DELTA, and my teaching experience transformed my time at NC State from a degree on a piece of paper to a full-fledged discovery of who I can be.

Despite the pandemic, the disappointment and a fizzled semester, I know that I am not “onto bigger and better things.” I am going from one already great thing to another, thanks to NC State and my program. A quote from Director of Athletics Boo Corrigan, posted on social media, exemplifies the perseverance by DELTA, my students, and my cohort: “Never forget that there is strength in the Pack.”

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