One of my favorite parts of teaching is watching each course develop into a distinct community with its own dynamics. Some are boisterous and talkative; others are reserved and thoughtful. No two are ever alike, even if composed of mostly the same people as a previous course. But that sense of fellowship, developed by spending hours together every week over a semester, is a wonderful thing to witness.
But how do we foster and maintain that sense of community when we are no longer physically spending hours together every week? Is it possible to replicate the dozens of little chats that occur naturally before and after class when students arrive to class virtually, muted, and without physically leaving their homes?
In shifting my courses to remote access in light of the ongoing pandemic, I have been leaning on a most unlikely source of experience: years of playing Dungeons & Dragons online with friends across the country. This familiarity with not only video chat technology, but also using it to accomplish a specific goal, has been extremely helpful. And one of the most helpful things is having learned to start every such video chat with not just an opportunity, but a requirement to say something before we dive into the material.
For this reason, I have been starting every one of my classes with a brief question that I want everyone to answer. On the first day back it was where they were joining from and how they had spent their last two weeks. Since then I have asked them to share their best advice for switching to remote access education, to share something they are grateful for—and I plan to continue to ask them something short at the start of each class.
Not only does this give everyone an opportunity to practice turning their microphone on and off (a useful thing these days), but it also helps us all get a better feel for how to spontaneously share in a virtual environment while normalizing the experience of interjecting into the conversation in a polite way. While there are always some initial awkward silences or people speaking over one another, with each repetition I have seen us get better at knowing how to have a discussion in these unusual circumstances.
And—even more importantly—I have noticed that these brief moments of sharing with one another help us maintain and feed that sense of community and connection that is so vital to teaching and learning. Just like playing Dungeons & Dragons online helps me to maintain my connection to friends far away, these synchronous class meetings and moments of sharing help maintain that magical classroom environment and help make the discussions that follow richer and more engaging.
So while it might feel like spending even a little time on something other than class material is a questionable use of time, take it from a veteran of countless online discussions (and not a few vanquished dragons): spending time to feed that sense of community will enrich you a hundred times over. Now more than ever.
Peter van Lidth de Jeude is both an assistant professor of history and a veteran tabletop gamer and has spent the last few weeks telling everyone who will listen that he always knew those two skills would intersect in meaningful ways.