When the pandemic hit and AUC decided to move classes online, I was terrified. I wasn’t scared of getting COVID-19. I was scared of teaching online. I know how to teach in person. I didn’t know how to teach online. I had been averse to social media prior to the pandemic because I used to believe connections could only be made and conversations could only be had in person. I was one of the few people in my circles who didn’t have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account. I even avoided WhatsApp groups like the plague.
When I teach, I read the faces of my students. I feel their energy. I can sense when they’re with me and tell when they’re not. I know when I need to change things up, when I should slow down or have to repeat something. How was I going to do all this from behind a screen?
The Center for Learning and Teaching and my tech savvy colleagues and digitally literate sons helped tremendously. Learning digital technologies was like learning a whole new language. Through a process of trial and error, I learned what worked and what didn’t over the two and a half semesters online.
Most of all, I learned that connections can be created in a digital classroom. I can still read the faces of my students and feel their energy through the screen. While learning from home was difficult for some students who didn’t have suitable home situations, many others felt even more comfortable participating from behind the shield of their screens and the comfort of their homes than they did in a formal campus setting. To my delight, I could still tell when they were focused on me and their classmates and to their chagrin when their eyes shifted downward to text with their friends or glazed over while surfing the net.
And while I learned how to navigate digital technologies from my colleagues and sons, the people who taught me the most during this virtual experience were my students. One of the first things I did when we moved online was give my students my phone number. I would have never done this pre-pandemic. As a petite woman of color who is smaller than most of my students and wasn’t much older than my mostly foreign graduate and study abroad students when I first started teaching, I had always felt the need to establish boundaries and assert my authority, especially when I was a young, inexperienced, and untenured professor. Twelve years later, older, and wiser, I knew that I no longer needed to build barriers when the lockdown was creating so many.
I also threw office hours out the window and made myself entirely available to them via Zoom and WhatsApp. I was nervous about doing this at first but I was pleased that not a single student abused this around-the-clock access to me. Instead, they were grateful. They were starving for connection as much as I was.
Perhaps because they had this access to me beyond the formal walls of the university, my students opened up to me in ways they didn’t when we would meet in person. Many of them shared just how much they were struggling with online learning and lockdown. Much like myself at their age, my students didn’t know how to cope with the wave of emotions they were experiencing. As professors, we prepare our students for their future careers. But we don’t prepare them for life. So many of them don’t know how to take care of themselves physically or mentally.
I have been on my own journey of wellness for the past decade and have learned a lot that I was happy to share with them. As a single working mom raising two small boys while on the tenure track living in chaotic Cairo, I was overworked and overstressed a decade ago. Instead of managing my stress with breathwork, meditation, yoga, and journaling as I do now, I was managing it with too many cigarettes and too much caffeine.
My decade-long journey into wellness is one where the personal and professional are deeply entwined for me. As I tried different wellness habits and healing practices to replace my unhealthy coping mechanisms and manage my anxiety and depression, my personal interest grew into an academic one the more I examined and adopted them. I not only regularly practice breathwork, meditation, and yoga. I became certified to teach them. I didn’t do this necessarily to teach them. I did it to deepen my own practical and theoretical knowledge of these practices so that I could study them historically and research them academically. My next book project seeks to examine how Indian and Egyptian healing practices were deeply influenced by one another despite their modern reincarnations as uniquely distinct systems.
My own path, my research, and the pandemic experiences of my students motivated me to design two new courses, A History of Happiness and A History of Healing, over the past year. The courses focus on the history of wellness and the history of healing in different places and parts of the world, respectively. Each week we study a habit that supposedly makes us happy–like yoga, meditation or cutting out sugar. We learn the history of that habit and study the culture where it originated. A history of yoga, for example, is a history of colonial India where the version of yoga the world practices today originated. A history of sugar is a history of the translatlantic slave trade.
The students’ struggles with the lockdown and learning online inspired me to incorporate a very contemporary and hands-on assignment in both history classes. In addition to the typical papers and presentations, I required my students to adopt a wellness habit for the semester and blog or vlog about it weekly. Some students started practicing yoga. Others adopted a meditation practice. Some started a gratitude journal or journaling in general. Still others started cycling or another fitness program. A few cleaned up their diets. A handful rediscovered their childhood passions of drawing and dancing. A couple started giving back to the community. One even landed on CNN because of her work cleaning up the Nile.
To say this project was a success with my students is an understatement. I was over the moon to see how much they enjoyed the assignment and how passionately they threw themselves into it. Most importantly, so many of them told me how much these healthy habits they adopted helped them better cope with their stressful semesters online and that they plan to continue practicing them even after our course ended. Their enthusiasm was so contagious that it inspired me to create a social media account shortly after the spring semester ended where I feature the vlogs and blogs of the students who are excited to share their wellness journeys on @honeywellness. They are posted throughout my account and also collated in the Highlights section entitled, ‘Students’ under my biography.
I also decided to share much of my own journey in auto-ethnographic posts on this page. I found that students were much more interested to study the histories and inspired to adopt the practices when I began to share my own journey in class.
As a previously social-media-averse person, I was wary about putting myself and my students out there. But when I saw how powerfully I was able to virtually connect with students whom I had never met in person, I realized I could use social media to stay connected with them long after our semester together ended. I have also reconnected with many former students who are now established professionals raising children which has been so gratifying. I learned Instagram is much more effective for communicating with our students past and present. Many don’t have Facebook or Twitter and don’t check email and WhatsApp regularly, but because they live on Instagram they will respond to a direct message on it immediately.
As we get ready to return to campus, I am terrified once again. I know how to teach online. I’m not so sure I know how to teach in person anymore.