Thursday, October 15, 2020

Teaching on Zoom

 I've now been teaching on Zoom for more than half a semester. I've had a surprisingly good experience with it, but alas that may not carry over so easily to lecturing on Zoom in the spring semester.

The NYU Tax Policy Colloquium on Tuesdays has a public session (links available on request), at which it works pretty well. The upside is that we get attendees all over the world, resulting in larger groups than we've ever had before, with a lot of folks who have interesting comments to contribute. It's a shame that we don't get to meet the author in person, discuss the session over lunch, and then have a small group dinner afterwards. But instead we have an advance Zoom session with the author to discuss the plan, with notes from both of us offered in advance to clarify where we're coming from (we aim at fruitful dialogue, not debate). Then we usually have a small group "happy hour" a couple of hours afterwards, in lieu of the dinner. This actually results in more serious discussions than at an 8-person dinner in lower Manhattan, but without the fun. Also, student attendees can feel left out (although we try to address that), whereas at the dinners we'd personally make sure that they were included at least in one of the discussions (table-wide could be difficult in a noisy restaurant).

The colloquium also has a private session before the public one, just with out students (16 in number - in a regular year, we'd usually be in the mid-20s). I knew one of them from past teaching, but have never met the other 15 in person. Each of them is a discussion leader once (along or with a colleague) for these sessions, and we meet with them in advance on Zoom.

So I really do feel I've gotten to know these people to a degree. On the other hand, I've never been in the same room with any of them (aside from the one whom I knew previously). No chatting before or after class, or at the break in the private session. Almost all participate, and it's easy to keep a queue on Zoom. All things considered, I feel it's worked decently well on the human level, but obviously without COVID I'd rather do it the traditional way. (The public session is a closer call given the tradeoff from having access to a larger virtual than live audience.)

I'm teaching an introductory tax course for 1-Ls in the spring. This, too, will be just on Zoom. Because only 1-Ls and can take it (as one choice among say 6 or 7 electives), the enrollment for this tends to be on the low side, albeit drawing people who are highly interested in the subject. The two challenges there will be getting to know the class, and making the lectures work on Zoom (with participation, of course, but in contrast to a seminar there's much more information to convey).

I know from my experiences as a Zoom attendee, when it's not my session, that paying attention and staying focused is not so easy. The remove from the audience is the main reason why I use PowerPoint outlines when I'm making comments at the public colloquium sessions, which I would never do in the live sessions (at most, I might hand out a one-page sketchy outline, and maybe scribble something in advance on the blackboard).

A lot of prep time is apparently needed to have any chance of making it work. At least it will be live rather than "asynchronous" (the word that seems to be used in lieu of "taped"). Hoping for the best, and I'll certainly do my best.

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