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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Teaching Uncertainty: The Flywheel

Nancy Ann Fox (Edele)

Table of Contents

Keywords: parenting; online teaching

Categories: Navigating Loss and Grief; Revisionings of Teaching, Facilitation, and Professional Leadership; Forging Communal Ties Through Collaborative Writing

All of these changes that surrounded me this year changed me as a person,” I read on the cool white flat of my screen. 
The line of words, resembling manual Times Roman with a fading ribbon, is stark, direct, arresting: “Each of the challenges that I faced this year just made me a stronger person.” 
The writer here is Branch, one of 100 composition students I teach at a large public university on the Gulf, where our struggles with Covid have not ended.[1] No one in this idyllic coastal town knows this reality more clearly than our  students – room bound; beach banned; or home, surprised, with dogs – “who keep us sane and happy throughout Covid,” as Olivia tells us tucked under keyboard trays. Nobody is sure if the lines of their carefully charted futures are solid, intact.  
Her colleague Harper offers a realistic sketch of her adjustment in early hibernation: “My first semester during COVID was a surreal blur of terrible sleeping habits, scrambling to finish online assignments, and being totally and utterly terrified of the outside world.”

Screen header in Canvas classroom announcing online student forum for sharing pandemic stories.


Figure 1: SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 1 Quarantine Discussion Forum, Composition Class. Fox Edele, 2020 - present.


In this season of uncertainty I’ve set up discussion forums and invited my classes to share their quarantine thoughts and experiences with one another (see Figure 1). I hope, but do not require, as one whose teaching style is to lead with a light touch, they’ll find inspiration in our course theme, "Imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to," from Greta Thunberg’s comment in her speech at the UN Climate Change Conference. And I’m encouraged by their online talk so far – that our forums dispel the “cold and lonely” feeling of class[2] by screen.

Students like my daughter Chloe, also a student at this university, often prefer what I’m coming to view as an “epistolary class” – expressing their thoughts exclusively in letters exchanged across the miles between their safehouses, because, as Chloe explains, “I wouldn’t speak as much in a classroom or be as thoughtful.” In this conscious reserve, she is joined by my students who identify as “introverts,” like Ava, who writes, “This is the beginning of a new normal. It gives everyone a voice.” Chloe, for one, tells us she needs “a minute to take it in, I need to sit with it, and after a regular discussion I’ll think, ‘Why did I 

say that? I didn’t mean it.’” In F2F, discussion is a “reaction, not a response” too frequently: Chloe reflects, “I can be thoughtful in the written forums. I can connect.”
And maybe my students do; maybe that sense of exploring together an unknown space in asynchronous time infuses every story they tell and the feelings they impart. Their writing – reflective; decisive; factual; nuanced; often heart-wrenching – speaks of lives changed, and whether it’s possible, as Branch’s classmate Nora suggests, that “a new window of opportunity for disruption and change also opens the door to further growth and transformation possibilities.” 
Stories of pluck and perseverance in the midst of this disruption abound: “My entire household is Covid positive with symptoms except for my 5-year-old,” Grace informs the class. “Everyone in my house is home and needy during these first few weeks of my new journey (in higher education), which was not in the plan, but they are alive and well, no matter how annoying they are, and that’s all I could possibly ask for, so we will get through this!
Many students describe enduring job losses and moves because of economic necessity – and so they come to us, for a degree they always wanted and never been able to accommodate in their lives of 9-5, families, military service. Stevie explains that her whole notion of success has changed – no longer money, but values she finds within her relationships and herself. They write of living day by day, working, dealing with moves, with closed doors, but feeling more thoughtful, meditative, resilient. There are the accounts of illness, such as the RN whose newborn contracted Covid from family and lay in intensive care, eyes closed, unmoving, for a week, and was hospitalized for three months. And they describe their own struggles with this relentless virus:

When I tested positive for COVID, I was terrified for my life. Then I realized that my body is the most incredible tool I will ever own. Our bodies can heal themselves, we should protect them. Today I leave behind the town I grew up in, alcoholism, a job I hated, people who didn’t support me, and self-loathing. Now I am dedicated to developing my inner peace, fitness, and furthering my education. I keep with me a tremendous amount of growth, insight, and sight.[3] 

There are, too, the experiences – “for the first time, with someone I’ve just talked to” – of deaths. 
When students speak of depression and loneliness, I see that compassion for one another is never far from the surface of the screen: “I would say I am lucky enough to not have any life-threatening experiences,” writes Brianna, “but I do want to apologize to anyone and everyone who has had negative experiences over the course of these two years.” 
It is also true, in every story of sadness and isolation, of “lying in bed all day,” “not wanting to do anything,” that the writers move to their solutions: “I read that running helped with depression” … “weightlifting” … “drawing” … “keeping a journal” … “volunteering” …”game playing” …”cooking” … “learning guitar.” Anita offers this analysis of new pursuits: “Having the time to step back and try something new with no time deadline, made it stress free.
Together we read Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic, “A Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Start Over,” an argument for deleting whatever held us back or hurt us, and drafting a new story. Against all odds my students write of change on a deep level – acknowledging discomfort and strangeness in their suddenly physically insular lives, but speaking of new appreciations: of family; solitude; thinking that alters the course of their lives. 
It was during this solitude I took a look at myself and what my goals were and decided to change them for the better,” Charles notes.
They write about long walks with their moms and time that dads don't usually have with their babies. They write about enjoyment in activities like cooking, reading, other typically "introverted" pursuits they haven't taken time for before.  
To me this writing is a sign of something new, and something I don't regret in our work online. What is unexpected, too, is a change in our communications. I don't want to say "more personal" because I don't want to get saccharine about it and I've always kept a firm teacherly line (because how can we grade otherwise with any validity). What's pertinent now, what I want to impart, is that in the midst of media talk of impatience, anger, rebellion against the restrictions, I'm finding something unexpected and remarkable in my students’ responses to this sojourn. It seems there's a different story being written here now, and one I'm not yet ready to characterize. They dwell more intensely on what they've learned, rather than lost, a message that runs counter to public accounts of a disaffected generation, and represents resilience and a maturity I’ve never heard from them before. I’m quoting Nicholas at some length here because his reflection typifies the theme that ties these stories together:

Where some things are lost, other things are gained, like quality time spent with family. I have learned to enjoy my family’s presence and the shared experiences that we have during such an isolated time. It has been helpful to remember that you are not alone during these times that make you feel so lonely… Staying connected in person with family and online with friends has become more important than ever. Even though some things have changed, that doesn’t mean they were changed for the worse.

I don't know how the shared experience in these settings as we navigate them together is changing the teaching moments, maybe the pedagogy but it is. Our extenuating circumstance has presented us with a creative chance. 
I used to think that being a teacher was lonely - mainly because in each school where I landed, teacher or maker of writing programs or grad student teacher with the grey hair, I was the only one who did it as I do it. At some point I realized that each year I had hundreds of souls on the journey with me, my students. That's the next story I want to write: how, as teachers, we're not solitary although I sit alone at my laptop in a room of creaky floorboards and echoes of Magic Mouse clicks at 2:30 a.m., entering grades. But what those letters ABCD represent are reams of writing thinking, which writing is all of us engaged and blending our voices or battling something out these last weeks. My students say to me at the end, “You're passionately involved with us.” Teaching as I choose to do it isn't lonely, I've learned. I listen again to Nicholas:
“Things may be different for a long time, but we are working together to reach the normalcy that everyone craves so much. Wearing masks and having to get vaccines and quarantining have caused major changes, but they have also taught me to not only be cautious for myself but also for the safety of my loved ones and others.”
Nor am I about to forget my students in the thick of this pandemic as front line workers at Baptist and in eldercare homes, and those who are our guardian angels, the nurses. They're passionate, precise, and never pull their punches: “I said my good byes to my patient and I told her I'd be back at 7pm that night,” Gail, a full-time student in Health Policy and nurse on a Covid ward, recounts to us. “I joked with her to behave while I was sleeping, she smiled and assured me she would. I never saw her again. She had to be sent to the intensive care unit to be intubated that day. I was not allowed to the intensive care unit to see her; that would be a risk for spreading infection. I was no longer allowed to access her chart as she wasn't my patient. …I still think of her all the time.
Arabella, a nurse colleague on a Covid ward, tells us that “the patients are still terrified and I do my absolute best to comfort and love them through it.
One of the beauties of requiring everyone to take courses in verbal and visual rhetorics is that they awaken the writerly selves who share these stories and thoughts with one another and with us which life in an extroverted America can work vigorously against. That discovery happens in those forums, which become in so many ways the students’ own memoir / reflections. And somehow they know that they’re not the only ones who feel as they tell us, even though it's a closed forum: “We all have a story to share and it's good to support one another through this difficult time,” Giovanni writes. One thing I've learned as a writing teacher these last centuries of doing it (and my students have ranged from age 8 to 80) is that we need to know we've got a sentient listening audience out there. Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, offers a passage that I'll quote here, since it's not an image I could ever conjure myself, and it's what I want to tell each born or would-be or reluctant writer I have the opportunity to persuade ("language is your human gift and you can write, you guys"): 
"Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair." 

Bitmoji identifier for author in online communications with students in Canvas classroom.


Figure 2: My teaching avatar. Source: my Canvas teaching site

Even in this brave new virtual world (see Figure 2) I don't feel the sense of disconnection from my students that many teachers speak of and publicize. And I don't see my daughter, who spends hours every day in zoom meetings and Panopto lectures and reams of downloaded PowerPoint slides, disengaged from her esteemed teachers. It's different  no question  and I know in a seated class I'm more spontaneous and funny, or at least I think I am, and always attracted to the ones who get my jokes. Now, I don't know. Maybe they think I'm really serious and a little bit nuts: I have to watch how I say things  they don't hear my New Jersey snark. Do they get me? I don't know.
But I do know their writing is thoughtful, honest, extended - essays on how they're living now; long comments to one another explaining the thoughts presented briefly here and immediate responses to me after I comment. There are the usual haughty and distant few, the ones who are clear about how superior they are to required writing courses: sometimes I can pierce that kind of fog, show them the light of the thinking that's possible, if they allow it. But the vast majority of my cast of 100 are with me and with one another. 
I will say this: teaching writing is different. You're in their thoughts, you're seeing how they work through an idea or a feeling, a complex series of both, as in Patrick’s description of home: “I now have a deeper meaning and appreciation for my home. I know everyone knows the saying, home is where the heart is, but home is also what you and the people within make it to be. For my family and me, it’s a school, workplace, and will always be a safe gathering place for loved ones.
What I'm saying is that no matter the platform, if you're teaching writing and I mean really doing it; not running a worksheet or textbook course you're not, by definition, remote, dispassionate, the manager of a “cold and lonely” corporation. You can't afford to be. My luck is that writing is my subject. And, to be honest, since discovering how closely I could read their work on the huge MS-DOS computer screens we all started with way back when, I've preferred teaching writing on-screen, online. It makes me feel free – of the towering stacks; the red pen; the nitpicky corrections that students pluck off anyway – and I meet them as authors, read their work as a whole, focus on the larger rhetorical questions: what does this composition teach us? what does it celebrate? what does it move us to think or to do?[4] 

And my writerly daughter Chloe? She connects online no matter what she's doing. She's there, 100%, if she's absorbed in your classroom lecture or buried in an avalanche of your PowerPoints in prep for the zoom. She works for her A's, very hard for her A's – but also she wants to learn, whether the course is required astronomy of which she knew nothing until she saw those star maps on Panopto in Canvas, or her Art & Psych that fascinate her: ("Mom, you know you're a psychopathic deviance. That sounds sick, doesn't it. But it means you question everything, challenge the status quo, you're a rule-breaker in a good way").

All this is to say – life does go on, if we're among the fortunate so far, but it's heightened. Their writing captures that experience. Writing is brave, isn't it? But that's what these times call for. I've always known the proportions of that writer in me. I had a tough childhood – privileged, storybook, (spoiled), then heartbreaking – and I survived it all by refusing to believe that anything, however harsh and harrowing, is too hard to overcome. I never give in. 


Author’s daughter writing posts for Art History online discussion forum in Canvas classroom.

Figure 3: My daughter, art class. Source: Fox (Edele)

Maybe that's happening now and why my response is, as I write to my writers: 

It's such an unusual situation that no one knows what to do, really. But I think we should look out for one another when we're in the unknown, and you guys are experiencing it in ways that are different and new to you as a student. You deserve your education. I'm here to make that happen. Thank you for all your hard work and dedication! 

The Girl Detective that's part of my nature meets the impossible circumstance and ... applies what she discovered by cranking that flywheel and keeping my desk in midair.

[1] Student references and responses are quoted with personal consent and IRB protection. All student names and ID markers are changed or withheld.

[2] The writer is Liu.

[3] The writer’s name and description are protected.

[4] Goals of the Orator” in Orator, Cicero: “docere, delectare, et movere. That is: to prove your thesis to the audience, to delight the audience, and to emotionally move the audience.”



Nancy Ann Fox (Edele) is a faculty member in the writing program at the University of West Florida. She is the author most recently of “'Working Through this Uneasiness Together': Creating a Public Journal As High-Impact Practice,” “'This Class Is Not Just a Class: It Really Is a Community’: The Potential of Online forums as High-Impact Practices,” and “'Learning Online Can Be Cold and Lonely.'” She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington and currently works with creative nonfiction at Stanford University and UCLA. She lives on the Gulf with her spouse, two kids, two Yorkies, and Standard puppy.

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