Episode 25: Managing the Challenges of Online Learning with Dr. Bill Bird
Bill Bird has taught Computer Science (and occasionally Software Engineering) at UVic since 2015. He often teaches the introductory computer programming courses for Engineering students (CSC 111 and CSC 116), as well as higher-level courses in Algorithms and Systems. Like many instructors at UVic, he had never taught (or taken) an online course when 2020 began, but finished the year teaching hundreds of first year students over Zoom.
"When things get too much for people, it's perfectly fine to just take a break."
Dr. Bill Bird
Waving, Not Drowning
Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning. A UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.
In today’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Bill Bird, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science. Bill has taught computer science and occasionally software engineering at UVic. Since 2015, he often teaches the introductory computer programming courses for Engineering students, CSC 111 and CSC 116, as well as higher-level courses and algorithms and systems like many instructors at UVic. He had never taught or even taken an online course when 2020 began but finish the year teaching hundreds of first-year students over Zoom. In our conversation, Bill talks a lot about some of the challenges that he has experienced teaching and delivering his engineering courses online. But more than that, he talks about how he really recognizes and understands, and, therefore, tried to really modify his curriculums in order to really meet the needs of students who were naturally finding it really tough going with a heavy course load in engineering and computer science and really trying to navigate this online learning, especially with courses that really required a kind of hands-on approach. And so, one of the things I just want to say right off the top here about this conversation is that it was recorded early in 2021, and really at what I would say was the kind of height of the pandemic.
And so, Bill and I, really talk a lot about what it is like not only to teach but what he imagines it’s like for students to be working in that environment. Our conversation is very much focused on some of the difficulties of learning in an online environment. But one of the things that I just wanted to really register is that all of what Bill is sharing in this episode is, I think, so useful and applicable to all students, not just engineering and comp students, but all students and students who are studying, not just online, but as we return in the fall here back to our campus and back to the classrooms. I really feel that Bill’s words will hold still so much value. And I think that applies for all of this podcast series. And so, one of the things I said when I started making Waving, Not Drowning was that I didn’t want it to be evergreen, and that is a term that is new to me, but the associate producer taught me about somebody could listen to an episode of Waving, Not Drowning at any point, and it wouldn’t feel dated. And I didn’t want to do that because we’ve been living through, as everyone has said, we’re probably sick of this word, unprecedented times, but I really wanted these episodes to also be a record of what it was like to teach and to learn. But more than that, it quickly became just really clear to me that the challenges that had been amplified. All of those difficulties, all of the issues, that we have seen with systems that have just been so exacerbated and exposed really by the pandemic are things that we need to address and continue to think about and consider, of course, long after the pandemic is over.
But it’s also the case that this podcast is really about being able to share our stories; our stories of difficulty, of challenge, how to share stories of how we have coped with some of those difficulties, how faculty have dealt with, and some of what they have learned. And those stories, of course, involve living through COVID-19, living through this time of COVID-19 this pandemic, and if we are talking about how to really get through what, as I’ve said, many times on this podcast has got to be one of the most difficult times to be a student, it is so evident to me that the words that are shared here while they might be focused on a very specific time in our lives, on the pandemic, their value and the lessons that are shared here, the words of wisdom that are shared, aren’t limited to just pandemic times. That is a long-winded explanation of why I really wanted to make sure that this podcast held as a record of these extraordinary times that we are living through as faculty and as students. But as I said, it has just become so apparent to me that for every guest that has shared on this podcast series, the pandemic was an experience where faculty and students were still trying to keep, modifying, keep coping, working through, testing out strategies that had worked, realizing what they needed in order to be well, and that those are the pieces of wisdom that well as I say, just be so valuable to us going forward. So, if you listen to this podcast series again, in a year or two years, I hope that you’ll still recognize and really hear those words of wisdom and that they’ll still land powerfully for you.
And on that note, I just want to say a couple of more things about my conversation with Bill. He talks about his own experience as a student and how he was very anxious, and he shares how he was especially anxious with public speaking, and that actually he imagined for some students that online learning has really created spaces of access for students who find it really difficult, but at the same time, perhaps, made it harder for some students who just would feel so conspicuous on Zoom, for example, or having to speak out on Zoom. So, he really shares some of his own experience his tips for success. So, if you are an engineering or comp sci student who is just starting in September, I think this is just such an excellent episode to listen to. Bill Bird will likely be one of your professors, and so you’ll have a chance to get to know him and how he thinks about teaching and share some of his own experience. And if you’re not and you’re in a different discipline, I think you’ll find Bill’s words just really helpful about being able to set boundaries around work, and leisure time or social time, and just ways of combating that impulse to just work all the time. He talks about having a kind of highway hypnosis in the pandemic where you know, there were no, sort of demarcations, with time and many of our guests have talked about that, but that’s also an easy state to get into in post-pandemic times when you were just consumed with work. So, I really hope that you will find Bill’s words to be resonant now as they were when we recorded this really engaging interview back in February, I’m Rebecca Gagan here today with Dr. Bill Bird, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Hi Bill. I’m so happy that you’re here today. How are you doing?
Bill Bird: I’m pretty good.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah? How have things been going so far in these very difficult pandemic times?
Bill Bird: Well, lately, since January, I haven’t really been teaching like I was last semester. My teaching load was front-loaded in the summer and fall, so I’ve been trying to relax. It’s been surreal because without any sense of place or time doing everything over the internet, it’s hard to really relax the same way I would have before the pandemic.
Rebecca Gagan: So, you’re really experiencing, what is that they call it, the pandemic time?
Bill Bird: I guess I think of it like highway hypnosis, actually, like the idea of if you’re driving at night and you can’t see anything, you don’t know how fast you’re going. And so, it’s, which is sort of good. I mean, there’s this nice sort of — there’s a feeling that you get from that which is sort liberating, but there’s also this feeling that you don’t know if you’re going fast enough. And I feel like, especially when I’m not teaching any courses, there is occasionally gnawing away at me, this thought of, oh, I’m not getting enough done. Like I’m not getting enough of my work done or something, even if I am, because I can’t really, it’s hard to measure whether anything’s really getting done if you don’t have any point of reference if every day blends together.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, and especially after coming off of a pretty intense term as I understand it, in the Fall, how did you find, you know, the transition to online teaching and, I guess, for yourself personally? Was there anything that you found helpful in the fall when you were having, you know, a pretty heavy teaching schedule and doing all of that through the pandemic?
Bill Bird: Well, so the transition to online for me — I was one of the first batch of people that had to move online because I was teaching in the summer, and I was teaching two courses, and one of them was actually new. And so, finding out in mid-March that we were suddenly finishing off the spring online, I was already panicking a bit about what are we going to do in the summer. And so, I was quite grumpy through most of April people. My colleagues might remember me in the meeting as probably the most contrary person about everything, but things did get up and running in the summer. And it was like my first day of class in the summer for both of my courses. I said, here I am. You might remember me from before things were online, but now I’m apparently using the internet to teach. I’ve never done that before. And you might want to consider whether this course is actually going to be any good. And if you don’t think it is maybe a drop and take it next year and a student, actually, a few students emailed me after that in the months after to say, you know, Bill, your course either was good or it was terrible, but thank you for saying that on the first day of class. And there was one person said, yeah, you said that, and I dropped. And thank you for just saying that and being upfront about it, but that meant that when the fall came around — so in the summer, even though it was two courses, and even though I was putting in — just getting up in the morning and then working on material until going to bed some days because one of the courses was new.
And because so many resources are needed when you don’t really, you don’t have a board, and you can’t use the classroom the same way as you would otherwise. By the time the Fall came around, I was only teaching one course, just all of the different sections of it. And it would have — I guess it started out with about 400 people between them. And it was first-year programming, so it would be primarily brand new first-year students, people that wouldn’t have a point of reference for what UVic was like before things went online. And computer programming is something that people usually come in without any previous experience in, and it’s a pretty hands-on thing at first. And so, it’s really tough to set up your machine to be able to work with programming if I’m not there, or you can’t go to office hours and ask for help. And so, going into the Fall, the biggest thing I had to worry about wasn’t how do I use Zoom. Fortunately, I’d figured that out by August, but it was how do I give students a fighting chance to actually be able to engage with a course that usually requires actually being in the same room with people and much less, how do we work on the fact that these are, in most cases, brand new engineering students, a pretty social discipline, where in many cases people’s sort of survival in the degree depends on them forming connections with their peers in their first semester. And everything’s online. They’re not going to be in the same room with these people, maybe until the second or third year of their degree.
And so that that was what I thought about. And on the first day of class in the Fall, I said, this is really going to be weird. This is a course that a lot of people really can’t stand in a normal year. And, and that’s — I love teaching this course. So, in a normal year, when people already can’t stand it, I love teaching it. And now I have no idea how to teach online. So, if anything, we’re all in this together in the sense that we’re all scared of what’s going to happen next. And I think it, on balance, there were a lot of things that worked pretty well in the Fall. There were things that I did in the Fall online that I will likely do again, when I mean, inevitably when I’m able to teach in front of an audience again, I will probably keep a lot of the stuff I did in the Fall. A lot of things — innovations I had to come to, things like prerecording some things, a bit of asynchronous material. A lot of that really worked. A lot of people said having prerecorded stuff and not just a recording of a zoom call, or something that I can watch over and over again is helpful because there are some things I wouldn’t have known to write down if I were sitting in a lecture theatre watching this, but on the other hand, there were some things in the Fall that were just nightmarishly, like they went horribly wrong.
And I think in most cases, the students didn’t come out — like it didn’t hurt the students too much overall, like in the long-term they won’t see ill effect from that, but when it was happening, like there were two of the three exams that were given had time problems, for example, like you can time out how long an exam is supposed to take to do it, and I’ve done that for years with paper exams, but you forget that reading the question when you don’t actually have paper to write on, you’re reading the question, writing on your own piece of paper and you have to copy the answer into a box or something — that takes a really long time. And checking your work is way different when you have to click through and constantly to navigate between questions. And so that was something that went horribly wrong twice in my course and the final exam. We had to do some very creative scaling to try and make things look livable when all was said and done. And so, and there are aspects of that where I think it wouldn’t surprise me if I’m doing the same course online next year, and I can fix some things like that. I’ve got a lot of feedback. A lot of very candid feedback from people, and I can fix some things, but there are some things where it’s just going to be nasty as long as it has to be online. The only real fix to some of those problems is getting back to doing things in person.
Rebecca Gagan: And I think what you described, Bill, too, is a very unique set of circumstances for students in engineering and computer science. So, I, I honestly have to say in this my own naivete and being very much in my own bubble, I teach courses in literature. So, the students — they need a book, but what you’re describing is that if students are used to being in this class, like with hands-on, and having you guide them in that way, that, this is not just a small change. This is a really massive change that both students and instructors are trying to navigate. And as you say, the approach of we’re in it together, and we’re trying to navigate this and figure it out is a good one. But at the end of the day, it’s still the case that I think, quite importantly is as you suggested, the social networks, like all of that is — it’s just not in place. And so, there are so many pieces for engineering students, in particular, I think, that maybe make some of the challenges of the move to online learning even more so for them. Would you agree?
Bill Bird: I would, I actually — I guess I want to clarify what I meant about telling the students that we’re all in it together in a lot of ways, which is that one thing that I was really clear on in the Fall is that the we’re all in it together logic is useful. I mean, it’s important that we understand that as humans, we’re all in it together. There is a bit of an asymmetry there because it should be the case, given that they are students paying tuition and the university has its reasons, but tuition is the same this year, as it was last year or modular, a small, the usual increase or whatever, but it’s true that they should be holding me to a high standard, even if I’m out of my depth. And the fact that I’m in it with them together doesn’t necessarily mean that I have an excuse if I’m not able to do things correctly, or whatever. Hopefully, I am, like hopefully if I do my best, that I’m able to achieve that, but it is still true. They should expect better for me if even my best isn’t sufficient at that adaptation. You know, conversely, it is reasonable for them to expect a bit more slack from me than they give to me. Because again, they’re students; they’re new to this environment, even though I’m new to teaching online.
I know I’ve taught before. And to be Frank, I’m being paid to do this, so I think it’s true that coming into an engineering program in, in your first year, in this environment, is I’m sure pretty, pretty nasty because you can’t develop social connections in the same way. Although they are still developed. Talking to students over the semester, it’s clear it was still happening. It just wasn’t happening the way it used to, and I don’t think it was. People would argue that it was better, certainly. And it’s also the case to the first point you made in asking that question about how you teach in a different discipline. And so, people, it’s easy to make assumptions about what other disciplines need and don’t need in their classroom. And it’s true, not that you weren’t saying this, but a lot of times people do assume, oh, you’re teaching computers. Or you’re teaching something that’s very technology-heavy, that must be a course that can move online easily. And what’s interesting is that really a student usually needs a computer of some kind to learn how to program a computer for maybe obvious reasons. They certainly need a computer internet connectivity to take an online course, but the hands-on aspect of it isn’t specifically them using a computer or whatever in a hands-on way using technology. The hands-on aspect is being able to get support from a human being and not just have me say something to them because I can’t describe what I’m looking at on their screen.
Somebody in 2019 could come into my office with their laptop and say, this doesn’t work like mine. I tried writing a program to do something, and it doesn’t work, and I can stare at their screen, and I can talk to them, and I can gesture at things, and I can write stuff down and that sort of holistic experience, I think, is a lot more helpful for people, not just in terms of getting them their answer, but for them to understand what kind of a problem that they have. Like it’s the type of interaction you have to have with somebody when it’s pretty clear they didn’t really make a mistake. Like the problem that they’re experiencing is a coincidence. It’s something outside of the scope of the course, and being able to tell them at office hours, you don’t worry about this. Look, I fixed it, but don’t worry about being able to understand how to fix a problem like this. That really isn’t something this course is about.
You just had some bad luck. It’s much harder, I think, to tell somebody that over Zoom because they can sort nod and go, oh, okay. But I don’t think they get that type of social interaction can’t really be duplicated.
Rebecca Gagan: I think what you’re talking about, Bill, is as you say, that kind of very human and humane interaction, where somebody can — where you, as the teacher, can turn to the student and say, yeah, this needs to be fixed in this way, but it’s okay. This isn’t a big issue. And so those are almost the kind of spontaneous and natural responses where that also offers, I think, reassurance to students. You’re suggesting that that is easier to deliver, of course, in a face-to-face way than something that’s always mediated through a screen. Well, it certainly seems to me, just from this conversation, that, you know, that students in engineering and computer science, but certainly as we know students across campus, regardless of their discipline, have really found this year just so challenging. And what we’re doing with UVic Bounce is really trying to share faculty stories of times when they experienced difficulty or challenge as a student. Now, am I assuming that were you an undergrad then Bill, in engineering or in computer science?
Bill Bird: So, I went through computer science and math.
Rebecca Gagan: So, do you have any stories that you might be willing to share with us about some challenges or difficulties that you experienced as a student?
Bill Bird: So, I think, and I mean, in your prompt to me earlier, you said I should try and link together the other things I’m talking about with this. So, the thing I wanted to focus on is, I guess the experience of participating in something without — like the level of engagement one has to demonstrate as a student is way different now because of this sort of on/off nature of Zoom or whatever people are using for courses. And I thought a lot about that because as a student, I was pretty shy, like very shy, very quiet. I had some degree of, I guess, some kind of social anxiety in a lot of cases, but there were lots of courses that I took where I really treasure the fact that if I wanted to if I just didn’t feel like talking, that day, I can go sit in the back and not talk. And if I wanted to talk, I could do it. But I don’t think that exists as much in this environment, and thinking about how I would map my own experience onto this environment. It would be awful, I think, for me as a student, to be a student now and honestly, to be a student in my own course, I can think of lots of reasons why even my own course, where obviously I’m sensitive to that kind of thing.
Even in my own course, there are cases where people probably have to reach really far outside their comfort zone, which reaching outside one’s comfort zone can be helpful, but not gratuitously, not forcing people to do it for no reason. One example would be I really could not stand the idea of public speaking when I was a student. Like I had to do a few presentations as a student in various years of my degree, and they went well, I did well in them, but I would literally — I would have no appetite for days before, and I would be so nervous. And, there is that, of course, there’s some irony. One can find a little bit amusing that now I’m giving lectures to hundreds of people. There have been people that have pointed out that not only do I apparently give lectures to large audiences, but also in general, I just can’t shut up. And so, they’re incredulous that as a student, I would just be; I was just quiet all the time. I wouldn’t really talk too much. It might just be I was saving up my words, and now I’m just expelling them all, but the issue with this environment is that there is no middle ground between the on and the off. You can be an anonymous audience member to some extent. I guess there might be some courses where there are requirements onto what extent you can remain; I guess anonymous isn’t the right word, but to what extent you can remain disengaged.
In my course, though, for example, just to use something as a point of reference, I can show up and just be a student with their video off listening, absorbing it and not feel any particular pressure to ask a question or participate or whatever. If I were going to a lecture in person as a student, maybe I’d put my hand up and ask a question. Maybe I don’t, maybe I just feel like I’d rather just not be seen today, but if I put my hand up and ask a question, even if it’s in a 300-seat lecture theatre, I’m still pretty anonymous. People turn and look at me while I’m talking. And maybe if I have that fear that some people have that maybe I’ll ask a stupid question, and people are going to remember, oh, that guy that asked that stupid question, but they’re not going to remember my name. They’re not going to remember what I looked like. It’s a pretty disengaged form of participation. Whereas now, people give presentations in courses that are being held via Zoom. Like they give the same style of presentation the lecture might give, they turn their video on. Everybody can see them, they see their name, but that’s exactly the same interaction you have if you want to ask a question; if a student turns their video on to ask a question, they are now the center of attention.
The Zoom focuses on them, and so it’s really no different in my mind to having to give a presentation, except unlike a presentation, you don’t even get to prepare if you word your question poorly, and you’re the type of person that would rather. Blend into the background, then know you’re the center of attention. There could be hundreds of people watching, and you could be being recorded, and that recording could live on for eternity on the internet. And I think as a student, that would absolutely terrify me. And what’s interesting is that I’ve actually observed my own sort of old habits slowly returning from the eight months I’ve had to spend doing everything over Zoom, which is that obviously I still give lectures and people see me, and I’m the center of attention, and obviously it’s lots of fun to be the center of attention, but I’m also going to meetings, committee meetings, department meetings, whatever. And I have noticed, maybe June or July, that there was that the amount– the way I participated even in meetings was changing a lot, whereas previously I would often run my mouth off in department meetings or something, but when people are talking, I put my hand up and just toss in into remark or clarify somebody unnecessarily or whatever.
Now, I very rarely speak in meetings, as long as I have something planned to say, I don’t just throw in a few words because there is a lot of effort associated with going from off to on just being somebody watching to being somebody that’s the center of attention. And I have felt in some cases that maybe there are opinions that I should share that I’m not sharing, just because of the amount of energy that has to get expanded to turn on my video and be comfortable having my video on and be broadcasted. And so, I can imagine, if I feel like that’s somebody who’s meeting with my colleagues, people that I already know, in a profession where I have to do a lot of public speaking, if I were a shy student in a first-year course, I would be absolutely terrified. And unlike what I would have as a student, which is being surrounded by actual human beings, who I could get to know, I might be somebody maybe in a different country sitting in my bedroom, and that’s nasty.
Rebecca Gagan: And Bill, I think, you know, I’m just listening to you and reflecting, when I was an undergrad, even in a face-to-face setting, I found it so difficult to participate, so I would often have something to say, and I would watch the clock, and I would wait, and I’ll think, okay, after this person, I’m going to raise my hand, and I’m going to do this. And then, then the clock would run out, and the class would be over, and I had missed my chance And, this went on for so much of my undergrad until graduate school where you really did have to participate if you wanted to do well at all. And you know, I realize just listening to you talk about this, that yes, like we’ve been — I record my lecture, I ask students to turn on their camera if they’re comfortable, but of course, many are not, which I understand. And I don’t think until I heard you share this, I had really myself thought about what it takes, I think, for students, to engage in these kinds of online classes. And I think even for those students who are perhaps more comfortable or more extroverted or what have you, I still think, if we find it — like I find it exhausting actually teaching on Zoom and I’ve tried to figure out why is it so tiring? What is it about the experience that makes it so tiring?
But I wonder if it’s, as you say, there’s so much energy that’s required to engage. I hear a little bit of that in what you’re saying, that what it takes now to engage is so much more than we would have experienced as undergrads, right? And eventually, in the face-to-face, you know, you can get comfortable and you can — I had my moments of triumph where I did raise my hand and speak, and you know, eventually got more comfortable, but I too have found with Zoom a new level of self-consciousness that I don’t feel that I had really prior to this moment, like self-consciousness and in terms of the class, and everything else. So what, Bill, do you think you would say in terms of advice? Like just based on your own experience, so if you were to offer some words of advice or support to students in computer science and engineering, but also in other faculties across campus, do you have any words that you might want to offer up?
Bill Bird: Okay. I have some follow-up to what you just said about why so much energy is needed, which is one thing I’ve observed I — because the course I taught last Fall the CSC 111, which is the big first year programming course for engineers, is, of course, I’ve taught over and over again. And I spent a lot of time thinking about, okay, so what feels different this time? Obviously, this is miserable compared to teaching in a lecture theatre, but why? And I agree with you that there is something; it does feel as if a huge amount of extra energy as needed somehow. And it’s easy to become much more self-conscious, and I suppose that’s probably far worse for students in a lot of ways because many students are completely comfortable turning their video on, as you mentioned. And it’s great that they do that. And a lot of my colleagues and I really appreciate when some students do turn their video on, so you feel like you’re actually talking to people. But a lot of students don’t want to turn their video on because of reasons that are not even them personally, just they’re worried about what’s in the background, and they don’t want — because it’s about how you present yourself to the world.
And obviously, the way people present themselves when they’re going to an in-person lecture, you know, they might decide how they look or choose what they’re wearing or something, but now you’re on Zoom, so you have to decide like everything that people can see, that’s a function of how you present yourself. So, there’s that. I think what I realized was that the reason it was so exhausting was that using Zoom for everything has stripped away a lot of what I do, maybe what we do, to just the work. A lot of the interactions, a lot of the — I think the amount of energy we put into teaching might actually be the same now. It’s just that we were getting some of that energy back from ancillary factors, ancillary interactions. For example, it isn’t possible for people to just, you know, overhear me talking to somebody in my office and then come drop by and say, oh, hi Bill, I haven’t talked to you in a while, or for me to overhear people, or to run into somebody, I know on the way through campus or waiting in line for coffee, or whatever.
Instead, you either schedule a meeting, or you don’t. And that, and I think, and the same is true where, if you want to ask a question in class and the clock runs out, you could always go huddle up at the end with the group of people that are asking the instructor questions and ask them a question in the hallway or something, but now your choice is either you ask the question during the Zoom lecture and maybe broadcast yourself to hundreds of people, or you go to Zoom office hours, which are still office hours, but they’re just not the same. There’s a certain — there’s a certain finality. You know, you have to enter the zoom office hours, and you have to ask a question. There’s no sort of wandering by or overhearing what somebody else is saying. And I think that because everything now has to be deliberate. You choose to go to the office hours or something. You don’t just overhear. You don’t come with your friend. I think that means that every interaction now there’s so much weight to the interaction that we don’t get any of that energy back. We don’t feel like we come from these interactions energized anymore. So, I think I’m probably putting in the same amount of effort; I just don’t get back a lot of the the positive effects that I would otherwise, and so it’s stripped it down to just the work, which of course, is pretty exhausting, especially with a job like this, wherein some cases, days are 12 or 16 hours long.
Rebecca Gagan: And also, Bill, what you’re saying if I think about it from a student’s perspective if we apply that same sort of framework of that kind of intensification of the work. So, the students, likewise are not, walking from class to class where they’re maybe grabbing a coffee with some friends and then go into the next class. Or as you say, congregating after class and talking to the prof, and there are ways there in so many ways, those experiences, as you say, are energizing, they’re nourishing. So, there’s this intensification of the work, so I’m imagining even many students who have not, who are at home and didn’t come to the campus and, as I know you have heard as an instructor, too, students working, shutting their bedroom doors and just, it’s a focus and intensity on the work without, for lack of a better word, like all of the other goodies, that come with being at university and studying as an undergraduate or as even as a graduate student. So, it’s like, I certainly feel that way. And I think students must feel that way. So, there’s so much more focus and an intensity on every interaction, as you say, that is through Zoom. There aren’t these happenstances, these lovely serendipitous or casual interactions that are nonetheless educative and helpful and supportive. So, I think that I would absolutely agree that’s such a key shift here to working in this way. And, so what do you think students can do? What would you suggest that maybe they can do to get through?
Bill Bird: I guess my advice is more of just an assessment of what I think of where people have ended up as a result of this whole situation, which is that mostly on my mind, I think a lot about first year students, because the again, I spend a semester teaching hundreds of them. And I think that honestly, they probably have it the worst this year because if somebody is a third — I mean everybody’s having a pretty, generally speaking, there are some positives that have come out of this. There are some developments that have been positive in the way we’ve changed teaching or whatever. But I think everybody pretty much agrees with this whole situation to be over. But really, if a third-year student last Spring who in mid-March, suddenly went to everything went online and they did their fourth year. They’re in the middle of their fourth year. Now they’re probably having a lousy time, but when they attend to Zoom lecture, they can –sort of, they know what it felt like to be in a place to be in a lecture theatre, and they can try and project whatever remains of that memory onto the Zoom lecture.
They can try and put themselves in that mindset. Whereas a first-year student has never known what it felt like to sit in a university like actually sit in a university lecture, and so their model of the world has had to be based on this pretty bleak Zoom-based model of education. And so, I guess my advice, or my assessment, is that what this, in my mind, means is that they’re they’ve had to start at the bottom of the trough, right? They had to see things from — they had to start at rock bottom, in that even if we have to keep things, a lot of things online for a long time, they will improve because people are getting better at it. But a lot of those first-year students came in September, and things were — they had nowhere to go but up, and they still survived. It was horrible for most people, especially first year students, I think in the fall semester. But they made it through. And when things finally get back to being in person, they will likely be much more resilient than most so– if by their second year, by their third year, things are in person again, they will like to come into that second year or third year, more resilient than likely any generation of second- or third-year students ever, because they will have had to build all of the same — they will have had to go through all of the same challenges that a typical first-year student has had to go through but with all of the supports knocked down. And so even though a third-year course might be tough compared to a second-year course or whatever, ideally if that’s back in person, suddenly all those supports come flooding back in’ the fact that you can turn to the person next to you to ask them a question, you can actually run into people in hallways.
All of that stuff that we took for granted will suddenly reappear to this generation of people that had to make do without it, and they will likely find that that’s the light at the end of the tunnel, that things will actually get so much easier because they’ve spent so much time honing their skills in such a bleak environment. And so, my, that’s not advice, I guess, that’s an assessment of — I guess that’s encouragement, like the way that I’ve been acting through all of this has been — the advice has always been just keep at it, and everything’s going to get better. I think that’s a bit; it’s hard to say, give that as advice, because obviously there are still ups and downs and we shouldn’t try and paper over any of that. I think one thing that I’ve been reassured by is that it’s pretty clear over the past year that society at large has become a great deal more understanding of the fact that when things get too much for people, it’s perfectly fine to just take a break. And I’ve had to do that’s happened to me a couple of times where it’s just been, “Nope, I’m going to get nothing done today, and that’s, I’m going to feel guilty about it.
I’m going to try not to feel guilty about it, and that’s fine”. Because for whatever reason, it’s just I need to take a break. I need to actually if I don’t try to relax, I’m not going to refresh myself, and it’s just going to, things are going to weigh on me more. So, I think that’s reassuring. But the advice is that what I guess, overall, that’s, although it’s lousy now and it’s likely going to continue to be pretty lousy for a while when things return, you will likely discover that in traversing this desert, you’ve actually accumulated quite a few skills that may not be obvious yet, but will really help. And it will feel like I’m really looking forward to that because I’ve become stronger in a lot of ways because of how I’ve had to manage this myself. And it’ll be interesting to see whether that makes me, sort of, overpowers in a world where I don’t have to do everything online. Although I think I love that sort of image of being overpowered in the sense that you’ve survived something really challenging. And what you’re saying, I think Bill, which is, I think very deeply encouraging. It’s a reminder also to students that, yes, this is probably the most difficult time to be a student, but there are as you say some skills, but also a lot of strength that I think has been born as a result and has emerged as a result of this.
And so, this idea of kind of coming through it and when all the supports come flooding back, realizing and probably in retrospect because I think it’s really hard to feel it now and I feel this myself, that it’s hard when you’re going through it to feel as if, oh, yay. There’s the silver lining. I’m becoming stronger, or I’m becoming more resilient or because I would just rather, not that we have to live through this. But I think that is very hopeful advice because I think it’s a reminder to students that those skills will really support them and help them once and if we go back — I shouldn’t say if — when we go back to a more normal — I know everybody’s talking about, no, we don’t need to go back to normal. We need to go back to a new normal, which I agree with. And I also agree that we’ll keep some of the things — the lessons — that we’ve learned, whether that’s about teaching or how to be a student with us as we return to face to face. But I feel that that’s a really just a really lovely piece of advice to offer students because I think right now it’s hard to feel it, right? Like it’s hard to feel that there will be a moment where we will look back and realize that some of the hard lessons of the pandemic will offer a certain kind of gift in the future. I mean, that’s just what I’m hearing from you. And also, that I think Bill, you’re suggesting to students that it’s important to give yourself a break when you need it and to remind yourself that it is hard. So, I, too, have had days where I just decide I can’t work and I will watch Netflix or do something else because it’s just — I couldn’t concentrate, or it was just too much. And so, I think also being able to tell us, tell ourselves, whether we are students or faculty, that what we’re doing right now is hard. It will get better, but it is hard. And that you know, it’s okay to ask for help, and it’s okay to take a break as well. I’m hearing you saying that too, so well.
And as I said at the beginning, it’s also that it’s really easy to develop a warped picture of what it means to get anything done. So, when I say there are days when I get nothing done, there are days when I get nothing done back when things were in person. There are days when I spin around in my chair all day. There’s the good kind of day when nothing gets done, and there’s the bad kind. And I think there are days when I get nothing done, and I’m like, I’m not going to — I’m clearly not going to go get anywhere today. But I really want to feel guilty about that, where I feel like I should be doing more work, but like I said, that does feel like maybe the highway hypnosis thing where I don’t know whether I’ve actually not done enough work. It might be that I’m actually that things are fine and that I don’t know how fast I’m going because it’s dark. There’s no sense of perspective at all. And maybe I’m doing more work than I did before because there’s nothing — there’s not that much else to do. And back when things were in person, and people went into the office every day or whatever, it would have been evident to me, Oh yeah. It’s two o’clock, and I’m just; I’ve done everything I can do for the day. Now I’m going to go to sleep; I’m going to go to the pub. But when you’re sitting at home, it’s hard to get that point of reference say, oh, I shouldn’t, I should keep, I should try and read something else or whatever. You don’t want to give yourself a break because there isn’t this distinction between work and home and other things. It just there’s just one — and there’s no sense of time either. And so, it’s not only that — it is hard. It’s hard whether you have that work sense or not. Even if that isn’t so difficult for you, it’s really easy to lose track of how things are supposed to go and what a reasonable amount of work is. And the fact that back when things were in person, people still often didn’t get anything done. And that’s been something that I’ve had to — I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that no, I’m going to– it’s useful to do nothing. In some cases, even when I want to do work, I will try. I’ll cut myself off and say, “this is supposed to, this is what they used to call a weekend, Bill. You’re supposed to do something else on these two days a week, that sort of thing.” But it’s tough without that point of reference
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. And I think trying to impose, as you say too, you know, for a computer scientist you use a lot of metaphors by the way, just pointing that out. I appreciate that as a literary scholar, but thinking about the highway hypnosis, but this sense of that something that’s happened — and I think students experience this as well — that with the losing track of time, but what you’re also talking about, Bill, is a kind of blurring of all of those boundaries, between work and play and sleep, so that you kind of have to artificially almost impose those so that you have — since we don’t have the regular structures like you go to class is over, you go home or, you know, go back to the dorm or what have you. And then, okay, it’s dinner time, and then we’re going to the library. So now, if it’s all this one kind of continuum. So, for me at my house, like I go– I’m working in our guestroom, so it’s like home and work, it’s all completely messed up. So, it’s completely blurred. And I have to try to impose boundaries so that I do have some kind of a way in which it’s broken up right? So that there is a separation, but you have to put that– you actually have to be very intentional, I think, around applying those kinds of boundaries and separations, or you could, as you say, just end up working, far more than usual and all the time. I will certainly welcome being able to return to really working on campus myself and having some more of those divisions. You know, I think Bill, unless there was anything else that you were wanting to add to our conversation here, I feel like you have offered really so much useful and supportive ideas and advice for students around really just trying to manage this difficult time.
Bill Bird: I mean, the only thing I would throw in is if anybody’s listening to this, not just engineering, computer science students, but every time I do any kind of outside publicity event or something, I tell people just, hey, look, if anything I said was interesting, send me an email, go get my email, look me up, get my email from the department website or whatever.
Rebecca Gagan: Okay, we’ll put it on our post about the podcast, Bill, so that people can contact you and ask questions, or maybe they just want to further the conversation. And at least until such time, as you say, we can come together again on campus, and those conversations can happen a bit more spontaneously, for now, we’ll have to be, as you say, over email or over Zoom. But for now, I think we’ll, as you say with your encouraging words, I think that we’ll get through and we will look back and hopefully be able to see what we can’t see now in our sort of highway hypnosis and be able to see some of the gifts that, that perhaps this really tough experience has given us. So, thank you so much for being here today, Bill. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, and I’ve learned a lot.
Bill Bird: It’s been lots of fun.
Rebecca Gagan: In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning. I talk with another member of the UVic Bounce team, Adaezejeso Ezeaku. Daisy has just graduated from her undergrad degree here at UVic in psychology. And in this conversation, she shares how she felt that as a black woman studying at university, the expectations for achievement were much higher for her. She talks about how she was impacted and forever changed by an experience of racism on campus and how she continues to see learning as a process and negotiate the expectations and pressures as a student. I really hope you’ll tune in for this powerful and inspiring episode. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcasts. We’d love it if you would give us a like and a follow-on Instagram @UVicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.