Time seems the slow down in the week before classes start. It feels like the cooling, muggy air of late August effectively bogs down the steady clip of summertime making minutes feel like hours and hours feel like days. This slowing of time serves as a good reminder that our experience of time is indeed relative even if our increasingly precise time-keeping instruments continue to tick along at a steady pace.
The slowing down of time leading into the new school year complements a changing sense of space as we return to campus. This year, in particular, campus will feel different. Spatially the campus is largely the same as it was two years ago when it was filled with students and the pandemic was an odd news story from China. Now, there are a few new buildings crowding the historic quad, a few of the older buildings look a bit different, and the familiar campus quest for parking involves trawling through newly paved and configured lots. The changes in campus are not enough to confuse someone who has made their way onto campus for 10 or 20 years, but they do offer new vantage points for seeing the same familiar spaces and buildings. The remind me that space, like time, is also relative.
My class on Wednesday night is World Civilizations I which runs, depending on the instructor to 1500 or 1000. My class stresses the concepts of spatial and temporal scale and how it shapes the way in which we see the past on a global scale. For a first assignment, then, I ask my students to describe their situation – their location, their time, and their cultural, political, and historical contexts – to an audience 100, 1000, and 10,000 years in the future. The assignment was partly inspired by the project recently documented by Rosemary Joyce that sought to come up with ways to mark out nuclear waste disposal sites in Nevada and New Mexico. This exercise challenged engineers, anthropologists, linguists, and other specialists in the past and materiality to think about the limits of how our we represent ourselves will be understood by others. This imaginative act of radical “othering” forced these thinkers to consider critically not only how we communicate over time, but how time shapes what we say. This feels like a good way to start to get the class to start working together as groups while introducing a key theme that I return to throughout the class: scale matters.
The first time that I taught this class was pretty rough. It was a hybrid course in a room that was too small to accommodate the social distancing mandates put in place on campus. As a result, I had to break the class into six groups who met, two groups at a time, for 50 minute classes with the rest of the work and content being delivered online. This semester, the class will meet in our large scale-up classroom. This will allow me to maintain a certain amount of social distancing (albeit unofficially, since that mandate is no longer in place) and the classroom is better suited to group work than our standard active learning rooms. The large round tables support collaboration, each table has dedicated white boards, TV monitors, and laptops, and allows the class to spread out and create their own space to work. In my experiences teaching in this classroom, the organization of the space encourages engagement. In fact, I’ve written about it here and this article offers some interesting recent observations.
At the same time that I’m excited to get back to teaching in a familiar collaborative learning space, I’m also worried that the COVID pandemic and ongoing construction work on campus will make it harder for my department to feel like a cohesive program. If I understand it correctly, this coming year our department will be spread over four buildings and only teach in one of those four buildings. This divorce of our teaching from our office spaces is, on the one hand, not a bad thing. It facilitates, for example, the maintaining of boundaries between our research, service, and teaching obligations. At the same time, it puts us out and about on campus rather than sneaking almost invisibly between our classrooms and our offices on a single floor of a single building. Finally, it gives us an opportunity to build casual relationships with colleagues in other programs and in other departments. Moving offices is a pain, but it also has its advantages.
On the other hand, I do worry that the boundaries reinforced by the separation of our offices from our classrooms can be barriers to students. Many of our students, for example, are first generation college students and find faculty distant and sometimes intimidating. By hiding our offices away from our classrooms it might contribute to the idea that offices are “off limits” to students or that faculty are too busy to care. At my institutions, I’ve found this to be nothing further from the truth. I also worry that it’ll cause a sense of isolation or even alienation among faculty in my department. We tend to be fairly collegial and even friendly, but not a particularly collaborative group. I suspect the change in our spaces will do little to encourage us to work more closely together.
That all said, the changes to campus, new classes in familiar spaces, and even thinking actively about how we place ourselves on campus, in the region, and in the world gives the start of the semester a sense of excitement and potential about it. After last years disruptions and this summer’s tentative steps toward establishing a new normal, going back into the classroom and being on campus will feel good, despite all the anxieties and challenges.