Campus News

Dispatches from the distance learning front

Charles Anzalone and his students during a recent distance learning class.

ENG 212 instructor Charles Anzalone (top left) teaches his class via Webex.  


Published May 6, 2020

“The situation became clear: That unexpected online university applied just as much to this Department of English adjunct professor. ”
Charles Anzalone, instructor
ENG 212

Journalism teachers urge students to look for moments that convey rich representations and have larger significance.

Mine came when Alexander Reid, director of writing across the curriculum in the Department of English, wrote his blog “advice to students who unexpectedly enrolled in an online university.”

The situation became clear: That unexpected online university applied just as much to this Department of English adjunct professor.

A little background: I became senior editor/content manager with UB’s Division of University Communications 11 years ago, after 10 years as editor of the Buffalo News’ First Sunday magazine. I had taught writing and journalism at UB throughout those 21 years.

It’s hard to imagine ─ particularly these days ─ a more enjoyable and rewarding job than the one I have at University Communications ─ after all, they’re letting me write this article. Adding to that, there is something cleansing about standing in front of a classroom of students for more than two hours every Thursday night and backing up your promise to make them better writers. They can sense fear, and insufficient preparation. I found those face-to-face two-and-a-half hours a week in the classroom profoundly satisfying, and a natural complement to my full-time UB job. So I continued teaching.

That was about to change. My 23 students in ENG 212: Storytelling in the Digital Age met one last time in Clemens 129 the Thursday before spring break. From March 26 0n, it was distance-learning. No one knew what to expect, including their instructor.

So now, as we wind up the last week of COVID-19 classes, it’s time to circle back. Consider this an honest account of a professor comfortable with in-person teaching having to readjust ─ fast. Place it in the category of “If I can do it, just about anyone can.” And if ENG 212 can find moments of connection and breakthrough in these past eight weeks, think of what can be done with time to learn from what just happened.

Necessity as the mother of invention

Reality check: I approach this with all due humility and gratitude.

ENG 212 was no expression of the innovations some UB professors brought to their students. This was more basic. I simply repeated to my 23 students the original promise to make them better writers and better storytellers for the digital age, despite COVID-19. The words of Mara Huber, associate dean for undergraduate research and experiential learning, about embracing technology, not fighting it, rang true.  (More on Mara later.) The point is, I had to find enough technology to achieve our priority. I needed technology to fit the lesson plan.

So here is the lead of this story: By sheer will, brains and the unselfish help of the UB community, ENG 212 made distance-learning work, imperfect and flawed and inevitably frustrating as it is. There is no replacing teaching face to face. But given the reality, my ENG 212 students ─ scattered in their bedrooms or at their kitchen tables ─ learned how to write like journalists.

Every Thursday at 7 p.m., I’d sign on to Webex and watched the boxes of 23 students pop up. It always reminded me of the opening to “The Brady Bunch” television show, where each family member occupied a box in the screen.

In one of these boxes was Daniel Schweitzer, academic assessment coordinator in the Office of Educational Effectiveness, who I somehow found when asking Reid who could teach me Webex in time for the first class. Schweitzer has acted as my digital guide, standing by at the start of class to troubleshoot any glitches. Literally, I could not have done it without him (Mark Woodard, Sam Gura and Reid are also on the list of those in the UB community so unreasonably generous with their time).

Amber Falcheck and her cat "Jack" during a recent Eng. 212 online class.

Amber Falcheck shows the class her cat, Jack, after reading her description of him to the class.

‘Jack’ and the digital connection

Then I would start the class. We read articles together on a shared screen. We had roundtable discussions. We held online writing activities, such as using song lyrics to nurture a writer’s talent for seeing poetry in everyday life, sharing killer songs whose appeals crossed generations.

Together, we watched the venerable “Between Two Ferns” series and observed how not to interview. The Charlize Theron and Brad Pitt episodes are especially … instructive.

Somewhere along the line, I realized this could be fun.

Each semester, my students study the craft of physical description. Normally, they pair off to describe their classmates (sometimes they would describe me, which got more painful with each passing years), looking for physical qualities that reveal character. Now, the students have to use what is available. Amber Falcheck, a senior exercise science major, gave a masterful description of her cat:

Black cats have a reputation of being haunting, a symbolism of evil in some partsbut not my baby Jack. His piercing yellow eyes just want love and attention. If he’s not receiving attention by his cute face, he’ll let out a dainty meow to turn your head. Demanding to be petted, his velvet- like fur draws you in. Curling up on your lap, he radiates a feeling of home.

Then she held up Jack in front of her computer. Try that in Clemens 129.

We had guest speakers beam in from their homes. We used UBLearns to post work and then viewed it simultaneously. And of course, a litany of Webex video story conferences replaced in-person meetings.

Small, candid feedback came back throughout the semester. “I wanted to say thank you for doing live classes during this time,” one student wrote in an email. “Not many are (at least in my classes), and it makes this chaotic and stressful time feel more normal.”

The semester will ultimately be judged by the quality of work. Here are some memorable ones, along with apologies to those not included. Draw your own conclusions:

  • Hunter Skoczylas wrote a profile of his aunt, a nurse at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo who volunteered to go to Brooklyn Hospital Center during the COVID-19 crisis. He wrote about the day years ago when his aunt came to the aid of victims in a car accident.

“That rush was like no other,” she remembered. “Winning my volleyball championship that year didn’t even come close to comparing to the rush I got from helping those people. That day, I became a nurse.”

  • Ava Licata’s lead on her story about a young girl’s suicide attempt sounded like a mix of Hitchcock and Anne Rice, just more real: “As the world went black and she fell into a deep sleep, life was finally easy.”
  • Adegboyega Thompson composed a whimsical video to complement his serious story about his father’s coming of age in Nigeria.

So help me, with the world feeling out of control, what works is to stay on task, as long as possible. And every successful connection using that technology was empowering.

The distance-learning encore

A few weeks ago, I asked Huber to elaborate on her concept of expanding possibilities by embracing technology.      

“For me the difference between virtual instruction (or even learning) and engagement is profound,” she immediately wrote back. “If you are focused on engaging, you are trying to connect, add value or build capacity ─ in some way make something happen. When you are focusing on these types of goals, technology becomes a tool or resource.

“How can I use Facebook to stay connected? How can I use Zoom to learn more about my partner? How can I use the Internet to share recipes and cultural experiences? These types of questions make us more eager to experiment and explore possibilities. But when we view technology as an end in itself, we assume it’s all about using the technology correctly or being fluent with the latest platforms or apps. That can result in intimidation or lack of curiosity or adventure. It shuts down creativity.”

The ENG 212 final projects and essential rewrites continue to trickle in. I have 20 more students waiting to take ENG 212 this fall. Where is unclear. But Huber’s sage words are the best guide I have found to continue our academic resilience.