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Session R6299 (Let’s Put It All Together!: Pedagogical Fluency in the Middle East Studies Classroom after 2020), 2021
“Please refrain from driving while on Zoom”: Safely and Successfully Teaching Middle East Studies Online in the Twenty-First Century

“Yes, you are going to need liability insurance and language instructing students not to drive and zoom.” Those were the concluding words of advice from a labor attorney at the end of one of the most sobering conversations I had in some time. I had contacted the attorney as an afterthought but realized that I had entered a new world where I might make a serious mistake or be liable for one made by one of my students. As I wrote up my detailed list of instructions for my syllabus, I still asked myself: Do I really need to tell students that they should not zoom while driving?

During my first Zoom class I got my answer: after I reviewed the guidelines about driving and other class matters, a student politely asked whether she could continue to participate in the class while she drove the ten minutes to get home. I thanked her for her question, adding she could rejoin the class without penalty after she was home. Perhaps sensing the irony of the situation, a classmate joking yelled, “I don’t want to see you die on Zoom Jenny!” We all laughed but it was clear how dangerous the request was.

That joke broke the ice, spawning a productive discussion about how societies conceive of individual and collective responsibility. That discussion, the first of many during that semester, validated my decision to split my large lecture classes into groups of fifteen students to spark discussion. I enriched the discussions by assigning provocative topics while inviting speakers from around the world to speak to my classes. While I had used Skype to enrich my face-to-face classes in the past, I found that my students reacted even better to these experiences on Zoom because they could interact far more directly with guest speakers than they had in the past. To compensate for the lectures that I normally gave in face-to-face classes, I produced brief lectures modeled on conventional newscasts. Student feedback has been favorable.

I hope that my experiences can start a discussion about how we can safely take advantage of the opportunities provided by online teaching—a mode of instruction that is an essential element of higher education today and will remain so well after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.