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In my last posting here, I introduced you to jazz bagpipes as a metaphor for COVID-Thanksgiving. I was fascinated by the talent and enthusiasm of the performer—and through the rabbit hole that is the interwebs, I learned that her name is Gunhild Carling and that she is a Swedish performer (and prodigy). She has been singing and playing multiple instruments in her family’s (and now her) band since she was a child. She’s also sews her own dresses—producing a new one for most of her shows. She’s great fun to watch—she clearly delights in performing.

What’s more: as I fell through said rabbit hole watching her numerous videos, I discovered yet another metaphor in her performances. You see, Carling can play 3 trumpets simultaneously. Impossible? That’s what many of us teachers thought going into this semester. In my three classes, I had students in-person, streaming, and asynchronously remote. I never knew who would be in class or what technology might plague me on any particular day. Every class period called for improvisation, flexibility, patience. And yes, a little bit of a performance to engage students sitting distanced and masked or watching through the deadening lens of Microsoft Teams. Here’s a little bit what it felt like (come for the 3 trumpets, stay for her also playing the bass and balancing/playing the trumpet simultaneously).

It’s easy (and accurate) to focus on the challenges of such a pedagogical set-up. For example, interactivity is key to teaching, so the fact that I couldn’t see facial expressions—and students couldn’t see mine—was a real difficulty. Early in the semester, I worried I might be getting COVID when my throat felt a little sore–until I realized it was the vocal strain of holding class discussions in an auditorium that seats over 300 and of teaching first year composition in the beautiful, but echoey, cavern of our Art Gallery. And yes, there were technical challenges and a workload that tripled in order to serve students in all the situations and places they found themselves.

And yet. As I have been reading final exams and projects over the last several days, it appears that learning happened. My first year writers each produced portfolios of over a hundred pages, honing their research and revision skills into some quite excellent final pieces. My seniors in the departmental capstone read and reflected on twelve books and assorted other shorter texts, ranging from memoirs, novels, and poetry to linguistic theory and ancient hermeneutics, all while producing their own short stories and research papers and creative nonfiction. And my British literature survey read poetry and novels ranging over 200 years; they wrote 300 word reflections for every class meeting of the semester and composed essay exams to synthesize all they were learning. Their final exams are full of testimonies to the ways our literature helped them navigate this moment and provided hope in the darkness. If I didn’t know better and I was only judging by end-of-the-semester products, I’d be impressed by the quality of the work on its own merits. When I think about the commitment to learning it took to accomplish it, I am doubly impressed.

Communities reveal themselves in crisis. Through it all, I was struck by how much students wanted to be together, wanted to participate, wanted to do their best. And they did. I had a streaming student in Indonesia, for example, who never missed a single class period, despite the 12 hour time difference. Though I had my doubts when the semester began, we were able to meet together in-person until the governor closed colleges in the wake of rising COVID numbers in the days right before Thanksgiving. Much of the success of the semester was also down to an administrative team who planned carefully, a staff who delivered IT help and disinfected buildings and coordinated student care in the residence halls and so much more, and a faculty who collaborated with each other to solve technological and pedagogical challenges.

Was it always perfect? No. But I wonder if it ever really is. Maybe a COVID-shaped semester is a perfect chance to interrogate oneself and the easy routines long-time educators can fall into. For me, being forced to play three trumpets at once, as it were, made me think again about my aims as a teacher, about the best ways of “performing” my teaching so that students are able to begin playing their own instruments well. I asked myself often: what does this pedagogical moment require of me? How can I help students still love learning–and feel like they can be successful–even if I’m shouting at them through my mask about thesis sentences and Modernist poetry and internet linguistics? How can I model equanimity in such disorienting times? What are the essentials–and what not? And what is my role in being both pastoral and professorial to students who are struggling through a learning experience that could be alienating and stultifying?

Of course, we have at least another semester of all of this just around the corner. But this semester proved we could do it (imperfectly, no doubt, as we always do) when we prioritize paying attention to caring well for each other. That seems like an important lesson.

And it probably helps that being forced to teach in such radically different ways has made professors learners again. We’re always adding to our knowledge base, but in this case, by learning new technologies, devising new ways of course delivery, reconfiguring course content, one is reminded of how difficult learning can be, how many failures it takes before one gets it right. For those of us in the senior ranks of the professoriate, it’s a good reminder of how long it takes to master a new body of knowledge–something, perhaps, that we have not had to do for a number of years. In that way, we share more in common with students than we have in a long time.

Maybe because of that, I’ve thought a great deal in this Advent season about the kenotic love of the Incarnation, about Christmas as a celebration of Jesus’ ultimate act of humility. This fall, as I do every fall when I teach our senior capstone, I end with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and we meditate on Eliot’s observation that “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” That sentiment seemed particularly resonant for this COVID-shaped year, for our COVID-inflected classrooms, when we have had so little knowledge, so little control of a virus and its devastating aftermath. But rather than risk despair or paralysis in the recognition of all that one does not know and does not control, Eliot argues later in the poem that “[f]or us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” “Not our business” because, as we embrace humility, as we recognize our limitations, we work as we can, realizing again that the results are God’s and God’s alone.

What a relief.

And how wonderful to rejoice again in the ultimate hat trick: the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit actively at work to redeem and bless. Merry Christmas!

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


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