Many of my freshman students have not been to the Cal State LA campus and the ones who have were probably on a tour. Due to the lockdown orders, most of their experience with the university has been entirely digital. And if their other classes were anything like mine, my students didn't so much have a campus as a series of floating heads.
For the self-driven student, this might not seem an issue. Students like these may not do much more than go from classroom to classroom; however, I like to think that even the the nature of the physical campus conveys possibility to the student. There are many doors that they won't walk through, but the act of walking past doors, of seeing professors who aren't theirs, doing things that might as well be in another language, are part of the college experience--the sense that the student is on one of many pathways through knowledge. As much as I enjoy breakout rooms and Zoom lectures, there is just no way that I can convey the magnitude of the university through my little screen.
But I noticed something over the Summer when I scheduled a virtual visit to the JFK Memorial Library. Besides the value of a different presentation style, having another employee of the University seemed to provide a reminder that other people at the university are working for the students. As our librarian shared her availability and email, suddenly there was a door that could be opened. How, I wondered, could I show my students that there were even more doors to open? How could I convey the vast web of people and relationships that supported the aims of the university?
Fortunately, I was able to convince two of my colleagues to act as "wizards" in my class, as long as I would do the same for them. Dr. Christopher Harris even bought a purple wizard hat, and to add to the effect I purchased an identical hat, out of which I would pull names for different activities.
I let my students know that we would be visited by "The Writing Wizard" at certain points marked out on our syllabus. This announcement was met with almost no reaction, which was to be expected of adults on a zoom call being told they would be visited by a wizard, but I didn't lose my faith in magic.
Even though I had been teasing the wizard in previous classes, that day, I didn't make mention of it. I had opened up a document with writing by a student who volunteered, and then claimed that I would be randomizing a second volunteer when I saw that Chris had entered the waiting room. I pretended that my hand got stuck in the wizard hat, and some of my students already started to smile. This, I think, is a reminder that acts of whimsy on a Zoom lecture will pay in dividends.
I pretended to get in some kind of struggle with my hat, and went off-screen to let Chris onto the call, who then appeared with his hat on, which as you'll recall matched the very hat I had been struggling with. "Hey everybody, it's The Writing Wizard," I said to a Zoom room of suddenly-smirking individuals.
We went on to discuss the paper of the volunteer, and of course our conversation had a markedly different flavor than when it's just me. The best part of it, I would say, was that there was less me. There was more calculation about what to say, how to say it, and less power for anybody to take-over the essay. In the future, I was able to have both Dr. Paul Cheng (who donned a fisherman's hat as The Wandering Writer), and Chris (as The Wizard) on a call, which led to our conversation taking on a podcast-like quality. I was able to act more as a facilitator of conversation between two experts, rather than ultimate authority.
At the end of those classes, my students expressed their thanks with an air of effervescence that I don't normally sense from them. I felt the gratitude that I was able to provide them with a fun experience that showed them that Cal State LA is there for them even if they can't see it.
I designed a revision assignment in which students were able to meet The Wizard or The Wanderer in a Zoom meeting to discuss their essay. Of course, not all of my students took that opportunity, but even for those who didn't, I was glad to show them that at least there were doors, and that unlike those that sit locked and quiet on campus, these could be opened.