Teaching in the time of Corona

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, largely because it has so very little meaning these days. It passes, certainly. But, how we classify it seems all confused and out of sorts. For instance, I’m not sure if today marks the beginning of the last course to close out my fifth academic year (2019-2020) or the official beginning of my sixth academic year (2020-2021) teaching at the University of Helsinki. Why this confusion? Well the course that began today was originally planned for last spring, but was rescheduled due to Covid-19. Thus, we met for the first time today. Ambiguous time, right?

Thus, I’m straddling a weird place. Rather apropos for 2020, I suppose.

Regardless, as the time for that first ‘meeting’ of this specific course neared, I realised two things:

  1. I’ll never not be a bundle of nerves on the first day of the academic year or just prior to meeting a new group of students for the first time. It doesn’t matter how often I’ve taught the material or how comfortable I feel with it, I’m a nervous Nellie on the first day and through the first few moments of a class. Perhaps given that this was my first real-time Zoom class, I was even more nervous.
  2. This year more than most I am feeling so much solidarity with and love for every single teacher / instructor / professor I know at the moment. Whether their academic year features in-person, online or some hybrid format given Covid-19, and whether they teach the tiniest people or more seasoned and budding young scholars, educators everywhere deserve so much recognition and kudos as a special cadre of underappreciated superheroes in these times. I don’t know a single educator friend who is not a badass with the compassion of the Buddha to back up their mad skills. And, I know a fair many who are terrified for their students and themselves, which breaks my heart.

Today’s class went well enough all things considered. All of us are attempting to be a bit more forgiving and more patient with ourselves as well as with one another than perhaps we would be normally (speaking for myself here). We — students and educators alike — are all navigating strange times, and simply must deal with things as best we can and as they present themselves to us.

Hopefully, we all emerge from this surreal experience and academic year a little wiser and having met our individual and collective objectives as educators. And hopefully our students learn what we intended or planned for them and feel fortified and fulfilled, and ready to embark on whatever future awaits them.

I’m fortunate: my courses at least for the autumn term are entirely online. I would naturally prefer to meet my students in person. But, I’d much rather they and I remain healthy in these times. I genuinely hurt for those educators and students forced to enter situations in which daily they wonder if they are risking their own or their family’s health and well-being. No one should be forced into such a situation.

So, as Finnish school children and teachers across the country return, here’s to all of the educators entering the 2020-2021 academic year. In Finland, the United States and everywhere.

Be safe, y’all. And, I hope you feel supported and loved and recognised for your heroism and extraordinary efforts in continuing to inform, enlighten and educate your students. You’re value and worth are immeasurable and I for one and for what it’s worth salute you.

Google Doodle for 13 August 2020

Unintended restoration

Yesterday was weird.

It wasn’t until late in the day that I realised it had been two years to the day that we discovered our beloved feline, Cheeky Che Fufu, the Princess of Darkness, had developed kitty titty cancer. That particular gut punch was vividly relived after stumbling upon an image of her from exactly one year ago when she was still clear-eyed and sassy. It’s been roughly six months since we said our final farewell, a realisation that left me unsettled me and heartbroken all over again. Che Fufu’s been on my mind a lot lately, and her memory has thrown phantom shadows of her around my desk as I’ve worked. Whilst I am enormously grateful to our newest family member, the Tiny Terror that is Squeaky Pollito Pito Frito Fu, and his persistent play and silliness along with kitty hugs the likes of which I’ve never really known, I will forever be a member of #TeamCheFufu.

Simply put, I miss our darling beautiful girl.

With her in my mind and an incredibly heavy heart, my husband and I set off on our evening stroll yesterday evening, me silently shedding tears behind my sunglasses and my husband also lost in his own thoughts and concerns. We decided just after setting off that we wanted to try to get in a good long stroll. I think we both needed it. So, we headed for that tiny uninhabited island not far from our flat, Seurasaari, to see what we could see. Little did we know that Finland had plenty of treats in store for us, perhaps at a moment when we needed them most.

The light. The glass-like water surrounding Seurasaari. The sun gently sliding below the horizon over the water creating a kaleidoscope of colours. The shadows cast against trees at impossible angles, both bending and expanding the light in unexpected ways. And, so many reflections and images in every direction. At times we seemed so far in the woods only to be pulled back into the city as we looked across the bay in the direction of the city centre. The deeper we traversed, however, the more our moods lifted. And, the less our worries, concerns, heartbreak and woes weighed us down.

Thank you, Helsinki. We forget sometimes just how insanely beautiful you are. On days like these, there’s a certain restoration in simply getting out and moving about. Perhaps that was your intention all along.

One step at a time, part II

I did a thing, y’all.

The Cuban and I have diligently stuck to our evening strolls for several years now, our moment each day when we step away from gadgets and the rest of the world and meander around our hood and bond, chatting about whatever tickles our fancies on that particular day. Since June and the last of my lectures from the 2019-2020 Covid-thwarted academic year, I’ve been rather committed to walking and/or running in the morning and in the evening.

In an attempt to manage my own stress and find my long-absent running mojo, I began taking walks or running in the morning as well.
It’s been awesome, and helpful, and definitely helped me learn to love running once again. (Mind, I still hate running when I’m doing i; but I LOVE it immediately upon completion, and look forward to lacing up and heading out for my ritual of cursing running so that I can declare my love and devotion to it immediately afterwards all over again. Yes, it is a thoroughly dysfunctional relationship.)

Given this commitment, however, in June, despite missing several days of walking and/or running, I still managed to log just over 200 km, one of my best months ever since I began keeping stats.

Yesterday, I topped 300 km for July. And, with a few days left in this month still to run and walk, and with at least two more runs planned, plus our daily evening strolls, I may yet reach 350 if I get out there as much as I have been. [Insert joke about Sod’s Law and/or best intentions. Go on.]

I suspect once my teaching obligations at the university resume next month, I won’t have nearly enough time to continue this little experiment. But, I’m well-chuffed at the moment. To have been afforded the luxury of time (and no injuries other than a few blisters yet, touch wood) and decent weather to embark upon, this peripatetic experiment has been a gift. Instead of the hour I’ve set aside each morning, maybe I’ll cut the time down to half an hour. We shall see. For now, I’ll enjoy the time I have.

As much as I love our evening strolls, my morning meanderings have also offered me a chance to step away from the screen and consider and process so many things on my own. And, that’s allowed me to be a bit more present with The Cuban when we are out and about. And, allowed us the opportunity to explore our surroundings a bit more together.

My next goal is within reach, although I have no definitive timeline for its completion. But, I’ll get there.

One step at a time.

A scene from favourite evening stroll and walk from July.

School’s out

Taken on a Nokia 8. Munkkiniemi Frisbeegolf Course, Finland, 1 June 2020.

What a truly bizarre academic school year.

My last lecture for the 2019–2020 academic year was scheduled to take place this morning. But, covid-19 ensured that I would not physically meet with my students, and the entire last dash towards the end of the year was rather anticlimactic. I spent a portion of this weekend recording and cleaning up the audio files for my last lecture and sorting through my slide decks. And, by about 9.30 this morning, all of the lecture materials were uploaded and visible via various distance learning tools the University of Helsinki has made available to both instructors and students alike.

Now, I’m left with sorting through my inbox as final assignments filter in and submitting my final reports and student grades. No lovely send offs. No in-person thanks and well-wishes for equally productive and restorative summer holidays. No fanfare at all, it seems.

It kind of sucks, to be honest.

And, most educators I suspect have felt something similar for the last several months. specifically as they close the books (pun intended) for this school year. And, certainly at the end of this most memorable and challenging of academic years.

Teaching and lecturing are exhausting during the best of times, and more so when you must quickly adapt and adjust to new realities with relatively little warning at all. I’m fortunate. I love my job and find the exhaustion infinitely rewarding because of the returns earned through inspiration and continual intellectual challenges and breakthroughs for me and my students. I’m infinitely fortunate to have the continual support from my direct supervisor and immediate colleagues, and incredible students, all of whom as graduate students are more than capable of using their own reserves to draw upon for self-discipline and time management necessary to learning asynchronously.

But, goodness I miss lecturing.

The worry for me and the source of my overwhelming exhaustion this year relates to that constant concern that the courses and materials are not meeting their needs. That all of these tools and technologies made available to us are poor and rather inadequate substitutes for the real-life, in-person interactions we typically enjoy and use to gauge engagement and understanding. Interactions I enjoy, and ultimately use to measure my own performance as much as theirs.

Summer may have arrived in Helsinki for this university instructor and her students. But, much of this summer for me means revamping and reexamining how to make distance learning a little more palatable for my students as well as for me. How to make achieving our mutual learning objectives a bit more possible and attainable. And, how to make the experience a little less lonely and a little more fulfilling and more interactive even with social distancing measures in place.

And, here, again, I suspect I’m not alone.

We are all redefining what ‘normal’ means to and for us. [Instructor and teacher friends, we’ve got this!] We are all adjusting to new realities and wondering what various seeds of change drifting on one wind or another will sprout in the near and distant futures.

A welcome visit

Like everyone else in the world, Covid-19 has altered our world. We have socially isolated ourselves since 13 March, which seems like a lifetime ago. A friend who lives in our neighbourhood has stopped by a few times briefly for visits reminiscent of Romeo & Juliette’s balcony scene without the drama. But, aside from those chats, we have interacted with no one other humans beyond the supermarket staff and each other, our darling kitten and nature for the last 8 weeks or so. The uncertainty and weight of these times, along with various reactions to it are, overwhelming at times.

Yesterday, this guy visited one of the feeders we hang from our second-floor flat’s balcony. Our views largely consist of other buildings. But, we are close enough to woodlands that many birds visit our balcony daily. This gorgeous creature is a more recent and our most precious guests.

A family of woodpeckers visited our former flat daily throughout the spring and summer months. Since moving about 1.5 years ago, our only real regret was not seeing or hearing those woodpeckers outside our balcony, despite moving less than ~1 km from our former flat. We’ve missed that family, and their lovely little chirps as they fed on the treats we left for them. The appearance of this guy last week made my heart sing. And, was so utterly random. At one point as I watched the tits and finches feed whilst sipping coffee, he just appeared. Time stopped. And, the weight of the world lifted. For whatever reason, hope was restored. At a time when I needed a reminder of the good in this world, I was reminded that the tiniest of joy can and often do appear when you least expect them.

Yesterday, Woody — because all woodpeckers are ‘Woody’ to us — showed up to delight The Cuban, who quietly gasped, quickly ran to grab our fancy-ass camera and then crept as close as he could to snap this and many more pics. The look of pure delight on his face nearly made me cry.

Moments like these are so, so precious. And, we are beyond grateful for them. I’ll be taking a few moments each day now to simply sit at our table stare out the window and watch the birdies. No wonder Pollito Pito Frito Fu does this daily.

Covid-19 has not impacted us directly. The curve here in Helsinki and Finland remains relatively flat. But, since most of our families and friends are scattered across this world and far from us, we feel that distance more acutely these days. As accustomed to this as we are, the knowledge that we can do absolutely nothing to help those we love or be there for them is crushing. At least we have the technology now to stay in touch with everyone. And, to share our concern, unease and uncertainty as well as our hope with all those we hold near and dear as well as all of you.

Solidarity, y’all. Be safe and be well. And, thank you for sharing your views from across this gorgeous world. We are all in this together

The old world, anew

It’s that time of year when we spend more time outdoors in the light than indoors hibernating. And, the world is coming alive.

Yesterday evening’s traverse through and along well-familiar paths in our old neighbourhood was lovely. We’ve walked (and run) those well-worn paths hundreds of time in all kinds of weather and at various times throughout the year. Yesterday, those paths offered multiple views with perhaps fresh eyes, resembling some sort of post-apocalyptic dystopian landscape against a dramatic, grey sky. It was somewhat surreal. Both old and new. Perhaps that was simply our perspective this particular spring.

The trees are just beginning to bud. The ferns and grasses and low-lying vegetation haven’t begun to spring and shoot up. And, few flowers have yet to break through the surface of the just-unfrozen topsoil. Water flows through various creeks once again, with signs that everything was covered in a thick layer of snow not that long ago a distant memory.

Spring is springing in southern Finland once again. Even if things look a little weathered and weary, the old world is looking a little fresher and new.

A new world

After our move last autumn, we haven’t really had the time or the energy to explore our new-to-us surroundings. Even though we are less than 1 km from our old ‘hood, it’s like we’ve moved to an entirely different city in some ways. And, one in which we feel oddly much more at home.

Our flat itself is indeed home now. It felt comfortable that first night we spent here, despite the chaos of boxes and mess. But, we nested quickly and effortlessly. Beyond our front door, we’re still exploring and understanding this seemingly different Helsinki. Our shopping habits have changed. And, we now rely on entirely different bus routes, which are surprisingly much more convenient and more plentiful.

Given the weather, as well as schedules and other nonsense related to simply living, we are only now finding our daily groove and rhythm, and resuming our evening strolls. Yesterday, we explored a new route I stumbled upon earlier this week when out on a run.

And, oh my. We are so, so happy. There will be many an image from future strolls and runs, I’m guessing. As much as we loved Munkkiniemi at sunset, this is something else entirely.

Now, we’re closer to an island called Seurasaari, an unpopulated and rather underdeveloped little gem here in Helsinki.  Below, I’ve put together a selection from our evening stroll yesterday evening.

We knew this was going to be a fantastic outing relatively quickly. Just after we crossed over and approached the water’s edge, we heard a familiar sound: the tweets of a woodpecker. Much to our delight and awe, we witnessed a tiny little fledgling woodpecker in flight and then chipping away at a branch just over our heads. The pictures here suck. Apologies.

But, y’all, it’s moments like these that take our breath away and make us happy to be alive and here. In this place.

Vote. Please.

I voted weeks ago.

The process as an overseas American voter was relatively easy and straightforward for me. My biggest concern was that my voter registration information made its way to the Voter Registrar’s office in Connecticut by the deadline, and that I’d receive my ballot with plenty of time to mail it back ensuring its arrival before election day.

My registration arrived. My ballot arrived (via email—a first for me). I printed it off that day and mailed it back in early October. My civic duty was fulfilled.

This process is not new to me, given that I’ve voted via absentee ballot in every election since 2000.  I miss the I voted stickers, naturally. But, each year, I complete and fill in the overseas voter registration forms, mail them off and wait. It’s a pain, but it is necessary. Particularly now.

Please, vote. Far too many individuals do not take the time to exercise their right and civic duty by voting, particularly in mid-term elections. Far too many individuals assume that their one vote doesn’t make any difference at all. Far too many individuals think that politics has absolutely nothing to do with their daily lives.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t think of mid-term elections or my one absentee ballot as all that important. That changed in 2012, when I watched my husband vote in a municipal election in Finland.

Because we are residents in Finland, who have lived here for more than two years, we are granted the right to vote in municipal elections — not national elections since we are not citizens. But, we can exercise our voices on matters related to community-level issues, issues which perhaps affect us more. Those elections coincided with elections in the US, and I found myself researching candidates on both sides of the pond for both of my homes. But, I also watched as my husband took his civic duty incredibly seriously.

It wasn’t until after he voted that I fully understood how meaningful that experience was for him. Immediately after he voted, he said to me, ‘That’s the first time in my life that I’ve voted and known that my vote would be counted and it mattered.’ He was 52 years old at the time.

As a Cuban, who lived at times in the US and Russia, he was never able to take part in elections other than those in his home country. Cuban elections are not exactly ‘elections’. Given this experience, he understands perhaps more than most just how important showing up and exercising that privilege is. And, he understands voting as a mighty powerful privilege granted to few. He has not nor will he miss an opportunity to vote in Finland since being granted that right.

[To give you an idea of how seriously he takes this, during the last municipal election, he again researched candidates and platforms, discussed it at length with me, and then voted, and helped me get to the local polling station before they closed. Those elections coincided with a particularly awful bout of the flu which had me bedridden. As much as I was ready to blow off voting, he all-but offered to carry me to the polling station. I ended up voting about 30 minutes before the polling station closed.]

Voting is a beautiful thing to witness. That democratic process carries immense power, if only we exercise it. It conveys even more meaning and power to those who enjoy it later in life and do not accept it as a given. Voting is precious and can just as easily be taken away. We must exercise that right and we must protect by making informed decisions which matter not just for our own personal selfish reasons, but also for our society as a whole.

Please, vote. Encourage your friends and family and strangers to vote. Take the time to help someone vote if they need assistance finding or getting to their polling station. So, so many individuals wish they had the opportunity, right and privilege so many of us take for granted.

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Changes

Same desk, different feel.

On the last slide for my last class meeting in all of my classes, I include a picture of my desk. It’s messy. It’s filled with crap related to teaching and my work at the university and beyond. It’s also filled with non-work stuff, which I use to take various type of mental health breaks.

Fundamentally, it’s a reflection of me, with bits of nonsense peppered across the surface featuring the necessary and obligatory giant cup of half-drunk coffee and a water bottle or three.

My new workspace took so much less time to set up and feel ‘right’ than any other workspace I’ve previously created. Perhaps because I’d been thinking about it for a while. Perhaps because my system now works precisely as I want it to. But, this new space feels fantastic already and feels as though, once I sort the remainder of our packed life throughout the flat and truly and completely nest, this workspace will prove productive.

Yesterday, one of my classes met for the last time. It’s been a challenging few first two months of classes this autumn given our kitty breast cancer ordeal and the move. But, this class has been patient and attentive and worked incredibly hard, as well extended truly unexpected and most welcome kindness each week. I’ve entered class on some Monday evenings feeling rather homicidal. I’ve never left it feeling that way. Anyway, I needed a new pic for my last slide. Given that I’d only just finished setting up my desk about four hours before the class met, it’s rather miraculous I managed to get more than the absolute minimum sorted.

The image with the window to the left of my desk is my new space and I genuinely love it. The image on the right is my old workspace. As much as I loved it, I confess: I do not miss it, not even a little bit.

I still have some bits to sort out, naturally. But, I love this space. From where things are on my desktop to my desk’s contents to the views to the left (out the window) and right (to the living room).

Even better, on the other side of my screens, The Cuban sits at his own workspace.

Evidently, change is good.