Interview with Eliana Shapere
Eliana Shapere, Rising Sophomore, Barnard College
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a first-year student. I’m about to be a sophomore. I go to Barnard and I live in Lexington, Kentucky and I heard about this interview through my Teaching Assistant, Clare Casey, from my anthropology class with Professor Paige West. I’m a Scholar of Distinction, which is a humanities and social science research program at Barnard directed by Professors Paige West and Ellen Morris.
That’s so cool. What is the Scholars of Distinction program?
It’s four years and we get to do research on anything we want basically. And each week we have a meeting with a different guest speaker from all sorts of different fields and sometimes we go on field trips. One thing that was really cool this year was we went to the Natural History Museum and got a tour from one of the chief curators.
Talk about how online learning has been going for you and if there’s anything that surprised you about the transition.
At first, I was really not into online learning and it just made it so hard to focus because I was taking my classes on my computer and my Wi-Fi doesn’t always work. Even though I thought we had pretty good Wi-Fi, sometimes in my house there would be three or four people on Zoom at the same time and even when I go in a private place, I could hear noises from all over the place. I was surprised that as I went along I enjoyed new aspects of some of my classes that I didn’t enjoy or that didn’t appear to me when they were in person.
My first-year writing class was a really tight community before we went online and that community stayed and although we learned a lot about academic writing in the class, it was also so nice because my teacher checked in with us to see how we were all doing. She really kept in mind that we all had different circumstances and time zones. And it really cemented for me that I think most teachers really, really care about their students, because in all of my classes the teachers took the pass/fail thing to heart and we had all kinds of optional assignments. Everything was either optional or low pressure. It was easy to get extensions and I think practically everybody got extensions on most things. I was surprised how accommodating every single one of my teachers was, at Barnard and Columbia.
Did the professor who checked in with everyone do that during the class period or did she reach out to you individually?
That was during the class period. But Paige West sent us some emails checking in and she said that if we really needed to we could text her or contact her - not about school stuff but about how we’re doing. That was incredible, because it was a huge lecture course.
You said that your first year writing class got tighter. Do you feel that the sense of connection with others in the class has been strengthened as well?
I think the connections I’ve already had have stayed about the same with specific people. It is hard when it’s not in person. Socializing and talking to people online is never going to be the same as talking face to face.
What are some of the things that are really not the same, that you really can’t replicate online?
Well, even if I can see your face right now, I’m looking at my screen, it’s not really your face. There’s probably a lag. It’s pixely. At its worst it feels like I’m interacting with a robot and at its best I forget about the technological barrier and the positive stuff really shines through. Zoom is a really great tool, but it also has limitations that will never be overcome. No matter how good your connection is, how most interactions online for me have been going is: if I already talked to the person a lot in class before we were online then I feel comfortable talking to them on Zoom. Though in my French class, we did a lot of breakout rooms and I actually got comfortable talking to people that I didn’t really interact with until we went online.
And you said in the beginning you were having trouble with noises and privacy at home. Is that something that’s continued or have you found that that is not as much of a problem now?
The noises and privacy - it’s been the same the whole time. But we’re all just doing our best. Like, if my mom needs to come in my room, if she has to get something and she has to get it during my class then she’s just doing her best, so it’s fine. For me it hasn’t been a really big problem.
What experiences from this period have you seen as positive experiences, if anything?
Definitely some things. I would have thought that coming to college in New York was like the next big step in my life and I would’ve thought that it would have been more depressing and stressful to come home, and kind of like a step backwards. And while sometimes I feel like I’m back in high school, it’s been such a blessing to be able to spend extended periods of time with my family because I don’t know when it will ever be like this again. I don’t know when I’m ever going to live at home for this much time again. And I have much more time to spend with them now because when I was in high school I just was in school for eight hours and then I had my activities for like five hours and my homework until three in the morning. And now I just don’t. College Zoom classes don’t require nearly that much time.
Do you feel like there’s been anything positive from this period that you’ve seen in your academics or classes?
Yeah, there have been some good things. One time in my first-year writing class we had this final paper due and I just asked at the end of the class if anybody wanted to form a writing group to finish their essays. And a couple people went in the writing group and that was really fun.
That’s so cute.
My teacher was so happy; she was like, “My work is done.” And I’ve been having little Zoom study calls with people and we keep each other in check. I really miss studying with people in person, but I didn’t even do it that much when I was at Barnard and now I think I’m going to do more study groups with my friends.
What does a study group look like for you? Do you call and then basically have the video on while you do your work?
Yeah, that’s basically it. And sometimes we set a timer and work for half an hour or so and then talk for five minutes and then do another timer and try to make sure that we’re focused.
That’s a good tip!
That was fun.
What has been the thing that has challenged you the most in this period of online learning?
Besides the loud house and bad Wi-Fi and laggy calls and technological problems, which I think is pretty universal, it was a bit of a struggle, that I didn’t really overcome, to find other sources of motivation besides grades, what with the Pass/Fail. And I think I really have an intrinsic desire to learn, but I kind of fell away from that during my freshman year. I’m really working on merging my schoolwork with my personal desire to learn and my personal interests. The Pass/Fail was so great, but it created that struggle. It was just really hard to motivate myself to finish stuff when due dates weren’t fixed either.
It was hard to finish assignments quickly because due dates weren’t fixed. But I recognize now that grades and due dates are just things that universities think are helpful and that have worked in the past, but I don’t know if they’re the best way to motivate people. They may not always be the healthiest thing and grades and hard due dates are definitely part of our stress culture.
Would you say that you struggled with academic motivation before the switch to online learning or did that start with the switch to online learning?
I definitely struggled with it before also. Yeah, New York is a distracting city. Sometimes I would rather just be in New York and not doing my calculus problem set.
You talked about how you’ve struggled to merge your intrinsic desire to learn with academic motivation. Do you think that you could articulate what is standing in the way of those things merging?
I don’t like to be told what to do and, in my classes, feel like I’m being told what to do, so when I’m learning something on my own it feels freer.
That makes sense to me. What kinds of things do you like to learn on your own?
Basically anything. Literally anything. I love to read Wikipedia and watch movies to learn, I guess.
What’s a movie you’ve watched recently that’s been good?
That I didn’t watch for my film class? Midsommar; it was pretty good. It was revolting when I was watching it, but I can’t stop thinking about it now and it was really beautiful even though it was really gross.
That’s really cool that you’re taking a film class. I’ve never taken one, what’s that been like?
I took one last semester and this semester and they were so fun and I learned a lot. I took a French film class and an Intro one. And if you’re taking a language you should take a film class in that language. It really improves your conversational skills.
What have you learned about yourself and your own learning processes during this period of online learning?
Well, I started to learn even more about stuff that I already knew and I learned that I learn well through conversation and discussing with people. And so I took advantage of my optional office hours for my TAs and sometimes my professors and that was when some of the best learning got done. And also talking to my friends is a big part of my learning process. And it sort of works online, but it has to be intentional online: I have to call someone up to talk to them about class and sometimes we just end up talking about all kinds of other things. But casual learning is one of my favorite things.
Did your professors have office hours online?
Did you go to those?
No, only my TA office hours. And my professor’s office hours maybe twice.
How did that compare to the experience of going to office hours in person?
It was much more intimate and I felt more comfortable, actually. And in the future, I would love to have TAs and professors do remote office hours, even if we’re on campus at the same time. It saves people a lot of time from having to commute, and some people have accessibility issues. And it just feels more comfortable to do it online for some reason.
What made it feel more intimate?
I think it felt like we weren’t being watched, maybe, by the next student sitting outside waiting. And a mutual feeling of ‘This is optional, so let’s both just give it our all.’
If you could give professors advice for teaching virtually, as someone who has now been through some months of online learning, what would your advice be?
My teachers did a really good job acknowledging that everybody has different resources and privileges and access to technology and time. And then talking to my friends, especially my friends who took large intro STEM classes, some of their teachers assigned even more work online than they did in person and a lot of people couldn’t keep up with it. And my teachers decreased the workload and really kept with the spirit of Pass/Fail. So I would suggest that teachers from all subjects - if we continue to be online - make deadlines. Deadlines should be fluid, but not so fluid that people don’t do the work within a couple of weeks of the due date. Also [I suggest] assigning less work, maybe keeping the assignments they already had planned as optional if people want to and can do them. And I really liked breakout rooms. I would love it if that continued to be a big part of our online learning.
How were breakout rooms used in the class where you’ve used them?
They were for my French film class. We did breakout rooms sometimes for almost the whole class and the teacher had a Powerpoint with questions and screenshots from the movies to discuss, so we just discussed them in groups of three or four in French. And that was also more comfortable than in real life, maybe because we could throw in words in English if we needed to, if we didn’t know the word in French, without fear of the teacher hearing us speak English. And I was less self-conscious about my accent because it was only a couple of people listening to me talk in French and then we would all present what we discussed to the larger group at the end of class.
Was it the same people every time?
No, it was different people. I liked when it was different people because everybody has a different skill level in French. I asked the teacher to make sure that our discussion groups had different people each time and she listened to that advice.
What would you like to share about your experience that I haven’t asked you about yet?
I really miss living in New York. I’m really lucky that I can shelter in a nice house and that I don’t have to be working right now and that the work I do for my family isn’t taking all my time so I have a lot of time to focus on my classes. But I miss going to museums for my assignments and just going to them for fun and relating what I’m learning to stuff that I see in New York. And all the different people that you can just meet on the street in New York. And I miss going to the library with friends and eating dinner with friends. And all the little learning that happens between classes. So much of learning happens between classes. And I don’t know - I don’t think you can put a price tag on it, but I think that is part of what we’re paying for with our large tuition. I do wish I could get a refund for the networking that we’re paying for. I might as well be going to the University of Phoenix with really good teachers and really good students.
I would imagine that as a first year, there’s something extra challenging about being sent home when you were just starting your college experience. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, definitely. I took a gap year and I wasn’t at home for most of it. I went to Europe and Cuba for a few months and it was so fun. And then I was home for a month and then I went to Barnard, so now I’ve been home for the longest that I’ve been home since high school.
Being a freshman and then coming home, yeah, it was very sad and I was just making my second semester friends and we were getting much closer, I was getting closer with my friends from first semester and starting to feel really comfortable in New York. And New York is definitely maybe my number one home.
I feel like I can be much more myself in New York than in Lexington, Kentucky, for all kinds of reasons. And now the only people that I’ve seen in real life for the past two months have been my mom, my dad, and my brother. And I really love them, but I’m missing the freedom to express myself that I had in New York. And all the crazy cool people that I knew in New York and now I don’t see them. Yeah, I was really just getting started. But I guess it’s not like a door has closed. I’m just going through a new door and it probably leads to the same place. But being home has forced me to not be so attached to my big achievement - my big plans that I had that relied on resources that I had in college and in New York. And it’s not really a bad thing, but it’s just kind of sad.
Interview by Sophia Gates, Rising Junior, Barnard College