Hungry for Company: In-Person Education During COVID-19

Graphic by Kapp Singer

“This is what I thought college would be.” 

With light streaming onto laughing faces around a table in Linsly Chittenden Hall, I couldn’t help but agree with Han Choi, BF ’24. The day was perfect; sunny-on-the-cusp-of-fall, our class congregated in a study room, our reading actually interesting. In our Champion sweatshirts, pristine Adidas Superstars, and blue Levi’s, we were veritable, honest-to-goodness college students. Yalies™.

Then, in a tsunami we felt coming but could not escape, we were dragged back to reality. The smiling faces were occluded by Yale-branded masks; only half the class sat around the table due to social distancing guidelines; one classmate was beamed in on a huge Zoom screen from his home in Northern Virginia. 

None of that mattered. We were in an in-person class. Perhaps the in-person class.

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For the first few months after receiving my trippy, spinning bulldogs admission video in December, I anticipated having the same college experience as the classes before me. Even when the world shut down, there was a hope that maybe, just maybe, everything would be alright in the fall. 

As our weeks in quarantine dragged on, we—the Class of 2024—came to understand that whatever happened in the fall, it would not be anywhere close to normal. “I was in the Class of 2024 GroupMe and people were really excited, people were bonding together, and we were trying to make the best of our year… but then I actually talked to an upperclassman who was from my [high] school,” Choi recalled. “She was worried that it was going to be miserable.”

When I arrived on campus, I expected the life advertised by Silliman Head of College Laurie Santos’ and President Peter Salovey’s emails: Zoom in the morning, Zoom at night, hospital atmosphere, no people in sight. I assumed I would rarely leave my residential college and was frankly unsure why I hadn’t chosen to study remotely or take a gap year. Was it the possibility of marginally greater social interaction? Was it a naive desire to hand money over to David Swensen? Was it because I had nothing better to do? 

“I felt like it would be the best opportunity for me to grow. I felt that even though it would sort of be a more pared-down, scaled back version of college, it would still be an interesting new experience,” Jenny Mao, BK ’24, told me, reflecting a similar calculus to my own. “I felt that Yale was doing a lot to try to preserve as much of our first-year experience as possible… since I was given the opportunity, I might as well take it, and I didn’t think that another semester of Zoom classes at home was the best way for me to spend my first semester of college.”

Every member of our in-person class I spoke to indicated a faith that there would ultimately be possibilities to spend time with people on-campus. When it came to college—though maybe not COVID—it was better to be around others than alone. “One of the reasons I chose to even come to Yale in the first place was that the social scene here is just so supportive and wholesome and just vibrant,” Isa Dominguez, TD ’24, told me. In explaining why she decided to come to campus, Isa cited the tenuous public health situation in her home state of Florida. But she also emphasized the social opportunities of being here in-person. “I definitely did think that despite everything that’s going on, Yale would try their best to make [life]… welcoming, as exciting, as engaging as it was previously,” Isa said. “Honestly, I am so grateful I decided to come.”

At this point, her voice broke a little. The feeling of isolation that frequently accompanies the transition to college—what USC has decided to call the “loneliness epidemic”—has been exacerbated by attending school in a real pandemic. I think she was acknowledging what we all, almost always, want to know: that we’re not alone. Even in the isolation of pandemic Yale, I’ve worried less about the need to feel connected lately. At least, since the quarantined Friday evening when I learned from Samia Sheikh, TC 24, that our English 120 section was going to be in-person.

Cue, in our case, rapidly rising volumes in the middle of Trumbull’s Alvarez Court.

Cue, in Isa’s case, overjoyed screaming.

Cue, in Jenny’s case, an understated, “I was pleasantly surprised.”

By the time we started in-person class a few weeks later, I was on good terms with my suitemates, knew most of my college, and was “enjoying” the process of cramming my schedule with meetings every night for the Extracurricular Bazaar. But none of it felt completely like college until I sat down in LC 204, pulled out my readings, and heard Han say, “This is what I thought college would be.”

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“I can talk about the pedagogical usefulness of [teaching in person], and I think it’s real, but there are also pleasures, too,” Professor Andrew Ehrgood, SY ’84, told me with a slight smile, which somehow managed to show through his KN95 mask.

In a very non-ideal world, it’s beautifully close to our college ideal.

Ehrgood, who teaches our in-person section of English 120, has had an almost uninterrupted career at Yale since 1980 as a student, Whiffenpoof, and now lecturer. He worked to make his section in-person because, as he says, his job as a writing teacher is “…To notice everyone. To notice how they respond to things that other students are saying, to things that I’m saying, to things that writers in the course packet are saying. And I can notice that better when I can see and hear everyone.”

As we’ve learned in Ehrgood’s class, this philosophy is as much about our ability to think as it is about his ability to teach. Jenny pointed out that “on Zoom discussion, the flow can be sort of stilted, just because it’s hard to read social cues.” It’s a feeling anyone who’s taken a Zoom seminar knows—awkward pauses as we try to figure out if someone else wants to talk, virtual hand-raising, struggling to figure out what the professor actually wants. To Ehrgood and, by extension, to us, English 120 is about “living verbally together.” That idea means, if not comfort, at least readiness of language and readiness of thought—both of which are not so easily found on the Zoom grid.

Beyond the practical advantages of in-person class, Ehrgood stressed its simple joys: “My favorite place is a seminar table… And when they offered the chance for us to have that, I asked for us to have that chance.” 

It’s a chance that everyone I spoke to has been grateful to have. An in-person seminar discussion has an entirely different quality compared to the stagnation of a Zoom seminar. Take my schedule, for example. I start off every Wednesday morning with a Zoom discussion section in which our kind, beleaguered TA comes closer and closer to flat-out begging us to talk. My camera is usually off for the first several minutes because I’ve barely made it out of the shower, to the dining hall, and back in time for class. I spend half the class checking emails and eating before the urge to say something turns me into the section asshole.

An hour after that section I attend my first-year seminar, a class of impressive readings, interesting classmates, and an entertaining professor that somehow still feels less than the sum of its parts. A few people speak consistently each session, with a rotating peripheral cast around them. It often feels like we’re rehashing, not discovering; we find ourselves raising hands and taking turns to speak not to each other but to the pixels constituting our professor.

Zoom certainly isn’t TikTok. But for many of us in the Class of 2024, it’s a similarly all-absorbing virtual reality.

Twenty minutes after that seminar ends, I show up at LC. I’m usually a few minutes late; people are talking, laughing, arguing about whether Spanish is a “passionate language” (in English class). We’ve moved to LC 103, a larger seminar room, to accommodate everyone and remain safe. We’re seated around a scratched-up, oblong brown wooden table, in scratched-up, angular brown wooden chairs. When class starts, we don’t worry (too much) about raised hands, and we communicate as much with our eyes and half-obscured expressions as we do with our voices. It’s the only class in which a direct response feels natural. There’s no hand-raising or awkward pause; when we stop to think, as we often do, it’s a communal process. Though Ehrgood holds the rudder, students man the sails and steer the wheel. In a very non-ideal world, it’s beautifully close to our college ideal. 

In no other class can I stand around—at a safe six-foot distance, of course—laughing and loitering with my classmates in LC. Jenny noted that “a lot of what makes college interesting is that you can strike up side conversations when you’re in class, or discuss the materials. It feels a little bit more isolated—you don’t really get that feedback when you’re on Zoom.” It’s impossible to deny that in our online classes, we aren’t able to make the kinds of connections that you make when you see a whole person, in-person, twice a week. The physical presence of others makes you feel like you’re in college—that you haven’t lost much at all, despite the mask on your face and the scent of sanitizer on your hands.

“I’ve never seen students so happy to be in one another’s company as your group this year,” Ehrgood said to me. “I tell people you’re hungry for company. You’re all first-years. You linger after class in ways that I’ve never seen in a seminar. And if all your classes were in person, if you had extracurriculars to run to, if you had next courses to run to up Science Hill, or whatever, you all might not linger as you seem to do. Some people get here early, a bunch of you stay later—[you] enjoy one another’s company.”

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The odd thing about an in-person class during a pandemic is that even when it’s not virtual, it is—at least for one of us. Sam Kim, JE ’24, is studying remotely this semester. He joins us every Monday and Wednesday as a majestic figure and booming voice emanating from a Zoom screen. “He’s not shy about [engaging in seminar discussion],” Ehrgood noted.

Sam was quick to say that, due to support from both Ehrgood and students in the class, his experience in English 120 has been enjoyable so far, even if there have been technical difficulties as we’ve moved from online meetings to in-person ones. But when asked if he felt like he’d experienced the same sense of community the in-person students referenced, his answer was pretty straightforward: “Build community? No, not really.”

Sam reflected that he “envisioned college as being social to the most superlative extent. You meet people, especially at Yale, people who you would not normally meet on an everyday basis in your high school or in your classes.” In stark contrast to the rosy vision of college Sam conjured, college on Zoom has proven to be much more atomized. He explained, “all of my interactions so far have been focused around classes.” 

While I’ve spent all this time extolling the community nourished by an in-person class, I’ll be the first to admit that that community wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the context in which the class occurs. We’re on-campus at Yale, with the social possibilities offered up by the residential colleges and the city of New Haven and the element of spontaneity. It’s that recipe that makes an in-person class feel like the final ingredient in the ‘college experience.’ 

Sam told me that he frequently doesn’t feel like he’s really in college. “I feel like I’m having the same experience I had as a remote high school student second semester… spending quality family time, keeping yourself busy with sports, catching up with old friends. You spend a lot of the day online listening to teachers lecture to you… It’s exactly the same.”

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In a class discussion just a few days ago, we were workshopping an essay Sam had written and nobly volunteered for our critical eyes. In response to the prompt “pursue a [critical] thought about some aspect of our culture,” he penned a detailed case against TikTok. As we analyzed the diatribe, many of us read it as a lens examining the question of real versus artificial communities. Sam’s argument was that even as TikTok provides a place for people to satisfy their craving for connection, it also causes users to lose “their ability to connect” in the real world.

The physical presence of others makes you feel like you’re in college—that you haven’t lost much at all, despite the mask on your face and the scent of sanitizer on your hands.

Zoom certainly isn’t TikTok. But for many of us in the Class of 2024, it’s a similarly all-absorbing virtual reality. We take class via Zoom, debate via Zoom, attend meetings via Zoom, join game nights via Zoom, hear presentations via Zoom, meet people via Zoom… All this in an attempt to recreate a physical reality that Zoom’s 25-block grids and “Stop Video” feature weren’t designed for. Zoom doesn’t strip us of our ability to connect in the real world. But with the real world currently blocked off by hazard tape, the result is the same. Whether it’s on TikTok or via Zoom, we’re lost in a disconnect.

Which is why having an in-person class matters so much. English 120 with Ehrgood is not the only one on campus, and it isn’t even the only one students in the class are taking—Han rushes over from an in-person First-Year Seminar, and Jenny has multiple in-person labs. But, as Ehrgood says, “I think this in-person section of English 120 is, for you first-years on lockdown, a chance to experience college as community.” The in-person class is our opportunity to forge bonds—to experience what we seem to have collectively envisioned as “real” college—even when those bonds seem six feet out of reach.

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