Whiskey, guns, and SpongeBob: The University of Virginia goes digital

Colleges around the nation have switched to online instruction, with some hiccups along the way. Illustration: Jason Crosby Colleges around the nation have switched to online instruction, with some hiccups along the way. Illustration: Jason Crosby

 

“I’m going to kill a fifth during this lecture,” announced one student, holding a bottle of whiskey aloft as his classmates tuned in for a Zoom meeting of a UVA data science class.

“I can hear you,” the professor said back.

As coronavirus has swept the nation, universities across the country have had to go digital, ditching in-person class meetings in favor of video conferencing. The transition has come with plenty of thrills and spills: Clips have circulated of college students confidently striding naked through the frame, getting their hair braided, or taking bong rips while the professor rambles on. As the above anecdote from recent grad Alex Hendel suggests, UVA students and faculty have taken their fair share of digital pratfalls in the two weeks since online classes have begun.

Politics professor Allen Lynch sent an email to his class on Thursday afternoon, admitting that he had delivered his entire 75 minute lecture without pressing record. Only the first six seconds made it online. When a student pointed out the error, “my heart sank,” Lynch says.

He forged ahead and delivered the lecture again the next day—but once again, after concluding, noticed he had failed to hit record. “One more time tomorrow!” said the respected Russian politics scholar, before finally managing to upload the lecture on his third try.

Second-year engineering student Nora Dale says the distance makes her advanced math classes harder. “I can’t show someone my screen easily, to show them my code or a math problem, in an online format,” Dale says. “A lot of the time I would swing by office hours to ask one question, but now office hours—you have to meet over video, you have to join the queue, it just takes so much longer.”

“The golden lining is that sometimes people show their pets on camera, which is always cute,” she says.

Participants might be scattered thousands of miles apart, but in a sense, online learning provides an unparalleled intimacy. Sometimes these glimpses into the lives of colleagues are lovely. “I learned my English professor color codes her bookshelf!” says fourth-year Gracie Kreth.

Other times, such peeks are unsettling. Third-year Emmy Monaghan says that in her anthropology class, a student was disassembling and cleaning a gun on screen during the lecture. “It was so wild…it seemed very intentional.” Monaghan says. “My professor sent out an email yesterday telling us that we need to have our cameras off from now on.”

Some students have taken it upon themselves to provide a bit of levity in these difficult circumstances, with pets or otherwise. First year Aidan Reed noticed a Zoom feature that allows users to project a digital background on their calls, and attended his English seminar from a pineapple under the sea—projecting the inside of SpongeBob’s house behind him as he sat in class.

“One of my favorite shows of all time is “SpongeBob,” and I thought it would be funny because everyone’s in their house right now,” Reed says.

With the world in disarray, and everyone forced to learn a new system on the fly, it’s as good a time as any to relax the rules a bit. “I wanted to make people laugh,” Reed says, “because I’m sure everyone’s pretty miserable going through all of this.”

 

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