ASU English's pivot online

As global events in early 2020 necessitated a shift to virtual learning rather quickly, the Department of English worked hard during 2020-2021 to make a successful pivot online. One way the department spurred community was by offering various engaging and informative events and classes via Zoom, many of them previously only available in-person.

“After the abrupt shift to online instruction in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sheila Luna, senior graduate program manager, “our wonderful and dedicated TAs stepped up to the plate to shift their delivery of writing pedagogy and worked hard to cultivate meaningful and successful online learning communities. Demands on their time were intensified as first-year students under the pandemic required more attention. Some TAs did not have much experience in online teaching, but our TAs have shown resilience, flexibility and dedication to the department and to ASU’s undergraduate students.”

February 22, 2021 "Coffee Talk" event hosted by ASU English

One of the “silver linings” of offering all online events was the connection of our online community to our in-person community, which invited ASU Online and Tempe students to attend events together. While many in-person ASU events had begun offering online components when possible, some in-person events were difficult to transition. Shifting to fully online in March 2020 required ASU colleges and departments to find new and interesting ways to take the various fully in-person events online.

The Graduate Scholars of English Association (GSEA) took up the mantle of creating fun and engaging events for Department of English students. “GSEA is truly committed to supporting the ASU graduate student community, both in person and online,” said GSEA English education representative and current PhD student Rebecca “Becca” Chatham. “While those of us on the GSEA Board are struggling with many of the same difficulties as the rest of the graduate student population in terms of the pandemic and general #gradschool woes and issues, we also are working as a team to develop and to continue to offer workshops, trainings, and social activities that strengthen the community we are always trying to build and sustain within the English department.”

One such event GSEA offered was “Yoga and Meditation.” Conducted by Chatham, who is also a registered Yoga instructor, the class was available monthly via Zoom, giving students a respite and opportunity for restoration. “One of the rewards of Zoom yoga is that people from anywhere can join!” enthused Chatham. “Time zones and drive times and traffic and many other impediments have been removed, allowing more people to access yoga (my own classes and others' classes) when it works for them. Breathing and moving together can help connect us, despite our physical distance from one another.”

Another student-led club that found themselves working quickly to shift into the online world was The Spellbinding Shelf Book Bloggers. A student led organization, they are open to all ASU students (on-campus, online, undergraduate, and graduate) focusing on writing bookish posts on fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for their blog The Spellbinding Shelf. Rachel Hagerman, an undergraduate student in writing, rhetorics and literacies and one of the founders of the organization, explained further: “I wanted to build an opportunity for ASU students of all backgrounds to gain practical editing and writing experience,” she said. “My dream was to create a space where like-minded bookworms could build friendships, grow together, and develop professional skills. I reached out to two of my best English major friends—Makenna Knighton and Payton Kline—to help me found The Spellbinding Shelf Book Bloggers and make this dream a reality.”

Their student organization pre-COVID had been accessible to online and in-person students, so shifting to fully online was quickly adaptable. However, the group did always try to plan at least one in-person gathering each semester to give their members time to socialize and really get to know one another. “In Spring 2020, we originally planned a movie night for the latest Emma adaptation. However, with the shift to online, we had to get creative with our social event. We ended up hosting a Zoom Book Spine Poetry Night, which was a fun solution to our problem,” Hagerman reminisced. “This gave our online, out-of-state bloggers the chance to participate in the social event as well, whereas they wouldn’t have been able to come to the movie theater with us in our original social event plan. Because the quarantine shook us out of our normal patterns, we were motivated to create a list of social engagement opportunities that connect both our online and in-person bloggers.” The group is more motivated than ever to continue offering social events that include their online bloggers in the future.

Beyond department-specific opportunities for students, other offerings included global internships that became more accessible to all students with the shift to virtual. “This resulted in more inclusion and engagement of Department of English students who were not able to travel overseas for an on-the-ground internship,” explained Ruby Macksoud, director of internships for English. Many undergraduate and graduate students took part in CAPA, an internship program partnered with ASU Study Abroad. Some of the locations where students were able to travel in the past—and, recently, participate online—were London, Florence, Barcelona, Dublin and Sydney. The internships vary each semester depending on availability and what the different companies in these locations need for that specific time, so in many instances, the internships themselves can change.

An example pandemic-era internship in which one student participated was with The Screen Directors Guild of Ireland in summer 2020. “My experience completing the internship virtually can be described as positive and invaluable,” said Amanda Morris, a film and media studies major. “I was able to broaden my international connections, learn about new cultures and perspectives, launch my personal and professional involvement in Ireland, and acquired a new academic skill set that I would otherwise not have achieved without this virtual internship.”

It’s fun to meet our friends’ cats and dogs. Cats seem to have a natural affinity for Zoom!

—James Blasingame

One way the department continued to keep the ASU community at-large connected with the humanities is through topic-driven “Flash Talks.” Fully through Zoom, faculty and students signed up to present their work through five-minute “flash” presentations. The department hosted several of these events throughout 2020 and into 2021. One ghoulish themed event that took place on October 28, 2020 was entitled Monster and Mayhem Flash Talks. *Cue dark music* Jim “Evil Timekeeper” Blasingame was in charge of keeping the presenters to their allotted five minutes while host Peter “Ravenous Lionfish” Goggin introduced each speaker, beginning the event with his own presentation. “This event really demonstrated that good scholarly academic research can be fun and entertaining,” said Goggin. “In Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich describes rodeo as ‘the wild child of ranching’—the opportunity to showcase the skills, knowledges, and multiple literacies necessary to acquire for doing the serious work. For academics and aspiring academics,” Goggin chuckled, “flash talks are the wild child of scholarship and teaching.”

ASU English faculty and staff—most fully remote and physically distanced since March 2020—worked hard to keep students engaged in an online world. But they found that they too needed to feel a connection to the ASU community. Thus the department created monthly “Coffee Talks.”

“It’s a fun time to catch up and I’ve learned a lot about other colleagues!” said host Michael Begay, Department of English front office coordinator. “It gives me a chance to test out my ever-changing Zoom backgrounds, too.” Taking place in the morning, faculty and staff were encouraged to bring a beverage and discuss any weekend stories. Wandering animals that happened to come into camera view were welcomed. “It’s fun to meet our friends’ cats and dogs. Cats seem to have a natural affinity for Zoom!” laughed Blasingame, who also co-hosted these gatherings.

Kira Assad

Image: Screenshot courtesy Michael Begay of the February 22, 2021 "Coffee Talk" event hosted by ASU English. From left to right, top row: James Blasingame, Michael Begay, and Peter Goggin. Bottom row: Lisa Han and Mary Fergus.