This article is part of the Call for Papers: Student Voices series.
After the extended shutdown of in-person classes in colleges throughout the United States, we began to return to “normal” this fall by returning to campus and classrooms physically. Having taken virtual courses in graduate school, I already feel a yearning for that learning format. My opinion could be unusual and unique because most of my classmates are excited about the campus' reopening. When returning to the physical classroom, aka. “back to the normal,” I do not feel very delighted to “embrace” the in-person interpersonal communication. For me, normalcy can connotes the nascence of nerves and nervousness.
Born in the early 1990s, I am afraid of not identifying myself as a cyber native in China. Unlike those kids who know how to wake and unlock their parents' iPads before their morning alarm rings, I grew up in the pre-Google world. However, thanks to my uncle's research position in an academic institution, I began to use a PC in his lab in the mid-1990s, while most Chinese people at my age may have had no opportunity to click and type until the first time they took the course "Information Technology" in middle school. In 1999, the same year when the Big Tech company Tencent released its first social media product, OICQ, which changed its name to QQ one year later, I created my first social media account. I have used online social media for over 20 years.
Why do I take almost 150 words to discuss my early life before the pandemic? I don't intend to show off my "privilege" to access the Internet much earlier than most people in China. At this moment, I may feel regretful, not grateful, for my parents' encouragement for me to access social media so early. Partly attributed to my chronically heavy use of social media and social networking, I have suffered from being anxious with in-person communication for over a decade. I don't intend to or claim to be able to diagnose myself with "social anxiety disorder" or misuse the term. However, it is undeniable that I can't help my anxiety about talking with people in person. By contrast, I feel much more comfortable and confident in communicating with others on Facebook, Twitter, and Zoom. When in person, I am stuck in the dilemma of making eye contact or not in any conversation: if I watch people's eyes when talking to them, I feel too nervous and anxious to organize my thoughts well; if I look away, some people may feel annoyed and offended. Thanks to the transition to virtual meetings during the pandemic, I may look at Zoom's chat box but not let the interlocutor know where my gaze is. In other words, my avoidance of eye contact would be less likely to offend others when meeting people virtually.
According to my observations, I am not alone: those in the younger generation, born in the age of Facebook and Twitter, this tendency of relying on social media has become more prominent. For those young folks, a virtual classroom is a much better option than an in-person class. First, they are accustomed to talking with friends on Facebook rather than face to face. Secondly, students could take more confidence in articulating their ideas and adopting new knowledge in cyberspace, though their parents may not understand their heavy use of the Internet. Of course, some old-fashioned college faculty and instructors may argue, "those young kids are spoiled, and we may teach them 'right is right, wrong is wrong.’" For those adversaries, the Internet is still merely an innovative tool, which has transformed the world in the last few decades. However, for those folks younger than me, the Internet is their world.
Besides being a victim of social anxiety, I also identify myself as an international student. Because my first language is not English, taking class discussions virtually could be more accessible. For any non-English speaker in an American graduate school, the language barrier that exists when studying humanities in particular could be more challenging than those enrolled in STEM programs. For example, a Chinese doctoral student in computer science may work together with ten colleagues originally coming from China in a lab. I may call it an enclave of Chinese culture and language in American higher education. By contrast, if you study classics in the same college, trust me, you must be the "only child" of Chinese nationality in your program. Consequently, in the habitus where most people could quote Shakespeare's phrases in their somniloquy, speaking even average (academic) American English in American translates to "not good enough."
In my first few years in the United States, I studied history in a Midwest-based graduate program. During my odyssey in the whitest region of the nation, I encountered embarrassment when I attempted to pronounce the word "proletariat" in class discussion, which folks may substitute with "impoverished people" or "the poor" in everyday life. Growing up in China and learning Marxism in textbooks from grade school to graduate school, I certainly know this term's definition—even better than American folks. However, I did not know how to pronounce the word correctly at that moment! Hence, I had to do my best to let my instructor and classmates understand what I wanted to articulate. As mentioned above, I suffer from social anxiety, so the process was just torture for me. You cannot imagine how desperate I was at that moment! Thanks to the virtual format of class discussion in the past academic year, I could easily solve this problem when I encountered the problem of pronouncing "totalitarianism" in a virtual graduate seminar last semester. For this time, I just could type the term, google it and "pronunciation" together, and finally let the computer pronounce the word for me: /tōˌtaləˈterēəˌnizəm/.
Through these two seemingly minor stories, I attempt to disclose the benefits brought by the virtual classroom in comparison with the traditional in-person class. Perhaps some "social butterflies'" may disagree with my appreciation of the potential of the virtual class in facilitating my class participation. Furthermore, they may urge me to overcome the difficulty and condemn my praise for the non-traditional manner of teaching and studying. I may respond to their commentary by quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald's sentences in The Great Gatsby, "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." Likewise, the "social-philes'" enjoyment could be challenging for those suffering from social phobia. Hence, I seek the resonation of voices from my fellow students, who share the fear of in-person talking and/or face the language barrier in the general audience. Despite the majority of mainstream society's expectation for being back to normal, which may refer to taking in-person classes, I want to argue for the minority preference for preserving an option outside the scope of “normalcy.”
Reviewing my personal encounters with in-person and virtual classrooms, I contend that college faculty could take seriously how to teach those Twitter and Tik-Tok natives in a more student-friendly way instead of imposing obsolete values on them. College instructors may consider the potential of hybrid pedagogy in the traditional in-person teaching. As a doctoral student in history, I am working as a teaching assistant at the University at Buffalo. In the current semester, I encourage students to use digital devices in my class. The policy may enable them to answer quiz questions in Kahoot and to take the participation by commenting on Padlet. More experimentally, I try to generate a visual novel to facilitate students to learn Asian myths in an interactive manner! For those students who may feel shy or socially anxious like me, I hope my experiments may join them into the inclusive classroom!