Electromagnetically Induced Transparency
If you talk with your hands while you teach, Zoom will inevitably fail you. (Thoughts on Zoom teaching successes and failures and how they may make us better in-person instructors in the future.)
Hi and thanks for subscribing to my newsletter! The breakdown: first a personal essay then some thoughts on my recent work, things I am reading, writing and listening to and finally some recipes and recipe recommendations. Feel free to skip to whatever interests you. Please do also hit reply at any time, for any purpose - these are odd times and I want to offer as much connection and support as I can.
There’s a lot of discussion of college-level teaching in this letter and even though I am currently associated with a university, I do want to make it very clear that all of these opinions are strictly my own.
ELECTROMAGNETICALLY INDUCED TRANSPARENCY*
My dad speaks a little too loudly, my mom laughs with slightly too much teeth and my husband, when he really gets into a story, waves his hands around as much as possible. I’m a hybrid: sometimes too loud, sometimes too toothy, sometimes too committed to gesticulation. Except when I’m teaching. When I’m teaching, I’m very cautious of my cadence, I’m very conscious of trying to put forward an enthusiastic face, and if I’m using my hands the waviness better make sense. A few days ago, I watched myself try to mime transverse and longitudinal waves over Zoom and realized that while the rest of my presentation style may have survived the switch to virtual, this particularly bodily, “meat-space”, aspect of my instruction probably needs to be adjusted. And I am not alone in this – my students can’t exactly raise their hands to signal something either.
I have written about both teaching and attending virtual events in this space in the past but digesting the experience of six or seven weeks’ worth of combining the two almost daily this spring semester has given me an incentive to re-think not just video calls but also my teaching practices more generally. Historically I have chosen to teach introductory or general education physics classes, and to teach small group problem solving sessions instead of taking a more grading or lecturing heavy teaching position. There’s certainly a learning curve to teaching students that may be less confident or less motivated than a physics majors. Facilitating problem solving, as opposed to just solving example problems while students watch, has its challenges as well. I’ve built up my confidence on both fronts over the years, but as I rather abruptly switched to remote instruction in March, old insecurities resurfaced, and new ones also kicked in.
Seemingly everyone has written something about Zoom already, so I am not alone in noting that Zoom instruction can really be awkward and exhausting. I have used Zoom before, for a semester when I was taking a course remotely, and many times as part of various efforts within the Access Network which spans the country thus making it hard for organizers to meet in person very often. This is to say, I knew how to press the right buttons without looking like a deer-in-headlights while my interlocutors wait, sound-tracked by manic keyboard click-clack-ing. However, using the platform to teach problem solving required a lot more preparation. It also made me feel like I could be less improvisational and less quick than when I was in a physical classroom. I did not like my student’s videos being turned off. As my household was often loud and my corner of the house often messy, however, I also empathized. I did not like having to type-up every single detail of every single problem ahead of time, but in the end my students seemed to benefit from those notes as a study resource. I grumbled about Zoom fatigue a lot, but still never really reached the stage of thinking it is ruining all education.
As with my experience with attending the SciTalk conference virtually early in the pandemic, I found this new setup to have some distinct advantages. Students that were really shy in person, or just overshadowed by the louder peers in their problem-solving groups before, now had more options for communicating with me. All students used the chat box pretty liberally and though it can be hard to type equations in there, as an instantaneous feedback tool it worked really well. My students liked all the extra notes, and if a single person asked a question, no matter how detailed, they all benefited from me answering it to the whole room rather than having a one-on-one at their table or writing on the sometimes hard to see blackboard. A professor similarly expressed to me how they appreciated the chat feature during live-streamed lectures and some of my colleagues had good experiences with Zoom break-out rooms. At the end of the course we all gathered (again over Zoom) for a feedback session on how our switch went and here again the new mode of communication and the new circumstances half forced and half allowed us to have a more open and reflective conversation about teaching than I’ve ever witnessed between graduate students instructors and their faculty supervisors in the past.
As with many new technologies or online tools, truly assessing the benefits and drawbacks of virtual instruction gets complicated quickly. Many in higher education have provided well outlined concerns and complaints. Speaking to the awkwardness of online interactions, it’s been pointed out that glitchy computer and phone screens, as well as bandwidth issues, can make it really difficult and confusing to try and read the small facial cues our brains usually use to determine the tone of a conversation or anticipate where the other person may be going with it. This also makes it more difficult to mirror the other person’s facial expressions, something that researchers think is essential for empathy and connection. Further, interacting with students whose faces you can’t necessarily see combined with your own face being pinned to the screen at all times, make it feel like the whole thing is a long performance. Choices of gesture, intonation and clothing start to feel like self-casting yourself in a play about yourself teaching. Many academics are just really not used to that. Many of us are mumbly or have tiny handwriting which can be forgiven in the classroom but seems much more unprofessional and distracting online.
The switch has seemingly been difficult for everyone, even if they were a veritable teaching rockstar prior to the pandemic. As an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education states: “Video Kills the Teaching Star”. Or at least that’s what many instructors in higher education are afraid of. The article in question struck me as giving voice to concerns I have heard in different settings before. The author writes “we’re people, not pixels” and then again “real conversation happens when people are in the same room, not when they’re on the same channel”. In a New York Times article a different professor, an information technology researcher, is cited as saying “In-person communication resembles video conferencing about as much as a real blueberry muffin resembles a packaged blueberry muffin that contains not a single blueberry but artificial flavors, textures and preservatives.” The un-subtle food snobishness aside, these are all strong statements that reminded me of parents of my younger cousins complaining about their kids playing games with their friends online instead of playing soccer in the park outside. It also reminded me of numerous think-pieces about how it is impossible to find true love or friendship on the Internet (though I have certainly met people who have, and at times done so myself). I also wondered what people whose careers involve online tutoring or educational YouTube videos, or even TED talks or The Great Courses would say about this definitive claim that only being in the same room can turn teaching into life-transforming magic.
The somewhat funny thing is that before the pandemic articles were written not about how lack of face-to-face interaction makes virtual teaching harder but how young people already had a hard time with face-to-face interaction because they spend so much time interacting virtually. Forbes ran opinion pieces about millennials struggling with face-to-face communication and another one in the Wall Street Journal ran under the pretty jarring title “Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Nonverbal Cues” almost ten years ago. Websites advising businesses on how to monetize online courses caught on to this pretty early too, noting that millennials and gen Z are used to finding information online and finding it quickly and that they like gamification. A Pearson study even found that 47% of gen Zers in their 2500 people sample preferred to learn from YouTube instead of from textbooks. Though the same study also determined that 78% of the participants from that age group still wanted to learn from a teacher rather than an app or a video they would consume more passively, just a cursory search through the web makes it obvious that the trouble with teaching over platforms like Zoom in the COVID-19 era is often about instructors and their beliefs and habits than about their students who are more and more often digital natives anyway.
While some academics may be struggling with instruction right now, people in other professions are also trying to find ways to connect with their audiences. Some movie and music celebrities have been more successful in using social media and video streaming and some have only come off as awkward or clumsy and in a bubble of their own. Here again, it seems necessary to ask whether there is something like an age or a culture-based divide happening. Though I am only nearing thirty, I am still old enough to remember a time when trying to have a career as a full-time food blogger or a social media influencer may have seemed impossible or futuristic. These days you can take food-blogging classes and sign up with agencies that manage social media talent. Some are even scouting for the next big pop star on TikTok. In a way, the disconnect between younger students and their instructor, as we all grapple with virtual communication more and more, may be in exactly the fact that the former group is so used to the cyberspace being strewn with well-composed, engaging, breathtakingly orchestrated performances. The kind that some older celebrities are also having a hard time producing on their own, from their own homes. In a recent episode of New York Times’ Still Processing host Jenna Wortham puts this succinctly:” the biggest transformation in terms of human expression online over the last couple of years has been a migration away from honesty and reality and realness towards performance and presentation”. While Wortham’s hopeful conjecture is that video chatting from quarantine will make us all a little more real and human in our other and future interactions online, I wonder whether the opposite is true for virtual instruction and teaching in general. Maybe here the constraints and possibilities of remote work and instruction will force some into thinking their performance through a little more and value the attention of their audience a lot more as well.
Having spent more than half a decade both being a student and teaching younger students, I have been repeatedly struck by how oblivious of various power differentials that exist in the classroom we can all be. When I first started graduate school, an acquaintance warned me that I would gain lots of social capital seemingly over night just by the virtue of having a new title in research groups and classrooms. I continued to feel insufficient and uncertain in research settings for a long time afterwards, but the classroom has been a much more clear-cut case of gaining power quickly. Feeling a vague feeling of superiority take shape at the edge of my thoughts here and there, when I’d be repeatedly asked the same question in class or a student would pick a fight with me over half a point on some small assessment, changed the way I judged professors that instructed or supervised me. I realized that they were unaware of their power or just the relative advantage of their situation over their students more often than they were looking to even semi-consciously abuse it. I wonder if for some the discomfort with remote instruction is at least a little rooted in feeling that power, the automatic sense of respect and being paid attention to, slipping away when a screen intervenes between them and their students.
In reality, for many students being in the (physical) classroom can be awkward and many do underperform because they are shy or for some reason particular to their person or background don’t feel entitled to extra time or extra explanations from their instructors. In some way, being shy or awkward or not great at verbalizing the kind of help they need can be a real liability for a student. Rarely, however, is it so for a professor, especially if they are tenured, or in some way senior, or just really great at their research. Awkward professors still fill up classrooms. They still have students taking notes even when their blackboards are hard to grasp. And even rude professors will still get students in their office hours. Part of it is certainly that this is just the status quo – when you’re a college student your job is to go to class and pay attention to and have respect for the professor. The professor may not always be super prepared or super engaging or an amazing performer, but almost never will they be derided among their colleagues because of that. A whole lot of what halos about the idea of being a professor in a physical classroom, the conference of status, the implied automatic respect, the ability to be a rockstar lecturer without having to spend hours preparing and just kind of riding on some semblance of charisma, really does not translate to remote learning, really cannot be carried into pixel form as much as small twitches of someone’s face apparently also cannot.
The status quo of teaching practices at many large higher education institutions is, if those of us participating in it are being honest with ourselves, propped up by a foundation that contains no small amount of classism, ableism and something like generic indifference for the complexity of life for people different from us. Disability activists and differently able people were hip to Zoom way before the pandemic, and online classes and degrees have been increasingly popular with a larger and larger fraction of younger people who feel like they really have to go to college to be successful but cannot afford it or have to work full-time throughout. There are plenty reasons for having to stay at home and take your education in remotely that have nothing to do with the coronavirus chaos, that have been there all along. The pandemic is not a great equalizer in any sense, but it did push us all closer to some perspectives we could get away with not considering under what we used to call normal circumstances. The fact that some of us feel like we cannot connect with our students virtually, or that we cannot provide them with the kind of teaching that is deep and transformative, ultimately speaks to our lack of imagination or our lack of willingness to find ways to do so.
It’s not like we were changing the life of every student in a three-hundred-seat lecture hall before anyway, or that most of them weren’t looking at their phones after ten minutes of a ninety minute lecture, we could just pretend we didn’t know that and soak in the attention of the dedicated few, the attention that was just easier to get. Once you get used to being able to do something without thinking about whether you’re doing it well, or whether you’re putting in as much effort as you could, or just knowing that you won’t utterly fail, it starts to feel like you absolutely deserve it. So when circumstances change it suddenly feels like something you deserved automatically has now been taken away. Complacency stifles creativity. Being respected by default makes us less empathetic and more myopic. Never being forced to literally watch ourselves be awkward, we assume that we must not be, or that it is charming. Changing habits is hard and it takes vulnerability to connect across unfamiliar circumstances and by using unfamiliar tool. If we really want connection with our students and to have them see us as human rather than a half-baked character on the screen though, we have to be willing to go to that somewhat scary and uncomfortable place. Bemoaning the opportunities that we lost when physical space became, for the time being, un-shareable is less courageous and maybe just a little lazy as well.
Pretty early in the pandemic, I came across Seth Godin’s “manifesto about the future of online interaction”. Though I share his skepticism of many traditional forms of instruction (speaking at a crowd of younger people for an hour was not engaging in person so it’s not shocking that it’s also not engaging when done virtually), I am also skeptical of thinking that any single platform or piece of tech will save us or revolutionize how we connect. The first part of my skepticism lies in much of what I outlined above. I see the teaching status quo in myself too. Having taught the same course for the last few years I got mighty comfortable in thinking I can do it well and not examining my performance as critically as I could. The other part of my skepticism stems from my being a millennial: not a digital native, but old enough to know that all technology eventually betrays us as consumers. However, in his manifesto Godin makes a point about online instruction tools as enabling us to focus on something seemingly simple: having the kind of conversation where people actually listen to each other. I don’t care if it’s the Zoom breakout room feature that gets us there nor do I think we need technology to design classes that encourage those conversations. But I do hope that the discomfort of Zoom and similar platforms does force us to reevaluate what connection really means, why it is important and how much we should prioritize it regardless of our constraints. If we learn to give up the comfort and the ego of the way things were because of the pandemic and become more creative and more conscious of our power when we get to go back to the classroom, that will be a much bigger win than managing to actually teach someone through a screen.
(Shout-out to all the thermal physics students who stuck with me through all the Zoom troubles this past semester.)
*Electromagnetically induced transparency is a quantum interference effect that allows light to pass through an atomic medium that is usually opaque i.e. not see-through. This effect is typically observed in quantum optics experiments involving systems with three distinct allowed energy values and two lasers finely-tuned with respect to energies that correspond to transitions between those levels. Such interference effects and the possibility of inducing them with laser light have been used in the past to laser cool atomic particles or manipulate individual ultracold atoms.
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ABOUT ME LATELY
LEARNING: One of the manuscripts I have been working on for the past few months has been completed and is slated to appear on the preprint archive arXiv early next week. Collaborators and I will submit it to a peer reviewed journal shortly after, and this will be my first publication submission since 2018. Given the absolute chaotic whirlwind this past year has been, and continues to be, I think I pretty much forgot that sometimes projects do get completed and papers published. It is honestly a little odd-feeling to be looking at something that has been finished and polished and happens to have my name on it. Of course, the peer review road is long, and I don’t anticipate the publication of this paper being swift, but it is good to at least be starting on that whole part of the academia adventure. Another collaborator will be presenting some of this work at an upcoming virtual conference for the Division of Atomic Molecular Optical Physics within the American Physical Society and I hope they get some good engagement from that too. As another first of my post-defense life, I am sort of grooming this collaborator to take my place within the ultracold superfluid shell arm of research within my group and I can already tell their contributions will blow mine straight out of the water. As this is all work that is related to an experiment still going strong aboard the International Space Station, I am genuinely excited to see them do better research than me and push the whole ultracold-atoms-in-space effort even further. There are now two more paper manuscripts floating about in my inbox and I hope that, to keep this positive note going, they will by some synchronicity reach that good completed place soon too.
Besides all this academic writing, I have been busy with the upcoming virtual conference for the Access Network, getting ready to pass-on my position on the board of the local graduate employee union to the next generation of organizers, and interviewing for potential jobs. I had one positive interview experience this past week and now I’m really just holding my fingers crossed awfully hard.
LISTENING: This episode of the Irresistible podcast on Adapting Strategy and Building Power in Crisis and this one on Disability Justice Wisdom that can inform how we organize in a pandemic. Though I know some people can be put off by the seeming softness of some of these conversations and the jargon of embodiment, holding space etc. I found both of the episodes informative and dense with useful and insightful information. The Adapting Strategy episode in particular speaks to the prospects of coronavirus-accelerated political shifts toward authoritarianism and how organizers may respond to that as both a threat and an opportunity, something that has been simmering in the back of my mind every time someone in our household has turned on the news recently. This episode of On the Media about Zoom is probably also a worthwhile listen, just based on how many times the service came to mind as I was writing the essay above.
On the music front, I’ve revisited some Zamrock and this record by the Ngozi Family. This is just some really fresh yet really classic rock’n’roll and such upbeat soundtrack to anything I might be doing while stuck inside. I have also been running to this playlist of new wave music from ex-Yugoslavia because I’ve been homesick and cheesy 80s jams in my mother tongue make for both a good emotional pick me up and a propelling running beat. (I overthink my running music pretty hard pretty often, as you can read about here.)
WATCHING: Since my spouse is in the late stages of writing his doctoral dissertation, we have both been scheduling a lot of quiet work time for ourselves and not embarking on any big TV binges or movie-watching projects. We’ve tried to average an episode or so of Succession late every night and having just finished its second season a day ago, I have very little bad to say about it. I may have liked it less had we been more binge-y about it because the sheer visual richness of international travel, castles, parties and each character somehow having a whole wardrobe that matches each new elite location perfectly does get to be a bit much. However, at a more relaxed watching pace, the suspense and the zingy-ness of the show really come through, and no matter how much distaste I have for troubles of the rich, the characters really grew on me. (I hate it but I’ve been so team Kendall for so much of the show.) Honestly, beyond trying to read anything overly deep about class or politics into Succession, it is just really, really well-made television. It is satire that doesn’t feel didactic or high-and-mighty, it’s a very dark comedy that lands a shocking number of jokes, and it’s as tragic as any show about family kind of ends up being almost by default. It’s not necessarily light entertainment, but it is entertainment for sure.
READING: More poems: Time is Matter Here by Jean Valentine, Western Motel by Anne Carson, The Thinning by Rae Armantrout, Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars) by Muriel Rukeyser. This letter about Katherine Anne Porter from the Written Out newsletter by Kelsey McKinney that excerpts some of her thoughts about having almost died during the Spanish Flu pandemic also really resonated with me.
EATING: We’ve been eating a lot of dishes based around chive blossoms because a neighbor unexpectedly gifted us some. My first idea was to make an asparagus, broccoli and chive stir fry with spicy and garlicky sweet potato bean burgers and a tahini and sambal oelek sauce. The next day I used them to make a springy pasta with lots of lemon, garlic, chives, capers and a touch of vegan butter alongside marinated then baked tofu. It’s pretty whimsical to be eating flowers, but I have to admit that the little extra bit of inspiration was nice. The same neighbor later dropped off a bunch of Chinese broccoli as well, and I think that particular green gift has put me on just the right route towards perfecting my garlic-heavy stir-fry sauce for brassicas of all sorts. Really, I should be so grateful that this is what neighbors are making me think about these days, and in this legendarily rude city.
I also made a pass at this almond cake my husband had made once before (and I sort of shouted it out in a Valentine’s poem) and decided I still like it. Almond flour gives it a very different texture than you get with more glutinous cakes and after a night in the fridge it’s almost like eating an almond raspberry fudge. I made a simple blueberry compote to top it with and served it with some powdered sugar to pretty good reviews.
I am not much of a drinker when we do not go out or have some occasion to celebrate, but since quarantine started I’ve been more likely to have a glass of wine here or there. It reminds me of Sunday afternoon family dinners at my grandparents’ house where a glass of wine from their vineyard was basically a must. I was also reminded that adding some wine to pastas and stews can really add lots of complexity of flavor and a whole lot of oomph, kind of like in the mushroom and tempeh stew I am sharing below. It is inspired by my dad’s goulash but less involved, done in half hour or so with no need to pre-steam the tempeh. If you think mushrooms are slime-y you may not like this, but if you like a rich, glazy umami or want to make something approaching a bourguignon without much effort, I’d give it a shot. We had it over rice with a side of a spinach, romaine, blueberry and roasted almond salad but it would work well with pasta or mashed potatoes also. It is gluten free as written (if you use tamari or other gluten free soy sauce) and I’ve outlined a few substitutions, variations and additions below as well.
For about 4 serving you will need:
2 onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed, grated or very finely minced
1 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
1 lbs mushrooms, sliced
6 oz tempeh (1 package), cut into half-inch-ish cubes
1 c red wine (or vegetable broth)
8 oz tomato sauce (or crushed tomatoes or tomato puree)
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp plum chutney or plum jam (or maple syrup)
2 dried bay leaves
1/4 tsp dried rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
For serving: rice, pasta or mashed potatoes, chopped parsley, red pepper flakes or hot sauce of choice
1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot then add onions and mushrooms with a good pinch of salt. Sautee over high heat until the mushrooms release enough water that you can see it and the whole thing cokes down a bit. Onions will get darker and more translucent and the mushrooms may look a little more gray or brown too. Be patient with this as it may take more than a few minutes.
2. Add the crushed or minced garlic and cook for another minute
3. Add the wine, tomato sauce and tempeh. Cook on high for a few minutes until the liquids are visibly bubbling and some of the sharp wine smell has softened.
4. Add dried thyme, tamari, balsamic, plum chutney or maple syrup, bay leaves and dried rosemary. Mix well.
5. Simmer on medium heat, just under boiling, for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the stew seems to be sticking to the bottom turn down the heat fairly low.
6. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
Substitutions and variations: I made this with a large package of pre-sliced baby bella mushrooms since they had a good deal on them at our grocery store, but really any mix of mushrooms will work. You may find that oyster mushrooms shrink more and release less water, but I think a mix of baby bella, oyster and shitake would be amazing.
For a more authentic bourguignon feel add 2-3 carrots and celery stalks chopped into bite-sized pieces to the onions and mushrooms in step 1. Add some pearl onions in step 3 if you can get your hands on them too.
I really love the texture of tempeh in this since it is chewy and absorbs flavor without dissolving in the sauce. However, if you can’t find it or have a soy allergy either substitute it with chickpeas or some other chewy bean (one can’s worth or 2ish cups cooked at home, drained and well rinsed) or skip it all together and serve this dish with some other protein. Adding a cup of cooked red or green lentils may work as well, but do keep in mind that those will make the stew more thick and more earthy in taste. Add any bean towards the end of step 5 only and if using lentils use more of all spices than I indicated and an extra cup or so of water or broth. There is a meaty version of this dish, but the steps would be rather different so I would suggest, for both ethical and practical reasons, that you do not attempt to de-veganize this.
Instead of plum chutney or plum jam you can use maple syrup or blend a few prunes into a paste together with just enough water to get your blender going. These elements impart some sweetness that is more complex than just adding sugar, so I would recommend not fully skipping it. If you have none of these, a teaspoon of sweet-ish barecue sauce could work too or maybe some blueberry jam or preserves.
If you use crushed tomatoes or tomato puree instead of tomato sauce, you may need to add a heartier pinch of salt towards the end of cooking and maybe 1/2 a teaspoon or so of apple cider or white vinegar. On the other hand, if your tomato sauce is very sweet (check for added sugar on the label), start with slightly less plum chutney or maple syrup and adjust after tasting.
A few dashes of (vegan) Worcestershire sauce or some sort of hot sauce could be nice here if you want extra heat though 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne or dried red pepper flakes would also do the trick.
If the stew is not thick enough to your liking dissolve a teaspoon of cornstarch in a tablespoon or so of warm water and add to the pot towards the end. Turn up the heat a bit and stir vigorously until it all gets visibly more viscous.
To make this a full meal: Serve it over rice with a simple side salad (some spinach, massaged kale or romaine with a simple olive oil-vinegar-mustard vinaigrette could be nice and you can throw in some apples or blueberries for extra freshness) or mix with a short-ish pasta shape such as penne or rigatoni. Don’t skip the salad I the latter case either, some brightness and crunch complement this well.
Alternatively, serve a generous ladle of the stew over some (vegan) mashed potatoes with a side of crunchy roasted broccoli finished off with some lemon juice and zest or maybe a more summery affair of (heirloom) tomatoes cut into slices and mixed with red onion chopped into half-moons then dressed with olive oil, vinegar and a good pinch of salt.
If you don’t want to bother with a multiple pot situation, add some baby potatoes or potatoes cut into bite-sized chunks in step 4 and eat the stew by itself, maybe topped with parsley and a dollop of (vegan) sour cream or thick yogurt. If adding potatoes, add extra water or broth just enough to cover and double all the spices. Add about one medium potato’s worth for every person you intend to feed.