Weber: Fall 2020, In One Word: Nuts

Matt Weber learned something about teaching during a pandemic from the iconic Mr. Goodbar: keep it simple, be kind, and always carry chocolate.

Photo courtesy of Matt Weber and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Photo courtesy of Matt Weber and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Mr. Goodbar candy bar is fairly simple: chocolate and peanuts. That’s it. Introduced to the American public in 1925 with an iconic yellow wrapper, this is roughly all you will learn from its Wikipedia page.

There is something very refreshing about simplicity these days. It almost feels nostalgic, circa 2019, when things were less of a daily dagger-and-fire juggle. 

Teaching in 2020 fits this bill for sure.

On background, I’ve been moonlighting as a dual-appointed, wannabe college professor over the past four years, donning tweed jacket and elbow patches, first with the ambiguously titled position of preceptor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and now with the less archaic title of lecturer at the University of Virginia (UVA). As the historic fall 2020 semester approached, I was scheduled to teach one of the in-person classes being offered. 

It was a small graduate level course, taught synchronously (and asynchronously to one student in Korea) for second-year master’s in public policy students at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy called The Art of Digital Communication. Apropos, for the moment. Messy art for sure.

I had just taught it the summer before, fully online, to 52 UVA undergrads and was energized to try it again in-person with graduate students. Based on the numbers, infrastructure improvements, and safety additions, there were many reasons to give this a try. After all, this was a watershed moment for teaching, an itch that presumably we wanted scratched, and UVA and the Batten School were more than prepared for it to happen safely. But over email, I needed to double check:

“Before I send you a finalized syllabus, I just wanted to see how everyone was feeling about in-person vs. online instruction. I may consider just moving it online if that was everyone’s comfort level. Totally excited and fine to be in person too, just wanted to check in and make sure I had a good sense.”

The sentiment amongst the students living in Charlottesville was that we ought to give it a shot.

And so, history unfolded.

Tweed and tie in tow, I marched masked down the Academical Village toward Rouss Hall, arriving 45 minutes before start time. I was doing this, we were doing this! COVID was the bane of our existence for the past six months but today it was not going to push people or pedagogy down. Screen time be damned, I used my eyes and feet to enter a building, found the classroom — with plexiglass and Purell, outfitted like a salad bar in SneezeTown — and plugged in my laptop. The excitement­! Wonder of wonders, classroom technology instantly synched with my Mac: screens descending, all quiet on the set, lights, camera, action. Literally. You could see the smile through my mask.

“It’s just teaching,” I thought as I settled in. But … it felt like so much more that day. It felt like just being there was a victory, a small stand to a big germ. 

At 2 p.m., on Zoom and in person, students arrived. And for two and half hours, it was sort of like rubbing your belly and tapping your head, all while repeating a tongue twister. Stretching in-class and online learning dynamics, feigning confidence in unchartered hybrid teaching techniques, and striving to deliver the golden goose that was halcyon classroom instruction. 

It was not simple. I will let my future course evaluations serve as epilogue to the efficacy of that day, but this story isn’t about just teaching. Or my tweed. Or the fact that I wore sweatpants to class that day too, as social commentary to online learning trends, and humorous wink for those in-person attendees.

Rather, this story is about Mr. Goodbar. And Ms. Hendi. And Mr. Teese, and Ms. Morrissey, some of my wonderful new Batten students, who, upon hearing that one of their friends and Batten classmates couldn’t attend in person that day (quarantining due to possible exposure to COVID ), wondered if we could do something to help lift his spirits.

Now, I am a card-carrying member of Costco and the father of two small children, so naturally, I carry snacks in my bag. Usually a lot. 

For those students who arrived in person, they were plentiful that afternoon. Once we determined just how many snacks were remaining, a student plan was concocted that I should bring a care package of leftover goodies to our quarantining friend Mr. DiMeglio who lived nearby. As class wrapped, so did a bar of chocolate and peanuts, clad in yellow, traveling along with some other additional kids’ food items. 

In the quiet of a quick jaunt down University Avenue, a hastily arranged package arrived with care. Commissioned out of love and distantly commemorated with yet another (historic?!) photo of a second someone that day (Mr. DiMeglio) wearing what I can only describe as “Business Casual, Dress Pants Optional.” 

Nothing really extraordinary happened that day, but something sweet and ordinary did,  and those minor footnotes in the academy have been sorely missed this semester. I don’t claim to know what will be the salient learnings for me or my students in this hazy pursuit of education. But what I do know is that amidst the cacophony of COVID, it is the timeless and simple lessons of care and kindness that will sustain us.

Right now, life is nuts. And so, we respond with nuts, and chocolate, and love.

This article was reprinted with permission from Harvard Ed. magazine at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

Stay Up To Date with the Latest Batten News and Events