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Encouraging Social Connections in an Online Setting

John Han

John HanDepartment of English

As UT transitioned to online courses in response to the devastating effects of the pandemic, I discerned general anxiety among my students as they were thrown into the hyper-mediated form of Zoom instruction in Spring 2020. Weeks passed and in my Intro to Austen online course, my students seemed depressed, anxious, and apathetic.

On one particular day, I noticed a few of my students crocheting during class. Suddenly, other students talked about how they knitted. Sensing a spark of enthusiasm, I set up a weekly Zoom “Social” titled “Crafty Austens” where 5 students all logged onto Zoom, sharing tips and tricks about their textile passions.  

Recognizing the value of a virtual “social” space in my synchronous and asynchronous courses, I have now built into my courses a Zoom “Hangout” option where students can talk to one another and establish connections to stave off the feelings of alienation, particularly in my freshman composition courses where many were particularly vulnerable to loneliness. In our “Hangouts,” we’d discuss anything from movie recommendations to decorating advice for a certain first-year student who had a particularly Spartan arrangement and to, most importantly, a shared discussion of how hard this was for all of us. I employ this in my Spring 2021 courses and experience the same reactions: they are grateful for a social outlet in an otherwise cold and staid format of online learning. The transmission of knowledge is vital but so too is ensuring our valued students feel “seen” and “heard” as they valiantly negotiate how their college experience has suddenly changed. I hope my “Hangouts” restores some of that experience for them. 

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