How do you taste “hints of blueberry” over the internet? This was one of the many bizarre questions I found myself asking on March 10, 2020. For the previous eight weeks, my “Black Gold: Coffee, Culture, and Global Exchange” course, an interdisciplinary undergraduate honors seminar, had carefully considered the global coffee trade from a number of food studies, human rights, and international trade angles. My core objective with the class was to inspire conscious, active consumers—students who think about where their products come from and purchase accordingly. As a result, we had spent a lot of time examining the inequality, exploitation, and human suffering that defines the global coffee trade. We had also devoted much of our time to exploring the experiential aspects of coffee. We tried a range of specialty and direct-trade coffees. We experimented with different brewing techniques. We even visited a local coffee shop to learn more about the role of coffee in our own community. In the coming weeks, we were scheduled to travel to a roastery to experience a full-scale “cupping” (the international spoon-slurping method for assessing coffee quality).
And then COVID-19 arrived. At once, much of our course became impossible. Just like my colleagues, I had about two weeks to figure out how to transition an in-progress, fully functioning, and thoroughly enjoyable in-person class into an approximate (or at least working) online version of itself. But how does one do this when so much of the class requires immediate physical proximity? For example, how do you give students the firsthand opportunity to brew coffee with a Chemex when they do not have the proper equipment or even access to coffee? How do you teach students to taste those hints of blueberry or toffee or flowers when you are in totally different spaces and separated by time zones? Or more basically, how does one facilitate natural, coffee-inspired conversation when everyone is reduced to a two-inch square on a screen?
In what follows, I discuss how I used various forms of technology to meet these urgent teaching needs and challenges. However, as I explain, the transition online did not reveal any new or groundbreaking technological solutions to my larger questions. Rather, by way of technology, my class became something different and, in the end, more meaningful.
Rather than overloading the course with more of my own content, I would invite students to play an active role in reimagining the course. After all, the students were now at the point where they knew coffee beyond its basics, and some of the most impactful moments of the semester had already resulted from their contributions. How could we now use the technology available to us to continue to learn and connect in meaningful ways?
- Ask students to identify a course related YouTube video. Every class member would search YouTube for a compelling coffee-related video connecting to their own interests. The idea was simple but used video-sharing technology that everyone had available.
- Assign days for presentations. On designated days (generally about one class per week), we would have four or five students present their videos to the seminar. In hindsight, the mechanics of this activity reflect how incrementally we were learning to use necessary technology.
- The night before a presentation, students would email me their YouTube link, which gave me a chance to watch the video in advance.
- Then, once we were all on Zoom the next day, I would paste the link into our chat.
- If the student’s video was five minutes or shorter, we would all turn off our “faces” and watch the video in a separate browser. (By fortunate happenstance, all of my students were able to continue to attend class synchronously, even if they were not in the United States.)
- If a student’s chosen video was longer than five minutes, I would ask them to direct us to a five-minute segment.
- Once everyone had watched the video, we would reactivate our cameras, and the presenting student would analyze what we had just watched.
- Discuss the presentation. Then as a group, we would have a conversation about the YouTube video.
The results surprised me. I expected that students would find engaging videos—some heavy, some quirky—on a range of subjects. Yet, I was struck by how many students chose videos, without my guidance, that responded directly or indirectly to the pandemic. One student selected a video introducing our class to dalgona coffee, which was an internet sensation during the initial lockdown period. Referred to as the “quarantine drink,” dalgona is a pretty gross concoction, made by whipping instant coffee, sugar, and hot water into a cream, which is then covered by milk. Yet, the beverage had become popular because of its excessively long whipping period (no one had anything else to do) and the fact that it was made from everyday household ingredients. Another student chose a survivalist video demonstrating how to make an entire breakfast using only a drip coffee maker. And then there were other students who chose coffee-related videos foregrounding compassion. One particularly memorable video featured a South Carolina coffee shop run and operated by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
As we discussed these videos, I could feel our emotions in new ways. Although we had spent a couple of months discussing all kinds of human suffering—starvation, child labor, genocide—this pain had remained relatively abstract. Now as we spoke, everyone was dealing with difficulty. Most of our class members had left our town immediately, and many were now crammed back at home in their childhood bedrooms. Illness and death seemed to be the talk of everyone, everywhere. My own mother, a lifelong educator, passed away on a Tuesday morning in April just hours before one of our scheduled class meetings. And with each week, more of life seemed to slip away. Our class would not meet again in person. Spring sports were cancelled. Summer internships and study abroad went away. Seniors in our class would not have a graduation. Students would not be able to say a range of goodbyes.
Therefore, our class discussions became meaningful, if not altogether rare, moments for human connection. Class members repeatedly told me how much they looked forward to class. (Many of their other courses had understandably become asynchronous, leaving students to basically spend their days watching video lectures.) In our seminar, we could actually talk to one another, and students would routinely stay on Zoom to chat even after class had ended. So, when we discussed our YouTube videos, we were usually doing much more than just analyzing whatever we saw on screen. Sometimes we were trying to process the moment (we said, “when things get back to normal...” a lot). In other instances, our videos made us laugh. And other times—such as when one student shared a performance-art video showcasing breakdancing in a coffee shop—these clips were distractions from the uncertainty surrounding us.