On March 23, Harvard Law School shifted to remote teaching and learning, as part of Harvard University’s effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Harvard Law School (HLS) Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen ’02, who had never taught virtually, immediately began preparing to move her class of 115 students in “Constitutional Law: Separation of Powers, Federalism, and Fourteenth Amendment” online before spring break. She taught her first class via Zoom on March 11. Harvard Law Today spoke to Gersen via email about her quick switch to remote instruction.
Jeannie Suk Gersen
Harvard Law Today: When did you start preparing to move your class online?
Jeannie Suk Gersen: I started preparing on Tuesday [March 10] morning before spring break, as soon as we received the message from President [Larry] Bacow. I notified students that morning that we would start Zoom classes the next day. I attended a training at HLS that afternoon with my TAs, and then did an optional practice session for the class that evening. On Wednesday at 1 p.m., we were having class online, talking about the Privileges and Immunities Clause.
HLT: How did the students react?
Gersen: The students reacted quickly to jump into class on Zoom. They were terrific. My TAs were also a godsend. Students were shocked and distressed by the announcements that they would have to leave their housing — and some of them even would have to leave the country — as their semester together on campus as HLS students was at an abrupt and sad end. That was extremely stressful. I heard from students that in the midst of that week they found it comforting to become familiar with how an online class would work and to see that it would be alright. In all the uncertainty, they headed into spring break with a good sense of what our class would be like going forward.
HLT: You use the Socratic method in your classes. How has that translated to online teaching?
Gersen: I find Zoom to be highly compatible with Socratic teaching. It is easy to call on students and have lively exchanges with them, face to face. Several students remarked afterward that their classmates seem less nervous and more prepared while speaking on Zoom than in a large room of 115 students. I, too, found the experience of teaching on Zoom surprisingly more personable and less performative than standing at a podium at the front of a large lecture hall. An example of how in some respects online interaction might feel less distancing than in-person teaching.
I have some lecture bits that I intersperse with my Socratic teaching. I found those bits harder to get through. When I’m just talking at the screen, with the students’ microphones muted (to prevent background noise), there’s no laughter to be heard at any jokes or what I think of as funny parts. It’s hard to know if you’re totally bombing and the “audience” just thinks you’re a dud! You can’t be a diva on Zoom. It is really about the conversation and exchange with students, which is fine with me.
HLT: I know it’s only been a couple of days, but how has the experience been?
Gersen: I know it’s supposed to be less ideal than in-person classes, but I am enjoying the experience and excited to discover new insights for pedagogy.
HLT: What are you looking forward to most as classes resume?
Gersen: I’m looking forward to connecting with students, seeing their kindness and good will, and continuing to pursue knowledge and learning together as long as we can.
HLT: So many of us are working remotely now (some with a full house: kids, partner, pets). Do you have advice on managing work-life balance while working from home?
Gersen: It’s OK to let some things go. But after a few days, it can also be surprisingly helpful to get out of the fetal position, change out of your pajamas, and make the bed. I say this aspirationally.