Reimagining Creative Expression at the Virtual Conference Table | St. Lawrence University

Reimagining Creative Expression at the Virtual Conference Table

When faculty and students first transitioned to remote learning in March due to COVID-19, Professor of English and Department Chair Paul Graham ‘99 knew he had to do everything he could to ensure that one elemental object was a presence in his virtual classroom.

“We had to find ways to recreate the conference table on Zoom,” he says.

While mundane and purely functional on its own, a conference table in a creative writing class becomes a forum for students to share their work, give and receive feedback, and hone their unique voices. During the workshop process, it enables free-flowing, open conversation and helps foster a supportive environment wherein students grow as writers.

“For the remote workshops, I assigned small groups a specific question to focus on,” says Graham. “Six students might get to speak about the strengths of the essay or story in question. Six might address some ideas for revision. Anyone else who had something to add could jump in after. Then we’d switch for the next story or essay.”

Graham’s determination to channel the spirit of the conference table in his virtual classroom demonstrates his dedication to the promise of a rich and multi-faceted academic experience for his students—and he’s not alone in this endeavor. Faculty across campus are spending the summer fine tuning their approach to remote learning to ensure a fulfilling classroom experience that upholds St. Lawrence’s tradition of academic excellence.

“Great teachers are great teachers regardless of the format. And SLU is built on a foundation of great instructors,” says Graham. “We’ve had a summer to rest and recharge, but also to avail ourselves of the technology, creativity, and community-based problem solving that will allow us to carry out the virtual format even more effectively.”

The demands of the remote classroom challenged faculty to adapt new pedagogical approaches, but Graham believes that substitutions aren’t inherently worse—they’re just different, and can open the door to compelling new techniques and assignments. Though the nature of Zoom necessitated some changes when it came to class-wide discussion, Graham pivoted to make the time spent in the virtual classroom meaningful in other ways.

“I made much more use of in-class writing, as well. Every class meeting, for fifteen or twenty minutes, we’d ‘go dark’—turn off mics and camera—and write a generative prompt or carry out a specific revision task. Then we’d report back,” he says.

More important than his ability to adapt his pedagogy, however, was Graham’s willingness to meet students wherever they were. Last semester, he encouraged them to use free-writing and journaling exercises to reckon with the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty brought on by the global pandemic, and to make sense of their dichotomous experiences and emotions.

“That’s what creative expression is: observing lightness and darkness, hope and despair, and pulling them into a moment of beauty or understanding or both, even if the moment or vision is only temporary,” he says. “It’s an important time to be in contact with your own voice, to identify your own fears and acknowledge them, to celebrate what’s beautiful and what makes sense.”

In the time since the conclusion of the school year, Graham continues to work with students—helping them use their writing to make sense of the moment and consider its role in their professional development. He hosted a seminar on the ins and outs of getting completed work published as part of the English Department’s summer enrichment programming. Late in the spring, he also made a pointed effort to connect with the students who remain on campus by offering weekly writing workshops every Sunday. He’s currently part of the “Helping Our Students Thrive” (HOST) program that provides support to international students through the summer.

There’s much to glean from Graham’s approach to remote learning, his ability to take the new challenge in stride, and to see obstacles as opportunities. His philosophy is, at its core, very simple. When faced with an overwhelming hurdle, he finds footing in the small things that characterize everyday life—the sound of the Chapel bells, the anticipation of seeing students on campus again, the conversations around the conference table, both in person or virtual, about the literature they’re reading and writing. Graham has hope that, though these things may look and feel different in the fall, they’ll be rewarding in their own way.

“I get some hope for the upcoming semester from the hard work that everyone is putting into safety planning and creating inspiring courses this summer,” he says. “We want so very much to have the richest experience possible, and though we know it will not be anything like normal, we’re doing the best we can.”