When COVID-19 ended Associate Professor of Arabic Literature and Culture Carol Bardenstein’s in-person classes in March, some of her students had to cross an ocean to return home. Others couldn’t leave Ann Arbor. Graduating seniors grieved the loss of commencement. Many felt overwhelmed by concern for their parents and elderly relatives; a few experienced the illness themselves. As Bardenstein’s students set to remote learning in time zones as far away as China, India, and the United Arab Emirates, Bardenstein heard one consistent message: School didn’t feel real.

Bardenstein knew that in order to bring the course material to her students, she first had to bridge the distance and disruption that had scattered them—to make school feel as real as it could in the circumstances. She decided using mindfulness could help.

“Everyone has been shifting and finding new limbs—figuring out how to do things,” Bardenstein says. In her live-streamed Zoom class sessions, she begins with 10 minutes of breathing, movement, and a check-in. She adapts the sessions to what she senses students need and where they are.

While Bardenstein’s smaller seminar happens in Zoom meetings in real time, she pre-records her large lecture course, as the class is made up of over 100 students all over the world and in different time zones. To help keep these students connected, she livestreams announcements and check-ins for anyone who can attend in real time. In both courses Bardenstein includes guided breathing and movement exercises. Her students tell her that these moments of movement and check-in conversations mean the world to them.

Bardenstein has reshaped the coursework itself to respond to the circumstances of a world in crisis. For the final paper, Bardenstein has given her students the option of keeping a pandemic journal to reflect on their experiences during this time. And she keeps an ongoing list of resources, particularly those that have no cost, that might offer students additional help: online guided meditations, free mindfulness phone apps, relaxing music, resources from Washtenaw County therapists, and recorded lectures about dealing with fear during these days of pandemic. “I’ve also been trying to find resources that are geared towards people who may not be into mindfulness meditation,” she says.

Bardenstein meditates with her students during a Zoom class meeting.

She recalls one class session as a particular highlight of the semester, both for her and for her students. All the experiential and embodied experiences of Arab culture she had planned for the second part of her class were, of course, canceled. For the Arab folkdance workshop that was canceled, she asked the guest presenter, Karim Nagi, if he could provide a recorded video of the workshop. “But I knew that if I just uploaded the recorded video and put it on the course website, the students would just sit on the couch and watch it. They wouldn’t actually get up and dance, which was central to how I wanted them to learn about and experience Arab culture, not just by reading about it, but in an embodied, experiential way.”

So instead, Bardenstein arranged for a screening of the video for the whole class to attend via Bluejeans. Nearly 100 students showed up from their own living rooms to dance with Nagi.

“I have many students of Arab heritage,” Bardenstein says, “and to my surprise and great delight, they brought their mothers, brothers, and sisters online to our virtual Arab folkdance party!” Bardenstein says that the online dance party was the first time since going online that she saw her students laugh. Many of Bardenstein’s students said it was the first time they’d moved that much since going into lockdown.

As for herself, Bardenstein is invigorated by the community that she has created with her students. “I have the tools,” she says. “I feel steady and energized. To my surprise, in fact, I have found teaching online and during the pandemic to be one of the most moving and rewarding teaching experiences of my life.”


Top illustration by Julia Lubas. Inline image courtesy of Carol Bardenstein.