When COVID-19 ended 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, the associate professor of Arabic literature and culture 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.

Carol Bardenstein, second from top left, associate professor of Arabic literature and culture, leads a class through a brief breathing and guided meditation session via Zoom. (Photo courtesy of Carol Bardenstein)
Carol Bardenstein, second from top left, associate professor of Arabic literature and culture, leads a class through a brief breathing and guided meditation session via Zoom. (Photo courtesy of Carol Bardenstein)

She decided using mindfulness could help.

“Everyone has been shifting and finding new limbs — figuring out how to do things,” Bardenstein said.

In her livestreamed 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 includes more than 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, such as 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 toward people who may not be into mindfulness meditation,” she says.

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,” Bardenstein said. “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.”

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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, and to my surprise and great delight, they brought their mothers, brothers, and sisters online to our virtual Arab folkdance party,” she said.

Bardenstein said 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 said. “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.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

Truthfully, the most recent moment that stands out as most memorable is the one mentioned in the article — finding a way to deliver “experiential learning” in the form of an Arab Folkdance Workshop as a “Dance Party” that we did as an event together online that got everyone up and dancing, roughly 100 students, from their living rooms at home, with quite a few bringing in parents and brothers and sisters to join in with us. To see them so joyful, their spirits lifted, having such a good boisterous time, was very moving and rewarding.

What can’t you live without?

Breath/air. In these days of COVID-19 when we are all made so aware of how our lives are hanging on the thread of being able to breathe, that we usually take completely for granted, and in these days when shocking images and incidents of unarmed black people like George Floyd calling out “I can’t breathe” until the breath/life is snuffed out of them, I am grateful for being able to breathe without obstruction, for being alive.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

I love to look at the interior of the Rackham Building, its gorgeous elaborate painted ceilings, art deco design and walls. I love most to be in the Nichols Arboretum.

What inspires you?

The wondrousness of the natural world. Humans being kind to other humans. The possibility for change — that things that seem entrenched and unchangeable (patterns, habits, systems) can be changed, sometimes for the better. The sensibility and truth of “both/and” rather than “either/or” — that multiple and contradictory things can be true at the same time, and the human potential for being able to understand that.

What are you currently reading?

“Bitter Almonds,” a novel by Palestinian-Syrian author Lilas Taha, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, “The Body: A User’s Guide” by Bill Bryson, and “Tsaytikeh Penimer,” a volume of Yiddish poetry by Avrom Sutzkever.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My high school biology teacher, Suzanne Robinson. Not in terms of the specific area I pursued academically, Middle Eastern Studies and modern Arabic literature and culture, but because of modeling such passionate engagement with the world, and her recognition and generous facilitating of my curiosity and exploratory sensibility, not only as my classroom biology teacher, but agreeing to do a full-year independent study with me. We are still in regular contact.

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