Maintaining Normalcy While Learning Remotely

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended student plans and disrupted learning routines at campuses across the country, including at William & Mary. Many of us left for Spring Break not realizing we’d be gone the rest of the semester or longer. Now that remote classes have started, it can be a struggle to stay motivated and focused on learning in these new formats and without our usual on-campus inspiration. Here are a few tips that can help you reduce stress, improve productivity, and generally make the most out of this unexpected experience.

1. Create a routine that you can take with you.

A routine doesn’t have to be complicated – it can be as simple as five things you do every day when you wake up or when you go to bed. The idea is to build a practice that can travel with you, so you are able to do it no matter where you are. My portable routine includes waking up early, practicing meditation and yoga, writing down at least one gratitude and goal for the day, and then eating breakfast. I can do this easily at home, in my dorm, in a hotel room, at a friend’s place, and so on. Maintaining a simple routine gives your mind and body a familiar pattern to follow and helps you manage the stress caused by events that are out of your control.

2. Create a dedicated study space.

Claiming a space as your own can be challenging, especially if your living arrangements aren’t conducive to studying, or if you have multiple people in your home working remotely. But even establishing a part-time study space—for example, by setting up the kitchen table as your “desk” for a few hours every day—can make a big impact on your productivity. When we try to study in spaces typically used for sleep or relaxation, we may subject ourselves to an unnecessary emotional muddle. For example, try to avoid working in bed. When I work from my bed, my mind begins to associate that spot with the energy and emotions I feel during work and school, which can make it much harder to unwind and fall asleep in that same bed at night. By separating the spaces, I avoid this emotional overlap and make it easier to be productive in my study space and fall asleep in my bed at night.

3. Minimize distractions and take notes.

Remote learning can be difficult because it often comes with many more distractions than learning in a classroom does – noisy backgrounds, family members interrupting, food, pets, and so on. During an online class session, maximize the browser on your screen so you can’t see other distractions on your computer, use headphones to help block out other sounds, ask family members if they can keep the volume down for the time you are in class, and take notes with a pen and paper so that you can stay focused on the class and not the tabs open on your computer.

4. Take purposeful and regular breaks.

It is easy to end up sitting at your computer or in front of the TV all day when working from home because it can seem like there isn’t much else to do. It is important, however, to take regular breaks from the screen to relax your eyes, muscles, and mind. Use these breaks purposefully: exercise, take a walk outside, play with your pet, or do something creative like knitting, drawing, painting, or writing. The goal is to give your brain regular rest periods throughout the day. A rested brain is better able to retain information. Keeping these breaks purposeful can help you stay energized and motivated to continue your studies.

5. Stay connected and use campus resources.

When we are on campus, our friends, classmates, professors, and campus resources are all nearby and more immediately available. Now that we are studying remotely, we have to take the extra step to reach out to others and seek support. Contact your friends and organize group FaceTime or Zoom calls. Setting a regular time for socializing can help replace the positive energy that used to come from running into friends on campus. In my case, I used to meet a friend every week at the Rec; now we FaceTime each other while exercising.

Many campus resources are also available online. Online appointments are available at the  Writing Resources Center and the Tribe Tutor Zone. The Wellness Center and Counseling Center have created a  Virtual Health & Wellness  page with pre-recorded classes on yoga, meditation, mindful arts, and more. The Office of Academic Advising has created a Studying with Distance Learning resources page, and their professional advisors are available for online appointments. The Dean of Students Office has created a student support page and is available for phone and Zoom meetings. If you’re struggling to keep up with your studies during this pandemic, it is important to ask for help.

Most of these tips can be used any time, not just during this unexpected campus hiatus. Implementing small changes to our daily habits, and staying connected to others, can help us maintain our sense of normalcy wherever life takes us. Stay healthy, W&M!

Lessons about Writing – Inspired by Oliver Sacks

Sacks-Island-coverOliver Sacks claims that he wrote The Island of the Colorblind  “in a sort of swoop, a single breath, in July 1995, it then grew. . .” (xx). He makes writing sound easy, as if already-formed sentences tumbled out of his head onto the page in the correct order.  Yet, when he clarifies the process of reconstructing memories, we get a hint at the behind-the-scenes work required of communicating his Pacific island experiences:

“Writing, in these past months, has allowed me, forced me, to revisit these islands in memory.  And since memory .  .  .  is never a simple recording or reproduction, but an active process of recategorization—of reconstruction, of imagination, determined by our own values and perspectives—so remembering has caused me to reinvent these visits, in a sense, constructing a very personal, idiosyncratic, perhaps eccentric view of these islands . . . .” (xvii-xviii)

Like Sack’s exploration of the islands, his writing process follows a journey from discovery to synthesis or “reconstruction” and provides an example of important concepts about writing.

Concept 1:  Writing is more than a transcription from the mind directly to paper.  Writing is thinking on paper.

Concept 2:  Writing is messy. Making meaning requires work to tease out what we really want to communicate.

Concept 3:  Writing is re-writing.  Because writing is a process of discovery, new ideas might erupt at any time.  In the messiness, ideas collide and produce new ways of thinking about a subject.  Re-visioning our ideas can lead to a more sophisticated structure.  Look what happened to Sacks: his new ideas took the form of pages and pages of endnotes, creating a text of their own.

Concept 4:  How we shape our ideas is influenced by our “values and perspectives.” Each reader brings unique experiences to a text. That’s why “write about what you know” has become a truism – if we connect what we are reading or researching to things we know or have a passion about, our writing stands a better chance of capturing our readers.  Through our writing, we have an opportunity to share our perspective and challenge readers to think in new ways.

By writing Island of the Colorblind, Sacks has given us a glimpse of writing as thinking, as a process of meaning-making. Our challenge is to embrace the process.

Finding Your Voice

VoiceLet’s be real with ourselves for a second–we tend to get in our own way. We overthink and doubt our own abilities. This is especially true when it comes to writing. For years, I would sit in front of my computer and either stare mindlessly at the screen in front of me or write a paragraph and realize I didn’t like it and start over. Writing was a stressful process, simply because I was getting in my own way.

The question is, why was it so hard for me to just write?

As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve realized the key to getting out of my own way is finding my voice. Often, a common link of frustration among consultees in the Writing Resources Center is lack of confidence in their writing abilities. I firmly believe that everyone has the potential to become a great writer if they take the time to find their own voice. You may be thinking, “Why should I find my own voice if people have already said something better than I ever could have?” I assure you that finding your own voice will lead to better writing. Of course, this is a process that won’t happen overnight, but it’s never too late to start! Here are my top 5 tips to begin finding your own unique voice:

  1. Describe yourself using 3 adjectives. Using different adjectives will help you get a sense of your personality. Your voice as a writer is a part of who you are and your personality is also a part of who you are! Combing the two may help you find a style of writing you like the most.
  2. Make a list of what you like to read, such as books, magazines, blogs, comic books, etc. Can you find any similarities between them? How about any differences? What genres are you drawn to? Is there a particular writing style? We often admire who we want to be, so what is it about these readings that intrigues you?
  3. List your cultural/artistic influences. I am a singer, and people often ask me who my musical influences are because they affect the nuances in my singing. This can be true for writing as well. Are there any figures in pop culture that inspire you, such as journalists, actors, slam poets, etc? How can these influences inspire your writing?
  4. Write in another environment. I can’t always work in the library and need to find inspiration in other places. My favorite place to write is Lake Matoaka because the surroundings are calming, and I can breathe in fresh air for a clear mind. Try walking around campus to find new spots to write! Even take advantage of the beauty in Colonial Williamsburg and find a nice quiet place to think outside of campus.
  5. JUST WRITE! The best way to find your voice is to simply sit down and write. Write what’s most comfortable to you without any editing and see what you can come up with! This is a great way to see your voice come to life on paper. Also, look at what you’ve written before. You may discover that your unique voice is already emerging in your work.

These are a few ways to begin finding your voice. It may not be as easy as I made it sound, but the journey is certainly worth it.