By High Emergy
On Friday, March 19, Washington College administration announced via email that professors aim to help their students readjust to in-person learning by incorporating virtual elements into their lessons. Specifically, WC professors will create physical breakout rooms — a feature of Zoom that’s been known to strike fear into the hearts of anti-social students everywhere.
According to the email, professors will be tasked with building at least five in-person breakout rooms each. The breakout rooms will resemble large wooden shipping crates, and each will include air holes, one trapdoor, and an automated countdown system that mimics the ones students see in their virtual breakout rooms.
The goal of this project is for students to make the transition from virtual to in-person learning with minimal shocks to their already-fragile systems. The actual building of the in-person breakout rooms will present an exciting opportunity for professors to bond and collaborate on a hands-on carpentry project.
WC rented out a lumberyard in a private location that professors were encouraged to utilize for breakout room construction. I visited the lumberyard during spring break to speak with professors as they worked on their rooms. On the first day of the designated construction period, morale was already low.
“We’ve had a few injuries,” Associate Professor of English and Director of the Gender Studies Program Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor said. “Nothing too serious, but it’s only a matter of time. I’ve had a few near misses with the chainsaw, myself.”
Dr. O’Connor and other faculty members were discouraged by the quality of their breakout rooms. By the end of day one, which lasted from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., only three rooms had been suitably assembled. When the professors returned to the construction site on day two, one of the three completed rooms had been overrun by a family of geese.
“[The professors] tried banding together to evict [the geese] safely,” Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Mala Misra said. “But they were too fast. Too vicious. It was like something out of a Hitchcock movie. I’m still covered in feathers.”
Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Jennie Carr, who specializes in avian behavior, believes the geese reacted with such violence because they thought “what we were doing was so, so stupid.”
“Birds do that sometimes,” Dr. Carr said. “If they see a human doing something that’s just completely absurd and unnecessary — like, a group of overworked faculty members building over a hundred human-sized boxes — they’ll be like ‘you could be using this time to combat climate change, but instead you’re doing this’ and they’ll just attack.”
Associate Professor of English and Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Dr. James Hall expressed frustration with the project, which he called “bizarre” and “a borderline hostage situation.” He showed me the combination locks that administrators want fitted on every trapdoor handle to prevent foolhardy escape attempts.
“Once you’re in the breakout room, there’s no getting out,” Dr. Hall said. “It’s very, very similar to the virtual breakout room situation; it evokes the same feelings of entrapment. I would say the only real difference is that with the in-person version, there’s no electricity or natural light. And it’s a box. A literal box.”
The breakout rooms will be installed on various grassy areas around campus — such as the campus green and the space between Kent House and Hodson Commons. After being assigned a numbered breakout room in class, students will be asked to “sprint to their designated room, wherever on campus it may be, in a timely manner,” according to the email from WC administration.
“There’s just no added benefit that I can see,” Visiting Professor of English Sufiya Abdur-Rahman said. “I’ve heard ‘oh, but they’re getting exercise’ and ‘hey, at least they’ll be getting fresh air’ thrown around in board meetings, but aren’t there other ways for our students to get those things? This just feels like a lot of work for a lot of large, dark, creepy boxes that could very easily be used for evil. But I won’t go there.”
While the in-person breakout rooms are wildly unpopular among most professors, others have managed to find a silver lining.
“[Lecturer and Associate Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Roy] Kesey built an extra box just for himself,” Hall said. “He soundproofed it, wired it up, and converted it into a miniature study. He stole our Keurig machine. He can read in there, write in there, tweet in there…I don’t know if he’s ever coming out.”
As of March 31, Kesey has not been available for comment. He rented a flatbed truck, which he used to transport his personalized breakout room to the middle of the woods. Now, he is “living life like Thoreau,” according to Hall. “But with deodorant. Hopefully.”
Whether the in-person breakout rooms are as popular among students as they are with Kesey, only time will tell. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the boxes as they accumulate around campus, and don’t blame your professors if they seem shoddily constructed. They did their best.