Professor Lockhart wows his students from a digital Academic Hall (with a special guest). Image: Aly Murphy/Fulcrum
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Keeping things fun during COVID-19 teaching doesn’t have to be hard, as U of O’s favourite juggler-prof hyphenate demonstrates. 

Somewhere in between scream-crying “champagne problems,” re-binging Gilmore Girls, and applying for summer journalism jobs that may or may not actually exist, I (like most University of Ottawa students) have been attending my final semester of classes virtually over Zoom.

It’s not great.

Though there are legitimate arguments to be made in favour of Zoom university — it’s more portable, it leaves room to revisit recorded lectures on your own time, you don’t have to wear pants — most people would agree that it’s quite the drain on attention span, and no digital classroom can replace the feeling of in-person discussions and teaching.

Professors are doing their best to inject some lightheartedness into a hard semester through one of Zoom’s best features: digital backgrounds. 

U of O profs across different faculties have delighted their students with memes, pop culture references, and just overall silliness in these backgrounds. While Zoom backgrounds alone don’t negate the real pain students are feeling at the hands of the pandemic, they’re certainly a fun extra.

Professor Jonathan Lockhart, technical director of U of O’s department of theatre and a professor of technical theatre, sat down with the Fulcrum to chat all things Zoom on Jan. 28. 

Lockhart teaches technical theatre — an extremely hands-on, practical discipline that covers topics like ladder safety, lighting design, and set construction. Migrating that curriculum has been “so bizarre, and a little bit frustrating.” 

That said, the migration’s made some parts of the courses (much!) easier to teach. Programs like Vectorworks (a piece of 3D design software) are easier to pick up when you can follow demonstrations in real time; the previous in-person model of teaching wasn’t the most effective for getting information across to students.

“I can focus on the software, and it’s much easier to demonstrate it,” said Lockhart. “And there are students all over the globe — Africa, Asia, Switzerland, to name a few — taking the course, which has been really cool.”

Some things, of course, you just can’t teach on a shared screen — ladder safety being a big one. Lockhart is one of few professors allowed on campus at the moment, so he’s been able to record himself from the U of O’s Academic Hall.

What his first-year students might not know: Lockhart’s ladder safety demonstration is a highlight of his intro to technical theatre course (he moonlights as an extremely talented busker, one with a knack for balancing things on his face and juggling knives, among other things). 

Lockhart’s ladder videos, despite COVID-19, have allowed him to show off his zany skills to students near and far — things are more “normal” than they might seem on first glance. (Psst: the ladder safety video is available here, and we recommend skipping to the very end for a surprise.)

Lockhart explained he is also having fun with Zoom backgrounds for the more “static” topics — lectures recorded from his home in the suburbs. They serve a practical purpose — “keeping my kids out of frame since they’re in online classes at the same time” — and they additionally “pay homage to my building [Academic Hall].” 

So far he’s been using photos of the inside of the building as his background to show new students where they’ll be spending the rest of their theatre degrees; it’s nostalgic and fun, and almost maintains a sense of normalcy during this odd time to be taking such a typically hands-on course.

Just for fun, he also Photoshopped an enigmatic Bernie into his classroom last week. “I know the meme [will] be passé by next week,” he said in the interview.

“But we’re making the most of [teaching during COVID-19]. We’re thinking about how we can use certain skills, and we’re learning a lot.”

Professors across campus might have a lot to learn from Lockhart in terms of keeping content fun and light during these times — though we at the Fulcrum don’t recommend balancing large objects on your face without some training first.