By Thirangie Jayatilake
I sat at my desk at home in Sri Lanka and stared into the black Zoom interface that read: ‘Please wait, the host will let you in soon.’ It was the last time I would feel those “first day of class” nerves, and I hoped nothing would go wrong. As I waited, I fiddled with the little black seeds imprinted with pearly white hearts, a childhood favourite that I had recently discovered in my garden. I asked questions to no-one in particular: did I get the time zone right? It’s today, isn’t it? Did they forget I’m Zooming in? What do I do if no-one appears on the other side?
The class was Grattan Street Press (GSP), a publishing house staffed by graduate students, which usually meets in person except for when there’s a global pandemic. But this semester, I was the only student Zooming in while everyone else was there in the classroom. This new mixed learning was thanks to the University of Melbourne’s latest learning technology—Blended Synchronous Learning (BSL).
I felt a wave of relief as the professor’s name popped into the Zoom window, and I was introduced to BSL. The image on the screen displayed students walking into class as the tech personnel explained to both the professor and me how this was going to work. We had our mandatory round of ‘can she hear us now?’, ‘can she see us now?’ and ‘Thirangie, can you say something?’. I soon found out that when I spoke, my voice was projected through the classroom’s sound system (was I going to be playing God?) while my face appeared on multiple screens around the class. Oh boy, I had expected the more discreet option.
Classes went on with constant technical disruptions. Most of the time, the thing that worked the least has been around the longest: microphones.
One of my primary tasks during class was to lean into the speakers on my laptop to hear class discussions. Occasionally, when the mics did work, my fellow students would speak into them so that I could participate. Luckily for me, I’ve had great professors, including our guest lecturers, who made sure to check in with me from time to time and to my relief, I could type my responses into the Zoom chat box instead of talking over everyone. For group meetings, Katherine Day, GSP’s managing editor, would walk me over to the editorial table on her laptop. Usually, you’re supposed to keep your phone away in class, but in this one, the editorial team’s Facebook chat became my anchor. My team, unfortunately, got a weekly dose of ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t hear that, what did they say?’. They’ve been gracious to respond back and report to the professors when needed.
The Endless Isolations
There have been a few things that have made taking classes from home manageable. I’m a tropical weather baby, so I was relieved to spend the 2020 Victorian winter lockdown months in Sri Lanka instead of being stuck in my single room alone in Melbourne. Plus I have my dogs at home and they occasionally join my Zoom classes, sitting under the table (we’ll have to keep this a secret though; they don’t pay tuition).
Altogether, my family has been through seven isolations due to possible COVID exposures, on top of a few months of national lockdown in Sri Lanka. My first quarantine was in Melbourne last year, when I got a respiratory infection and needed to be isolated for fear of COVID: thankfully, I tested negative. I flew home when my mother heard the international airport at Colombo would be closing during to the Sri Lankan lockdown. It closed 24 hours after I landed.
These Dystopian Times
When I left Melbourne for the winter break last year, I thought to myself: I’ll have plenty of time to explore Melbourne and Australia later. I wonder how different my Masters would have been if it had gone as planned. Once during an editorial team meeting outside of class, I Zoomed into a team meeting in a cafe. I could see a light green and yellow tram passing and it was strange watching it in the background. I once took those trams every day.
The pandemic is still on the rise in Sri Lanka, topping 3000 daily cases. Except for a quick glance over headlines on newspapers lying around the house, I’ve been avoiding the news. The island is now going back into lockdown. It is strange to watch wealthy countries who purchased excess vaccines throw them away when countries like ours are desperately attempting to source more. There are 600,000 Sri Lankans who are waiting for their second Astra-Zeneca vaccines.
Steps are being taken where possible. The government has turned a garment factory into a makeshift hospital while vaccines are being rolled out for people between the ages of 30 and 60. Luckily Sri Lankans, in stark contrast to western countries, are pro-vaccine, but it’s still taking some time to fully vaccinate everyone. People queue for more than five hours in the hope of getting vaccinated.
I’d like to give a huge thank you to Sybil Nolan and Katie for working with the university to get GSP on a BSL system, and for involving me in class every week. Thank you to my editorial team who had deal with me not only in class, but also in our meetings. Thank you to Sophia, for making sure that everyone’s opinions were heard. To Adi, who seemed to have the best Zoom hearing. To Chloe, for constantly informing me what was happening in class and to Lucinda who remembered the editorial suggestions I made during meetings. Lastly, thank you to my dear classmates for dealing with all the tech mishaps.
It’s crazy to think that I am now at the end of my Masters’ journey. It’s even stranger to think I spent most of the last year in isolation. I look forward to meeting my classmates in person someday.
Hailing from Sri Lanka, Thirangie Jayatilake grew up as a avid reader and a wannabe writer. After completing her undergraduate from NYU with a Literature and Creative Writing major, she is currently completing her masters at University of Melbourne in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. She loves spending time with her dogs, being in water and travelling.
Cover image provided by Thirangie Jayatilake.