“Behind the Curtain at BOLLI,” by Jack Curley

In the early spring of 2020, Kamala Harris endorsed Joe Biden for president, a nine-year old tech company named “ZOOM” struggled to gain a foothold in the world of video-conferencing, and a new BOLLI semester was about to get underway at 60 Turner Street. By mid-March, word spread of a newly-discovered variant of the Corona virus that had made the jump from animals to humans and our everyday world turned upside down.

In a March 12 message to members, BOLLI Executive Director Avi Bernstein announced that, due to the spread of the virus, programming would be suspended to allow time for development of a platform with which to support remote learning. The project would be undertaken by staff, with help from a group of members with the requisite talent and knowledge to assist. Remarkably, the new system was up and running in just two weeks, classes resumed, and “BOLLI OnLine” was born. Today, Senior Associate Director, Megan Curtis, says that if anyone had asked her pre-Covid for an estimate of the time it would take to convert to a virtual platform, she would have said “at least two years.”

Nearly two years later, following their successful delivery of hundreds of Zoom programs, lectures, and meetings, the Banner visited with staff for a virtual chat to look back at the events of that time, review where things stand today, and consider the future of learning at BOLLI. Joining Megan for the discussion were Senior Program Coordinator, Carolyn Crossand Program Coordinators Nicole Grant and Jim Nagle.

Megan Curtis

Carolyn Cross

Nicole Grant

Jim Nagle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The conversation began with unanimous praise for BOLLI members for having maintained their memberships throughout the crisis; remarkably, nearly all have stayed on. Jim feels that this, plus the positive response to so many events and classes over the past two years, puts the lie to the notion that older people can become fixed in their ways. “Members’ adaptability to change has really been something to see,” he says. Jim believes additional evidence of the community’s resilience and allegiance is found in the number of members now relocated to far-flung locations who continue to participate in BOLLI, with an estimated fifty now logging in from distant sites both in the US and abroad. He is likewise “amazed by the number of Brandeis alumni who have discovered BOLLI during the pandemic and subsequently become members.” Study Group Leaders have also become part of our new worldwide presence, as evidenced by recent classes led from South Korea, Germany, and Alabama.

Staff also took time to applaud the chairs and members of various committees for the amount of time spent in preparing for the transition. Megan believes “some must have put in forty-hour weeks to get the work done.” Carolyn says that prior to ZOOM she never truly realized the scope and depth of the work done by volunteers. “We have an amazing wealth of student knowledge that we’ve been able to tap over the past two years, and people have been incredibly helpful.”

Jim believes credit should also be given to BOLLI staff leaders for their initiative and creativity in keeping things up and running from the very beginning. “When the pandemic started, it would have been easy to say ‘Okay, that’s it, we have to shut down’. But Megan and Avi kept us moving forward and thinking outside the box.”

BOLLI Team

But no transformation of such speed and scope could take place without a few bumps in the road. When asked if there had been any mishaps during the early days of transition, Megan recalled one of the very first Zoom lectures, featuring historian Craig Bruce Smith, with an audience well in excess of one hundred. Early in the program, viewer screens became covered with scribbles. Megan remembers that, while “Craig remained his usual unflappable self,” behind-the-scenes staff “feverishly searched the internet for a solution.” While order was soon restored, the incident (caused by an open Zoom “annotate” key) sent a clear message that a learning curve lay ahead.

Jim remembers that early sessions often showcased images of foreheads, chins and ceilings. “Though I’ve noticed a big difference in recent months,” he says. “People, including myself, have really learned to be flexible out of necessity and become much more adept at using Zoom.” While perhaps not funny at the time, some early miscues can now bring a chuckle. He recalls the first time he encountered a virtual background and thought the student was actually participating from beneath a sun umbrella parked on a Florida beach. “At the time, I didn’t even know Zoom had virtual backgrounds!”

Pets have made many appearances in BOLLI classrooms, mostly in brief walk-on roles, though some canines, and several birds (“making little squeaky noises,” as Megan puts it), are known for their regular ZOOM-bombing habits. Jim pleads guilty to falling in love with one visiting canine “who always puts his face directly in front of the camera and wants to be a part of whatever it is that’s happening on the screen.”

Carolyn recalls an embarrassing incident that took place while coordinating a meeting from her parents’ home in Florida. Her father, recovering from back surgery, walked directly in front of the camera and filled the screen with an image of his scar. Other early glitches include accidental shutdown of a screen shared with a large number of viewers watching the live performance of a play; views of members performing housekeeping duties; and broadcast of a selection of Sinatra tunes being belted out by a member’s unsuspecting spouse.

Megan’s own inner-circle sometimes crashed the party. Her six-year-old daughter and playmates would occasionally pop up on-screen as program “guests,” and her mother, a BOLLI member, was captured working on a crossword puzzle while viewing a well-attended lecture. As with those of us who have suffered a similar fate, her mom was stunned to learn of her visibility. Given the many hours spent in virtual space, it’s no surprise that staff members all admit to harboring ongoing fears of the dangers posed by an open camera.

BOLLI’s return to 60 Turner Street remains very much on everyone’s mind. Particularly so for Nicole, our newest staff member, who was hired during the pandemic. Nicole worked remotely from New Jersey during her initial stage of employment and didn’t set foot in the building until April. Her orientation consisted of an outdoor “donut adventure” with her new co-workers and visits to last summer’s “Homecoming” events held in a tent behind 60 Turner Street. She laughs about an ongoing concern that she may one day encounter a BOLLI member in a grocery store and “not be able to recognize them with their mask on.” Yet, she adds, “there are definitely a number of members I actually am getting to know better,” and credits the virtual classroom for making that possible.

BOLLI Gathering Space

Other than use for occasional staff meetings, the Turner Street space remains largely vacant. Megan says that visiting the site “can at times feel quite strange.” And what of its future? While members have widely embraced virtual learning, in-person classes will continue to play an important role at BOLLI. As Avi announced in a recent message to members, the target date for a return to the classroom is April 5, at which time Carl Lazarus will lead a five-session course on Frank Lloyd Wright: Flawed Genius, to be followed by lunchtime activities. Megan says the event will be “our first attempt to satisfy people’s desire for in-person connections, while not abandoning the Zoom classes so many have come to appreciate.” While acknowledging that the months ahead could bring new challenges, she promises that staff will meet them head-on. And following the hard work and many accomplishments of the past two years, who could doubt their success?

 

The Banner welcomes reader comments (see below).

2 responses to ““Behind the Curtain at BOLLI,” by Jack Curley”

  1. Chas. Raskin says:

    Thanks for giving us an inside view of operations. You have actually provided a cane to lean on during this awful period.

  2. Joyce Lazarus says:

    Thanks, Jack, for showing us the positive side of this terrible pandemic: how lucky we have been to have BOLLI online to keep us all going. Kudos to the great BOLLI staff, SGLs and committee chairs for all their hard work!

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