It’s no small thing that the words “transfer” and “transformation” share the same root. I came to Barnard as a transfer student at age 21. I’d had a manic break my first year in college and grappled with my diagnosis of bipolar disorder for two years. “What have you been up to?” People would ask. “Traveling,” I’d say — a lie, unless you’d count a mania-fueled cross-country road trip. The only place where I did not lie was on my Barnard transfer application. I took a chance and I got in. 

2005 Commencement

When I think about my time at Barnard, Audre Lorde’s words come to mind: “…the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation….” From the moment I arrived on campus, Barnard pulled something out of me that I didn’t know was there — a voice from a void, cropping up sometimes in conversation with my transfer buddies and in class discussion, and most often in my papers. Transformation can be a slow, incremental process. That process started for me at Barnard and continues here now, 15 years later, as a professor. 

Just before I returned to teach, in the summer of 2019, I published my personal essay “Shithole Country Clubs,” on my father’s affiliation with the Trump National Golf Club and my own stance as a defiant daughter. The essay reflected not only the culmination of my years working as a personal essayist but also my recent shift into improv comedy. It was dense with research, and yet, when I read it aloud, people laughed as if I was doing stand-up. Looking toward the fall, I wanted to help students find their own states of play, too. 

During the fall 2019 semester, I led a section of the English Department class called Art of the Essay. The class prioritizes transfer students, and in their writing — on feeling out of place even when everything seems in place, on making the decision to transfer, on finding community at Barnard — I felt the presence of 21-year-old transfer student Nina. 

Then, midway through the spring of 2020, as I was teaching my First-Year Seminar class Women and Comedy, the novel coronavirus shook the world. I worried that, because of the shift to remote learning necessitated by COVID-19, all the bonding and growth experienced among my seminar students would be interrupted. 

First-Year Seminar class Women and Comedy
Spring 2020: First-Year Seminar class Women and Comedy

“I will really miss the magic that happens in the room together,” one of my students wrote to me as we turned to distance learning.

In our first Zoom class, we played the improv game “Follow the Follower.” This game explores how improv can help us navigate moments of interruption. It’s called Follow the Follower because there’s no leader. Instead, you mimic one another’s sounds and motions. The goal is to observe any interruption to the pattern, embrace it, and get in sync. I noticed that the stranger the sound and movement got, the more my students laughed and relaxed. The more they relaxed, the more they engaged. In less than five minutes, 14 Zoom individual frames became one picture, one collective sound and motion. I knew I wanted us to keep doing that, to keep making the frame fall away. 

Watch the class practice “Follow the Follower” below:

Over spring break, I decided to move [the direction of the class] away from simply “Women and Comedy” to “Women, Comedy, and Trauma.” In improv, we talk about the “unusual thing.” You never want to force a scene in a “funny” direction. But when the “first unusual thing” comes up, you embrace it, celebrate it, and build a world from there.

I asked the students to write about their first year, but to do it through finding a “small unusual thing” with which to enter into the story. In conferences, they often expressed fear:

“Can I write about my first year like this? Will anyone ever relate?” 

Yes, they knew we had all experienced a unique year of college and that the world was experiencing one of the most unique years in modern history. But collective tragedy doesn’t cancel out personal difficulties — those difficulties that don’t make national news, those difficulties we push down to get to a class, a club meeting, to the next thing.

When it came time to share, they were amazed to find community. They thought they were the only ones to silently bear pain in a seemingly small and ordinary moment of college, be it life pre- or post-lockdown. They were relieved. They were celebratory. In this moment of joy, they felt compelled to gather their stories into a class anthology. Even in their separate corners of the world, they are together there now. The frame fell away.

—Nina Sharma ’05

For more on Sharma, check out this Q&A.

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