They love it, actually.
The fun video message at the start of online lectures for third-year genetics class with Brock University professor Lori MacNeil became the highlight of pandemic learning for her students — her holding a mock press conference with a shot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping in the background, sitting in front an image of the “Welcome! Everything is Fine” set of sitcom “The Good Place,” playing songs like “The Final Countdown” as students neared the end of their coursework.
But it wasn’t until MacNeil shot a mash-up from the modern Christmas classic movie “Love Actually” that social media also got the chance to see her effort and creativity when her tweet about it went viral.
“For the past few weeks I’ve been making increasingly elaborate lecture intros to help drum up student excitement for new lecture content. I may have gotten a little carried away for the final week,” she tweeted.
In an interview, MacNeil said that for in-person classes, she tries to connect with her students and create a “fun, relaxed environment” so they feel comfortable — she arrives a bit early, plays music (Arctic Monkeys, The White Stripes, sometimes old boy bands like the Backstreet Boys) and wanders around to chat before starting her lecture.
But when COVID-19 hit, and all classes moved online, she decided to try and create the same atmosphere using the video messages.
“I was trying to make the best of it,” she said.
“Love Actually” is one of MacNeil’s favourite movies, which she says she watches “repeatedly” at Christmastime. Even though “it’s kind of older than I even realized,” she added, “I wondered would the students have even been born?”
She figured that even if they hadn’t seen the 2003 film or were unfamiliar with the famous front porch scene where one character professes his love for another using a series of placards, “they would still be able to appreciate it.”
MacNeil filmed her part on her own front porch — garnering a few curious looks from neighbours — and spliced shots of herself holding her own handwritten messages for her students into the scene opposite actor Keira Knightley.
She told them she hopes they can be together again soon — in an actual classroom — and then says she’s sorry but they still have one more lecture and a lot of studying left.
Using a tripod, she shot it herself and spent five hours editing with a newly purchased video editing program.
“I got great reactions from them,” she said of her students. “A few emailed and said they loved it, it was so funny and creative.”
As the semester progressed, her videos were getting more detailed and, she added, “I felt for the last week I had to go big.”
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She said some struggle with online learning and, combined with pandemic, they are spending a lot of time in front of a computer screen, so she wanted to “lighten it up a bit for them.”
“I love having them enjoy themselves,” she said. “If they are finding it hard to sit through videos, if I can do a little something to catch their attention and make it enjoyable and not such chore . . .”
MacNeil, who is from Nova Scotia, said while her husband — also a Brock professor — offered to help film, she felt she could ham it up more if she did it alone.
Her two young children are unfazed about their mom’s social media fame — her tweet has reached more than 1.2 million people — even though the educators at their child-care told them “we saw your mommy on the computer and she did a funny movie.”
MacNeil, who won an award for teaching and student engagement in 2016, called the online reaction “insane.”
Third-year Brock student Temi Odunuga said likes the personal experience MacNeil brings to online learning.
“I get to the computer and I’m excited to see what’s she’s created for us now,” said Odunuga, who is studying from home in Brampton this school year.
As for the “Love Actually” video “it was the perfect ending to the semester,” she said. “It was iconic.”
“That’s what made it even funnier — because the movie itself is iconic as well, and that scene. A lot of people into Christmas movies would know that scene. That was the icing on the cake.”
Once she hit play, Odunuga said “I thought ‘OK, what is this going to be about?’ Once it started, I was dying. I am not over-exaggerating, I was literally laughing in my room by myself,” said the 20-year-old medical science major.
Marissa Sim, a fourth-year biological science student, said MacNeil’s “uplifting spirit and contagious optimistic attitude have allowed for an entertaining and positive alternative experience to university.”
Ava Bobinski enjoyed the “Love Actually” video so much she showed it to her family.
“I couldn’t believe how funny it was and how much my final genetics lecture put me in the Christmas mood,” she said. “I appreciate how much effort she put into making her lectures a positive part of our online learning. She has a very relevant and current sense of humour such as memes and TikTok references.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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