A digital illustration created by Tom Bachtell showcasing Professor Joseph Landau in a minivan

Have Minivan, Will Teach

When Professor Joseph Landau and his family decided to relocate during the height of the pandemic, they found themselves without Wi-Fi. To reach his students, Landau came up with a novel solution.
By Paula Derrow | Illustration by Tom Bachtell

Like many parents, when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, Professor Joseph Landau, associate dean for academic affairs, and his husband found themselves suddenly confined at home in a New York City apartment with a highly energetic 2-year-old daughter. “School was closed, the playground was closed, and we needed to find a place where she could be outside,” says Professor Landau, who was teaching civil procedure to 1L students at the time.

That place turned out to be a 60-acre farm in a small town in North Carolina that had belonged to Landau’s late father-in-law. The couple bought a sight-unseen Chrysler Pacifica minivan, packed up their life, and hit the road. “We took everything we could think of, including our king-size bed, which we somehow fit on top of all the boxes,” says Landau. “Then we drove 12 hours through the night with our daughter—a city kid not used to cars—throwing up along the way. By the time we arrived, we were all exhausted.”

Getting there was only the first challenge. When they arrived, Landau discovered that the internet wasn’t stable enough for him to teach from home. “The digital divide hit us hard,” he says. “We tried everything to get service but there was no way to get quality Wi-Fi—the nearest town was three miles away and all it had was a café, a bridal gown shop, and a little grocery store—it couldn’t be more rural.”

Luckily, Landau learned that since they were Spectrum users in New York City, they could hook into any Spectrum spot around the country. The closest option: inside a local laundromat, which is where Landau ended up, parking his minivan as close to the building as possible to teach his classes from the vehicle via Zoom.

The arrangement, while not as convenient as Zooming from the kitchen table, turned out to have some surprising advantages. “I don’t like to use fake backgrounds for Zoom, so the students saw where I was, and I think it conveyed a message that we were all in this together, trying our best,” says Landau. “It helped my students see me as a real person, which made them more willing to speak up and to take intellectual risks. There was a strong vibe and great energy, even though we were all on screens.”

Of course, there were a few inconveniences. “I taught from the passenger seat, so if someone outside was smoking near the car, I’d have to shift over and repark. And when I taught my evening class and it started to get dark, I had to make sure to bring lighting. Otherwise, it was great—there was air-conditioning in summer and heat in winter.” And perhaps the biggest perk of all, for a parent: “There was no chance of our toddler Zoom-bombing us,” he says, laughing.

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