I had to teach my NYU psych class to 360 students from a cell phone while trapped in an elevator with my kids. It went surprisingly well.

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Jay Van Bavel with his children while stuck in the elevator
Jay Van Bavel with his children while stuck in the elevator of their apartment building.

  • Jay Van Bavel is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, which is currently following a hybrid learning model with both in-person classes and virtual instruction.
  • On Wednesday, he got stuck in the elevator of his apartment building with his two kids, just 10 minutes before his remote Introduction to Psychology course with over 300 students was about to start.
  • Van Bavel, who Tweeted about the ordeal, says he was able to give 50 minutes of his lecture before the elevator was fixed and he and his kids were freed.
  • Looking back, he’s not sure why he didn’t cancel: “It all seemed weirdly normal in the moment.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On September 23, I had to teach my afternoon Introduction to Psychology class today to over 300 students from my cell phone while I was trapped in my apartment building elevator with my two young kids. Even by the standards of 2020, this has to go down as the most stressful — and surreal — teaching experience of my life. 

Jay Van Bavel
Jay Van Bavel.


I’m currently teaching a huge Intro to Psychology class this fall. But given the risks of the pandemic as well as public health guidelines, I was forced to teach the class virtually. For whatever reason, the class was massively over-enrolled, with over 360 students from around the world joining me every few days to learn about the science of the mind.  

Moving such a massive course online has been a challenge. But others have it worse, and the students are smart and engaged, so the class has truly been a blast to teach. At least, it was a blast until this week.

The first problem is that the local schools in New York are closed, and I have limited child care.

I have to get my kids from the local daycare at 3 p.m. and race back to my apartment by 3:30 p.m. to teach the class. My 10-year-old son loves to crash my course and share his thoughts on the brain and perceptual illusions, but the students find it funny so I don’t mind. 

This past Wednesday, I set up my computer, walked through the city to pick up my kids, and then we arrived back at my apartment building at 3:20 p.m. We hopped in the elevator, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I was going to make it to my class on time. Class was scheduled to start in 10 minutes. 

The elevator closed and started moving up. Then it quickly lurched to a halt and started dropping. I got that feeling in my stomach that happens when you’re in a roller coaster and it starts falling. I realize we are suddenly trapped on the 3rd floor. 

But I used the call button in the elevator to contact the staff. They promised to contact a repairman from the elevator company to help us escape. OK, no need to panic.  

I started texting people to figure out what to do. My 8-year-old daughter started getting scared, which led my son to tease her about overreacting. He’s normally a cool cucumber in any situation. But this led her to start crying.

Things were melting down pretty good at that point. But we rallied and calmed down. I gave them a hug. Things would be alright. 

It dawned on me that my students would be worried if I didn’t show up for class.

But my internet reception was horrible (you know when it only has one bar of reception), and I wasn’t high enough to access my WiFi either. 

After fumbling with my iPhone, I managed to login into my NYU Classes website to contact my students. Thankfully, I managed to login and send out an email announcement to the class by 3:28 p.m.

The subject line was: “Trapped in my elevator, will start class as soon as I’m rescued.”

Jay Van Bavel's email to his psychology students.
Jay Van Bavel’s email to his psychology students.

By this point, a certain level of camaraderie had developed in the elevator. My kids and I  had a dawning recognition that we were all in this together and would pull through. I reminisced about the time I was stuck in the elevator with my son Jack five years ago, and we laughed about those old times. We also snapped a few selfies to remember the moment.

Jay Van Bavel with his children while stuck in the elevator
Before class started, the Van Bavel family took some selfies and kept calm.

But time passed. The kids got anxious. I started to worry about my poor students and how I would manage to finish the lecture on time. The mid-term was coming up the following week and there would be no time to make up the content.

After half an hour, I made an executive decision to try and teach from the friendly confines of the elevator. I desperately tried to get enough internet access to login into NYU Classes and access my Zoom link. 

But Zoom made this incredibly hard on my phone. They needed me to download an app and then login. In many ways, this was the biggest challenge of the entire ordeal. 

Eventually, I logged into my class. But the internet was so weak that I couldn’t speak to the students. I logged out and logged in again using the phone link. I would just give the lecture over the phone without video or slides. It seemed like the only option. 

I was finally able to phone into my class. I could see there were over 200 students already in the room and they were just chatting, speculating about my new life in the elevator. They seemed strangely relaxed. Their lives seemed somehow fuller than our life in the elevator.

I spoke. They kept talking. I yelled my name. “HI, IT’S JAY! I’M ON THE CALL!” They heard and recognized me. The class was afoot! 

I could hear my students’ collective surprise — especially once they realized I was still trapped in the elevator, and the class was still going forward. 

I could hear one student yelling to her roommate that her professor was trapped in an elevator. Others seemed excited to give this a try; apparently they’d never been taught from a professor stuck in an elevator before. It would give the class a fresh new twist. 

Then it dawned on me that I had no way of showing them my carefully crafted slides on the conscious and unconscious mind. They were on my computer, in my apartment.

I suddenly felt very alone. Would I be able to remember the lecture? Had I made a mistake by jumping on the call?

Then I just started talking about consciousness. It went surprisingly well for a stressed-out guy giving a lecture over his phone with no notes while trapped in an elevator with his kids. 

Sure, I lowered my standards. But I felt it was only fair under the circumstances. 

As I’m talking, I realized my kids are just staring at me with perplexed looks on their faces. They weren’t horrified, but seemed bemused as I raised my voice to explain how we have many mental processes that operate outside our awareness.

After about 50 excruciatingly long minutes in the elevator, it jolted and then started to move. The doors opened. We could see our beautiful nondescript lobby and the sun beaming in from the front doors. We cautiously stepped out into freedom. 

I was able to catch the other elevator upstairs, boot up my laptop, and give the rest of the lecture from the now-seemingly-normal confines of my kitchen table.

 I’m not sure how this will play out my semester teaching evaluations — but at this point of 2020, who cares anyway.

For anyone wondering, why didn’t I cancel my class? I don’t know. It all seemed weirdly normal in the moment. Each step just seemed to logically follow the prior step. This is a lesson I’ll cover in a later lecture on rationalization.

As I typed it all out, I’m now deeply aware of how absurd this was. With a little luck, I will not be teaching in elevators in the future.

Jay Van Bavel is an associate professor of psychology and neural science at at New York University, an affiliate at the Stern School of Business, and director of the Social Identity & Morality Lab. He completed his PhD at the University of Toronto and a postdoctoral fellowship at The Ohio State University before joining the faculty at NYU in 2010. Van Bavel has published over 100 academic publications and written research essays in The New York Times, BBC, Scientific American, and The Wall Street Journal. His research has been featured in TEDx and TED-Ed videos and he’s consulted with the UN, EE, and WHO on issues related to his research. He coauthors a mentoring column, entitled Letters to Young Scientists, for Science Magazine. Connect with Van Bavel on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


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