Faculty navigate accessibility, working from home and finding humanity in online instruction

Fowler Hall at Occidental College. Sarah Hofmann/The Occidental

In response to growing health concerns amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, president Jonathan Veitch announced via email March 12 that all Occidental College academic instruction would move online indefinitely beginning March 23 after a one-week extension of spring break. As the majority of students moved off campus, professors worked to adjust syllabi, retool assignment expectations and prepare to transition their curriculum to online platforms such as Zoom and BlueJeans.

Professors had mixed reactions to the initial college announcement. Theater professor Brendan Hughes said he was initially unsure how he was going to manage the transition, especially for live acting courses.

“I think I said, ‘Holy s—, it’s gonna be impossible,’” Hughes said.

After some consideration, Hughes said, he was able to design a course plan that drew on his past experience conducting Skype lessons with acting students. Now, students in his “Acting 2: Scene Study” class are adapting scenes to be performed on online video platforms, using inventive strategies that incorporate props, the camera itself and other students. Still, Hughes said, it has been difficult to replicate the same type of energy, interaction and relationship-building that the students enjoyed in a classroom setting.

Meanwhile, biology professor John McCormack said he has redesigned his “Molecular Phylogenetics” class to focus almost exclusively on lab-based independent projects, moving away from the lectures the class centered around on campus and during the first few weeks of remote learning. McCormack said he knows not all science and mathematics labs are as easily transferable.

“If you have something that involves field work, or chemistry or biology experiments, or you’re working with live organisms, those labs were radically altered for the worse,” McCormack said. “I’m sure all the professors are making do, but there’s nothing like working with the real thing.”

To assist faculty in making the transition to online courses, the college’s Academic Continuity Planning (ACP) team released webpages outlining guidelines, teaching expectations, best practices and technology resources. According to the webpages, faculty are advised to adopt a “triage” mentality, focusing on the basics of their instruction. Additionally, remote courses must still involve active participation from professors and students, and professors must continue to hold office hours with the same level of frequency as the normal school year. The ACP team also publicized the availability of ITS, library and Center for Digital Liberal Arts (CDLA) staff, who could provide faculty with remote help.

McCormack said the transition has been complicated by the fact that he shares a house with professor Amanda Zellmer McCormack, his wife, who is also an Occidental biology professor managing her own teaching transition, and their two children, who are 5 and 11 years old.

“We are both trying to run our classes and research programs remotely, while also having our two kids right at home from school,” McCormack said. “There’s just lots of time during the day when we’re trying to find activities for them or trying to balance our work and keeping them happy.”

Similarly, Hughes said his home situation is under more stress due to the job insecurity of the entertainment industry, in which both he and his wife work, and the fact that they now have a child taking classes online at home. Hughes said he anticipates that for the next few years, recent graduates will face increased difficulty as they try to find jobs in entertainment, competing against experienced industry members also trying to recover from job loss. Hughes said his wife, Emily, lost all of her cinematography work mid-March.

“I’ve tried to pivot to making [my students] into the very nimble Renaissance people that they are going to need to be in the future,” Hughes said. “So in addition to acting, I’ve tossed screenwriting at them, I’ve tossed directing at them.”

For many professors, redesigning courses to accommodate students’ varying access to resources was another challenge. Access to high-speed internet, textbooks and software required for coursework are now uncertainties for some students. In the most extreme cases, their students must now study in unstable living environments, contending with illness and unemployment.

“These are inequalities that are being exacerbated by the coronavirus, not created by the coronavirus,” politics professor Michael Sardo said.

Looking ahead to courses taught after the pandemic subsides, Sardo said faculty should continue to consider issues of accessibility and equity, such as textbook costs and technological requirements, when planning in-person courses.

“Even in a more traditional residential college environment like Occidental, these concerns about accessibility and equity and inclusion really need to be engaged thoughtfully, even in good times, because if you don’t engage them then, they’re only going to get worse in times of crisis,” Sardo said.

Remote learning has presented other difficulties beyond establishing equity. According to Hughes, it is harder to gauge student opinion and interest levels during online classes than it is in the classroom.

“There’s an inherent tough crowd atmosphere to a BlueJeans or Zoom,” Hughes said.

While running a class at Occidental takes a lot of energy, art and art history professor Amy Lyford said staring at a computer all day, on top of social isolation, is draining and does not return the same energy as teaching in person.

“When you’re in a classroom, you get energy from other people in the room,” Lyford said. “The flatness of an online experience, it doesn’t give back to you the energy that you put in. So it feels like it’s kind of a one way street energy-wise, but I feel that the students must feel exactly the same way.”

At the same time, professors said the transition has encouraged them to rethink their pedagogical priorities. While readjusting course content, McCormack said he has tried to reconsider his primary goals for the class and lecture topics.

“Something like this does help you refocus a class and understand what are really the key important ideas that you want to get across,” McCormack said. “It’s helped me remove some of the clutter.”

Even with all the anxieties caused by the coronavirus and the move to remote learning, professors said students have still impressed them with their ability to learn and engage with the course content.

“Every class we’ve had since we’ve gone remote has confirmed for me [students’] desire to learn and their capacity to build a better world than the one we’ve got,” English professor Ross Lerner said. “They’re finding ways to think complexly with the material and use it for their own ends, and I’m genuinely moved by that.”

In the future, when in-person classes resume and the campus community reconvenes, Lyford said it is important to not take for granted the interactive classroom experience and activities at Occidental.

“My biggest hope is that we can kind of come back together and maybe one of the silver linings will be that we all — faculty and students alike — will treasure the time we have in class together in a way that we might not have before,” Lyford said.