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By Kelsey Bettman and Hannah Switzer
When Interim President John Williams announced that Principia was requesting students not return to campus after spring break, the faculty’s lives were turned upside down. They were told to go home and prepare for classes to be online indefinitely.
This was a large change for the faculty, and many had insecurities about their ability to be technologically able. Some had other responsibilities, such as children now at home during the day, to handle on top of teaching classes. Many had to look evaluate their ability to work from home and some had no choice but to commute to a practically empty campus.
The Pilot spoke to six professors to gauge how the faculty has adjusted, now, six weeks into remote learning and on the eve of finals.
“There is a chemistry and an energy that happens when you get a group of people in the room,” says John O’Hagan, professor of theatre and head of the Creative Arts and Communication Division. “Even on the days when nobody wants to be there, there is a common sense of connection that you just never get through the camera.”
At the heart of that is the synchronous/asynchronous dilemma that every professor had – and continues to consider.
While most professors interviewed by The Pilot have chosen to hold synchronous classes – that is, real-time classes at their originally scheduled times, David Robertson, a math professor, decided to have both synchronous and asynchronous aspects to his classes.
With any dramatic shift like this comes a natural adjustment period. This takes time, and change is often easier for some than it is for others. Adjustment periods ranged between professors.
“[I]t really took about two weeks to really get comfortable with the basics of online teaching,” says Robertson.
He has adapted by using YouTube to post video lessons. Students are supposed to watch the short clips of Robertson going over the lesson before meeting at their regular class-time Zoom call.
In order for Robertson to effectively hold his classes in the way he wanted to teach, he had to reevaluate and upgrade the internet connection he had access to at home. He urges that everyone take an internet speed test and look into what internet option is best for their needs as he initially had problems and had to upgrade.
Some professors don’t have the right internet connection at home and are forced to commute to campus in order to host classes. Though he lives on campus, archaeology professor Andrew Martin commutes to his office in Voney Art Center to host his classes.
A lot of Martin’s classes are experimental. To adjust to remote learning in his Introduction to Archaeology class, an experimental archeology course, Martin took his Zoom class into the woods near his home and showed students how to construct an ancient boat and visited a sweat lodge ancient Native Americans near Principia campus may have constructed.
Many professors feel that online classes are going well, considering the circumstances. However, most agree it is not something they would want to continue doing in the future.
“Having the opportunity to use a platform like Zoom makes it doable,” says Lauren Stewart, chair of the education department. “But we are missing a lot of what makes Principia classrooms special.”
Along with the change in classroom set up, grading has also taken a turn.
The grading system of Satisfactory/Satisfactory Deficient/No Credit, similar to Pass/Fail, is now an option for students, and most professors interviewed support giving students the option.
Joan Wesman, assistant professor of mass communication, went to a college that did not have grades. They worked on a Pass/Fail system and she really liked it, she says.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have one semester where it isn’t on the students to make that big a decision and we just take the decision away and we say everybody’s Pass/Fail?” she says. “We are all going to relax, we are all going to make education be what it is to me, which is intellectual curiosity.”
Some professors have a different perspective. They feel that S/SD/NC doesn’t hold students to the standard that they should be held to. Courses have already been made easier because of the move to remote learning, and this grading option allows more room for error, they suggest.
With online classes comes the uncertainty of tech fails and funny moments, and Principia’s professors have no shortage of those.
Andrew Martin, professor of archaeology, says that he lost his phone in the murky waters of a pond in one class during a virtual canoe ride. (See his full story here.)
Stewart has become quite the secret online fashionista. “I’m always in my pajama bottoms no matter what cute top I’m wearing,” she says.
Overall, faculty have successfully navigated remote learning and taken the semester to completion.
• Featured photo at top is a Zoom screen shot of Lauren Stewart’s class. Courtesy of Lauren Stewart