In the soon-to-be-dubbed decade that was March 2020, many students traded in their college classrooms for a less traditional learning environment—home. Gone are the trappings of a traditional college classroom: high-tech projectors, fume hoods, charming old desks (and their charming graffiti). The most striking difference, however? The absence of students and professors.
When the college evacuated most students from campus and announced a shift to online learning on March 12, a high-pressure keg of emotions, confusion and nerves burst in the middle of spring break. The overall structure of college—its supportive network of colleagues, resources and advisors—disappeared. Underlying this stress was an increasingly alarming pandemic. Students and professors alike had little over a week to wonder how online classes, dubbed “remote learning,” would affect the rest of the semester. Questions regarding grading, class style and workload abounded.
Professors were largely on the receiving end of those anxious queries. Yet, just as students were faced with the novelty of remote learning, their professors were scant more prepared. “I’ve been at Vassar since 1987, and I’d never taught remotely before,” said Professor of Political Science Stephen Rock. “I wasn’t sure how well this old dog would be able to learn new tricks.” Rock recalled no faculty meetings held on remote learning after President Bradley announced the shift.
Tasked with guiding professors through this new reality is Dean of the Faculty Bill Hoynes, who noted several measures in place to guide faculty members: “We have provided technical assistance, including offering a wide range of consultation regarding support for a variety of teaching techniques; encouraged faculty to collaborate within and across departments and to share resources and ideas.”
With that said, Professor Rock’s learning curve is nearly scaled, a small victory he attributes to his students: “It’s actually been better than I expected, and I credit my students for that. They have really stepped up and have been wonderful under very difficult circumstances.”
Some students give professors the credit. Phoebe Davin ’23 recounted how Associate Professor of Sociology Arindira Rueda adjusted when her whole syllabus was upended. “I’m really appreciative of the time she’s put into reconstructing the class to make it accessible for everyone, even though the class spans many different time zones and home environments,” said Davin.
Sarah Mamlet ’20 appreciated that her professor, Associate Professor of Psychological Science Alan Clifton, accounted for differences in time zones considering the accessibility issues of simultaneous learning practices: “He’s put together wonderful pre-recorded lectures, led a good Zoom seminar (for which attendance wasn’t mandatory because he knows we can’t all make it at that time).”
But numerous kinks remain to be worked through despite these successes. For one, not all professors are as open to using pre-recorded lectures or forgoing mandatory attendance. With the student body scattered across much of the globe, the logistics of attending simultaneous classes, still the widely accepted model, are immediately thrown into question. “My Japanese professor had emailed us over break asking us to please join the Zoom call at 9:30 EST,” says Samuel Patz ’23. Patz, who lives on the west coast, voiced concerns to the professor about making a class that now begins at 6:30 a.m. Pacific Time. When he inquired about the time change, he learned that the faculty decided against changing class times to avoid grappling with new timing conflicts. In short, Patz’s new class time is inflexible. “When she told me this, I was kind of just shocked that the faculty had made a decision that completely neglects all students that don’t live on the east coast,” he shared.
Classes in large part have taken place during their on-campus time slots, per recommendation by the administrator. However, some professors have gone ahead and independently changed their course structures, splicing classes into groups or meeting for less time and with less frequency. Still, the broader policy has left some students struggling to adapt. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Patz. “A friend I know from Sydney, Australia said she has to join her economics livestream at 2 a.m.!”
Eventually, Patz’s class split into sections to accommodate the time zone discrepancies. Patz feels fortunate to have parents who are self-employed and already working from home. Still, the coronavirus casts a dramatic shadow over him, a weight that renders tackling his work load no small feat. “I found out that two of my elderly relatives who live in NYC were diagnosed with COVID-19, so it’s just been a surreal experience. I’m trapped (by order of the governor) in my house … It just feels like not a great time to be doing school.”
In these uncharted waters, it makes sense to emphasize a retention of normalcy, but navigating the ergonomics of remote learning is tricky on both the learning and teaching ends. The lack of in-class interaction leaves some professors wondering if maninting a semblance of routine is even feasible.
Professor of Religion Jonathan Kahn teaches in both the Religion Department and in American Studies. His class size ranges from a handful to dozens of typically eager students. In any of his classrooms, discussion is paramount. Difficult subjects are broached, ideas are fostered. Zoom classes alter the classroom dynamic entirely. “From the faculty side, it is almost impossible to figure out if students are engaged with the class. You can’t get a sense of the room—because there is no actual room,” Kahn pointed out.
Many Vassar students may crave the rhythm of a typical class, but the inconsistent reality is cause for some reimagining. Kahn voiced a concern over conventional expectations given the new format: “I immediately felt that I needed to change my sense of what a class was, its requirements, and what I could expect from students. My first question I asked myself was: If there is one academic goal that I want my students to get from this semester, what is it?”
The landscape of class subject and structure at Vassar varies dramatically from department to department. Hoynes, who has been at the helm of the transition, offered an assessment similar to Kahn’s: “[W]e encouraged faculty members to look carefully at their syllabuses, determine the bottom-line pedagogical goals for each class session.”
Of course, the disconnected nature of online classes is not the only disruption that students face. Campus life offered the facade of routine and equitable access to resources. Students congregated in the Deece to eat the same foods, filled classrooms for the same education and walked back to their rooms to sleep in the same dorms. Resources such as the Office for Accessibility and Educational Opportunity and Metcalf were available to all.
Outside Vassar’s gates, the previous realities of college life crumble for many students, who returned to varied and inequitable household situations. Some have unreliable access to the internet or food, little privacy or toxic familial relationships. Some students have no home to return to. A remaining few are stuck on campus, unsure of when an international flight home will be possible.
Besides providing technical support and resources for faculty, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty encouraged professors to meet these students where they are—a tall order. “We have emphasized the importance of supporting students who may be in various time zones, may be working in a wide range of learning environments, and not all will have reliable high-speed internet access,” explained Hoynes.
Before classes resumed, many professors asked students about their internet access, if they have mandatory course materials and about other concerns. Hoynes shared, “We suggested that faculty members inquire about students’ capabilities for submitting different types of assignments electronically, and reminded faculty that they may need to reconsider assignments they had planned based on responses from students.”
Itamar Ben-Porath ’20 explained how his sociology professor fundamentally changed the class curriculum. “Back in January, Professor Coplin decided to cut the last week of the semester from her syllabus to talk about the pandemic. Now that it’s gotten this bad, she decided to cut two more weeks out of the semester to talk about this, even though she lost ANOTHER week.”
On top of fitting the curriculum to the coronavirus outbreak, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Science Abigail Coplin has accommodated her numerous international students who had to abruptly navigate home. “She’s not grading hard, she’s letting all the students who went back to Asia (good chunk of the class) miss synchronous classes and shifting the class in general towards Moodle posts…she gets the shoutout both for respecting both what we can’t do and for thinking what kind of learning space is actually relevant at a time like this.”At the end of the day, the burden falls on professors. “Our faculty must be the final arbiters of how their classes run, and that principle does not change whether we are all in a classroom together, or gathered virtually,” assured Hoynes.
Despite the voracious learning appetite and aptitude of Vassar students, and the best of effort of many of their equally dedicated professors, Vassar may miss the mark. Many students are in very normal places, but are not living normally. This is not so much a striking unreality but a profoundly dismal under-reality. Students and professors are still in class, doing our best to learn, only hoping for an eventual return to what many of us consider home.
Stephen Rock, the longtime professor of political science, summed his feelings toward remote learning in one word: “Anxious.” The professor who before last semester hadn’t missed a class in over 30 years remains out of the classroom indefinitely.
Additional reporting by Tiana Headley.