As September begins, students and faculty are partaking in all the usual back-to-school rituals—finalizing schedules, searching for the right classrooms in disorienting academic buildings and seeing familiar faces around campus. Yet the transition from summer break into fall semester looks very different this year, as students and professors log into Zoom or find their seats under outdoor classroom tents. While the spring semester was thrown completely off course by COVID-19, students and professors this fall are trying to rebuild a semblance of normality. With just three active cases on campus as of September 6, many hope this risk is paying off.
After the isolation and separation brought on by quarantine, returning to Vassar is refreshing for many. “It feels great to be back on campus, almost exhilarating,” explained Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn, who is teaching two classes in an on-campus tent. “I know I was craving being together with others, and being able to do this in-class, under a tent, feels thrilling.” Sophia Gaffney ’22, who is taking a mix of in-person and remote classes on campus, is also happy to be back. “It feels great to have the structure of class again,” she explained. “But it’s definitely still a transition after being away from campus for so long.”
Adapting to social distancing measures has also introduced technological challenges that have forced professors to rethink models of teaching they have practiced for years. Professor of English Susan Zlotnick is teaching her classes in a tent, but has found the combination of students on Zoom and in person is not conducive to the discussion-based model of teaching she is used to, mainly because students on Zoom cannot hear students speaking in the tent. “Several of my colleagues in English met with Media Resources and CIS, who have been heroic, and we’ve come up with a protocol that might allow for nearly everyone to be on a laptop or phone in the tent zooming with those who are remote,” Zlotnick explained. Yet she acknowledged that this approach has not been working for her larger classes. “I’ve given up on trying to combine in-tent students with those who are remote, and have rearranged my courses so that sometimes we are all on Zoom together, sometimes I meet with a small group in the tent and with another small group on Zoom.”
Caeli Porette ’22, who is taking classes remotely, also described similar barriers to participating in classes as a student on Zoom. “We can’t hear anything that the students are saying in the tent so we can’t interact with them,” Porette said. “The adjustment period has been weird, usually the beginning of classes also comes along with being back on campus and seeing friends, but this time the only difference is that classes have started.”
Professors are experimenting with different ways to better integrate in-person and online students. For Kahn, the challenges brought on by social distancing protocols and technological barriers have caused him to re-imagine pedagogy completely. “For me, the ‘professor-centered’ model of learning isn’t going to work this semester,” Kahn explained. “The model that places me at the center of things just does not comport with how I think education works, what is possible right now, or what, frankly, we need in this moment.” This semester, Kahn’s classes will consist of groups of four or five students sitting outside and working through the material together. Kahn hopes a “student-centered” model of teaching will foster a relationship-driven model of learning. “The goals of my class now include asking: how well do you know what your neighbor thinks about the issues we’re raising in class? How does your neighbor’s views affect your own?”
Some classes are more adaptable to outdoor learning than others. Chloe Kellner ’22, who is taking two laboratory classes in soil science and plant biology, is optimistic about what the semester holds. “The labs have to be outside, which I think makes us connect the science to real life in a much stronger way than we might otherwise,” she commented. “We have less lab time but are working in smaller groups, which gives each student more individual attention.” Other science labs are splitting students into groups where they alternate between in-person and online labs every other week.
Physical Education and Dance classes have also had to adapt to the new conditions of learning this semester. Chair of the Dance Department Professor Stephen Rooks is teaching classes in-person in Kenyon Hall. He voiced some of the same concerns that others have about the hybrid of Zoom and in-person. “Some of my students are synchronous, and some are asynchronous,” he said. “ I have to constantly remind myself to interface with my online students as vigorously as the students who are taking the class in the studio.” Some PE classes, such as the squash classes, have been canceled altogether.
While faculty and students have been flexible and creative in meeting the moment’s challenges, significant questions still loom. What will happen when it is too cold to learn outside? Will classes be forced to go completely online in the event of a severe COVID-19 outbreak? How will students adapt to completing finals off-campus?
Yet many feel the uncertainty has been a reminder to not take anything for granted. “In many ways I think that this ‘new normal’ has made us all more appreciative of and hungry for human interaction,” explained Rooks. “I have always enjoyed my students here at the college, but I have noticed an even higher sense of gratitude for the classes, and the opportunity for us to interact—albeit socially distanced—to one another.”