Remote faculty face trials, discover silver linings while navigating online teaching

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News

This past summer, Vassar students and faculty alike considered how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect teaching in the fall semester. While students faced the difficult decision to either return to campus for in-person classes or learn remotely, faculty weighed the pros and cons of fully remote teaching.

About 40 percent of Vassar faculty have opted to teach remotely this semester. Each professor’s individual decision to elect fully online instruction was heavily informed by a variety of factors.

For the entire Japanese Department, the decision to be remote for the semester was greatly impacted by pedagogical concerns. According to Professor of Chinese and Japanese PeiPei Qiu, in-person classes were not well-suited for language learning classes during the pandemic.

Qiu shared, “Observation of the positioning of the mouth and culturally specific forms of facial expression is extremely important for language learning. Wearing a mask creates a major obstacle for such observations.” She continued, “The social distancing required in [the] classroom makes the oral practice very difficult…When 15 or 20 students are practicing a dialogue six feet apart from each other, everyone needs to raise their voice, which makes it very hard to hear, especially when everyone is wearing a mask.”

In addition to pedagogical worries, Qiu and the rest of the Japanese and Chinese Department faculty were also concerned about providing equal and equitable access for all students. “We also felt that teaching online could allow every student to participate fully as all our classes have students who are taking courses remotely in the fall semester,” Qiu said.

Many other remote professors have echoed this sentiment. Professor of French and Francophone Studies Vinay Swamy mentioned the difficulty of student inclusivity with a hybrid model: “I felt like a hybrid classroom would be a lot harder to deal with—and I think a lot of my colleagues are discovering that—because you have some students online and some students in person.” He continued, “I felt like it would be better…to have all my students [on] the same platform.”

Along with emphasizing equity through shared accessibility, Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Benjamin Lotto expressed concerns about other students who may struggle with certain COVID-19 protocols in the classroom. These worries informed his decision to be entirely online: “I started thinking about students with hearing loss and those whose first language is not English, for example, and how wearing masks in the classroom might impact equitable access.”

In other departments, specifically Music, instructors found it unethical and even dangerous to the Vassar community to host in-person classes. Adjunct Professor of Music Robert Osborne and his colleagues decided to teach all voice lessons remotely, citing that the novel coronavirus is primarily transmitted via aerosols, of which singing produces a significant amount.

Other faculty were influenced more by personal circumstances.

Several factors influenced Assistant Professor of Astronomy Colette Salyk to choose remote instruction. In an email statement she wrote, “In general, I feel that, if I can do my job reasonably well remotely, it’s better for society if I don’t contribute to the spread of infection.” 

Salyk is particularly aware of the harmful health impacts of the coronavirus. She shared that her parents who live in New York City contracted the virus in April. Her father was hospitalized and has since fully recovered, but mother developed long-term neurological symptoms, including extreme fatigue, after a mild period of illness. Salyk said, “Although I always took the virus seriously, this certainly makes me more personally aware of the severe health impacts this disease will cause in some individuals.” Salyk also lives with a family member who is immunocompromised and wants to avoid the risk of infecting them.

Associate Professor and Chair of Education Maria Hantzopoulos, who is teaching remotely from her home in Queens, NY, also felt the impact of the pandemic personally. She knows people who have been infected with the virus and have passed away. Moreover, she needs to take care of her younger children, who are both learning entirely online. 

While it was a difficult decision for Hantzopoulos to have her children learn remotely, she did so for the benefit of her community as a whole: “Even though it was a tough decision, because it’s not easy having children here with me all the time…we just felt we needed to make space in the schools for children who had no choice but to be there, whose families [had]…caregivers [who] had to physically go to work or if there were other circumstances—food insecurity, housing insecurity, whatever it is—that they just need to be in school,” she explained.

Assistant Professor of Biology Dianne Pater, who had to opt for remote instruction for personal health reasons, expressed her appreciation for the College’s flexibility in letting her choose to be completely remote: “I really appreciated having the opportunity to choose because I know there’s a lot of faculty members at other schools that didn’t actually have that choice. They were really forced to choose between having a job or not and Vassar was really proactive in taking into account the professors’ health for making this choice.” 

Regardless of their reason for teaching remotely, each professor has had to dedicate more time and energy toward restructuring classes in ways better suited for online learning.

Over the summer, several fully remote professors attended seminars on effectively using online teaching tools to engage students in classrooms, science labs and other venues.

Supplemented by their own ingenuity, professors have used this knowledge to adapt their courses to the specific needs of their students.

As proclaimed by Lotto, “Everyone is putting in more hours for class.”

Lotto himself, has been dedicating more time to conversing and getting to know his students. He has focused on capitalizing participation and engagement more than in past semesters. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Lotto meets with smaller groups of around five students (as opposed to the whole class) in hopes of sparking more collaboration and discussion. While he is able to meet with two of the groups during his regular class time, he has also dedicated four more hours each week to meet with the rest of the groups. 

Lotto has also sent frequent surveys to students to check in on them and ask for feedback on how the class is going. Thankfully, his efforts appear to be paying off. He claimed, “I actually know my students better now than if I were just lecturing online.”

Other professors have also relied on virtual discussions and surveys to help engage with students and promote discussion. In her Energy Flow in Biological Systems course, Pater has approximately 90 students—most of whom are first-years. To get to know her students on a deeper level, she has used online discussion forums to interact more with them.

Pater highly encourages her students to speak with her and provide feedback, especially as it pertains to the structure of the class. She explained, “We’re [faculty] trying our best, but if we’re missing something, you [students] have to let us know because we don’t know what we’re doing any more than anyone else does.”

Qiu has also been working longer hours to adjust her courses. On top of attending five pedagogical workshops over the summer, Qiu has had to develop new teaching materials and revise existing ones, including all the tests and homework assignments, in order to make them suitable for online learning. These changes, she affirmed, have kept her busier than ever.

Salyk has made significant structural changes to her astronomy classes. Pre-COVID, the Assistant Professor would lecture her astronomy classes and often pause for reflection and problem-solving. However, Salyk has found pedagogical research that suggests a “flipped” model can be more effective than lectures when teaching online. This mode of teaching has synchronous and asynchronous components: students watch lecture videos before class and then spend classroom time working on problem-solving and homework. After applying this method, Salyk has noted positive outcomes: “I’m…excited about having more time during class hours to work with students, rather than lecturing ‘at’ them. Although Zoom still doesn’t feel like an in-person class, I’m already feeling that in-class sessions this fall feel more human and inclusive than they did in the spring.”

As remote faculty continue to experiment with their virtual classroom design, many have expressed their gratitude for the flexibility of the pupils. Osborne is particularly appreciative of his students taking vocal lessons. Technical difficulties such as video and audio lags make it next to impossible for him to accompany his students in real time. Therefore, he has provided pre-recorded audio accompaniments or has had his students perform voice exercises without any accompaniments altogether. Unfortunately, as Osborne shared, “These unprecedented methods are vastly inferior to face-to-face music making.” However, he notes, “I have been deeply grateful to all of my students for remaining open, vulnerable and eager to excel.”

Swamy also praised his students in his Francophone Literature and Culture seminar for their patience when he had to switch the class time from 1 p.m. EST to 8:30 a.m. EST to accommodate a student with a 12-hour time difference. 

With much gratitude he said, “Students have been incredibly patient and incredibly generous in accepting the situation as it is.” 

Although most remote professors have devoted plenty of their time and energy into delivering the most robust education they possibly can, they have had to grapple with some limitations.

In many cases, the limitations are physical. This includes experiencing “Zoom fatigue” after sitting in front of computer screens for many hours.

Hantzopoulos in particular has been experiencing much “Zoom fatigue.” As the Department Chair of Education, she is working with other Education faculty in attempting to partner Vassar alumnae/i who work as teachers with student interns to help teach younger students in communities in need of assistance during these times. She stated, “We are trying to seize the opportunity to support the needs that are emerging out of this pandemic.”

However, orchestrating this program via Zoom while simultaneously teaching class online has proven exhausting. As articulated by Hantzapolous, “Sometimes I’m on Zoom for eight hours in a day…I just need to get out just even for half an hour or 45-minute walk just to feel like I’m okay.”

Remote teaching has also proven to be very isolating for some professors missing their pre-pandemic interactions with colleagues. Pater joked, “Being around other adults is something that I miss a lot…I really haven’t left the house much. And, I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m a really sociable person and so it’s killing me.” As this is Pater’s second year teaching at Vassar, she is sad to lose the opportunity to meet even more faculty: “This has really thrown a wrench into my even getting to know other people on campus,” she said.

Although in-person interactions are not as prevalent for remote faculty, Pater has tried to look on the brighter side. She noted, “I have actually had more interactions with faculty members outside my department who are active on social media. So that’s something that maybe would not have happened as much had this not happened.”

Swamy called on both faculty and students to acknowledge and accept the limitations that the current pandemic presents and to shift their focus towards fostering a more transparent, compassionate relationship with one another.

He described the situation with a metaphor: “It’s like the beautiful swan swimming upstream. It looks like it’s gliding, but do you know what’s happening under the water? The swan is furiously paddling with its webbed feet.” 

He continued, “Sometimes, it’s hard to pull the curtain back and see that and let other people see it, right? Students don’t want to tell other students ‘Oh I’m having a hard time.’ Or professors don’t want to say ‘I’m sorry, I’m just overwhelmed.’ But I think we need to be able to say that and find comfort and support in the community to get over that feeling so we can do what we need to do.”

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