Since last spring, many students have been experiencing highly stressful personal situations coupled with exceptional academic uncertainty. The online learning model was once considered a temporary fix in the face of COVID-19. But as the world enters the one year anniversary since the pandemic’s advent, distance learning has proven a long, stressful and tumultuous journey for both students and faculty. The spring semester has shown no relief.
“Online classes have been more draining than I thought they’d be—especially this semester where I really only have one class in person,” said Christine Trâm Anh ’24.
The stressors of the pandemic and political instability have also left many Vassar students feeling overwhelmed. Frustration with online learning is not unique to Vassar students—many across the nation have experienced anxiety, depression, attention issues and feelings of isolation.
Webcams have also caused increased anxiety in students due to privacy concerns and an inability to register nonverbal cues. Sitting for hours in front of a webcam while staring into a screen can cause what has been coined “Zoom fatigue,” and may lead to decreased participation and interaction. “It’s much more difficult for me to focus and hold myself accountable for staying focused on zoom,” shared Emma Swanson. “I only have one in person class and I feel so much more invested in that than in all my online classes.”
In addition to Zoom fatigue, some students have expressed frustration with a lack of communication with their professors. In one case, reported by a student who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, a Dean was necessary to facilitate communication due to a lack of response by the professor. Qinyao Li ’22 writes, “Some Professors take forever to reply to my emails. Can’t reach them when I need their help.” Further, some students voiced complaints about professors not appropriately adjusting their courses to accommodate remote students. For this reason, Wyatt Milgrim ’23 was forced to drop one of his courses. Ariana Sierra-Chacon ’23, who was in-person last semester but has switched to remote learning this spring, has found group work assignments particularly difficult due to increased responsibilities and international time zones.
This is, of course, only a select few professors. “All of my other professors seem to be doing a great job of handling the hybrid format so far,” Miligrim explained.
Overall, there seems to be a desire to connect more with faculty. Many students have found it difficult to make meaningful connections with professors not because of their lack of concern for students, but because of the nature of Zoom itself. Milgrim explained in a statement for this article, “The main thing that’s missing for me is easily being able to interact with the professors outside of class hours.” Similarly, professors are experiencing the same concerns. Professor Kenneth Livingston from Vassar’s Cognitive Science Department writes, “We all lose a lot of information about each other, whether masked and in person or online, compared with normal classroom conditions,” and “I definitely miss walking to lunch with students after class and sitting around in more casual and free-wheeling conversation for another hour for those who are interested…” In order to combat this sense of loneliness Professor Livingston has scheduled online group meetings.
Online learning has affected faculty just as much as students. Professor Livingston points to his own experiences this past year:
“As for the effects on research and personal life, these have been profound for me, and for many others as well. Doing lab work is much harder and for some projects has been impossible. Combined with the increased amount of time that goes into handling teaching, this means that I have been far less productive than I would have liked over the past year. I especially feel for my untenured colleagues for whom research productivity is a necessity prior to the tenure decision, and this has to be an especially scary time for them.”
He has also had to significantly change the way that he approaches teaching in a hybrid format in order to accommodate online students. For example, microphone placement, certain types of assignments, and participation must be rethought to have a successful classroom experience.
However, Vassar’s culture may be its saving grace. While Zoom classes can prove exhausting, for on-campus students, the experience of living at Vassar salvages aspects of the college experience.