Faculty, students adjust to a new online-online course format

Photo courtesy of zoom.us.

By Jeremy Mauser || Staff Writer

When the semester began, few would have predicted how drastically the school’s academic and social landscape would change in a matter of weeks. Yet when unprecedented circumstances surface and the Franklin & Marshall community needs to change and adjust in line with the rest of the world, it rises to the challenge.

Without the benefits that come from in-person class discussions, physical activities, and office hours, no class has remained the same as it was a few weeks ago. Instead, professors and students used the extended spring break to adapt to the virtual classroom and settle into the new situation.

Some courses, inevitably, needed to make greater adjustments than others. For instance, lab instructors had to figure out how their classes could still offer the same educational outcomes without access to a physical lab that includes necessary equipment, chemicals, and biological samples. Chemistry professor Sarah Tasker offered insight into how she implemented much of the new course material into an abbreviated, online portion of the semester.

“It’s funny – everyone keeps asking me about the lab, but it turns out that was one of the easiest things to figure out for us,” said Tasker. “All of the CHM 112 professors have pulled together to convert our next lab into a choose-your-own-adventure of identifying unknowns, where we provide (sometimes funny) narrative descriptions of chemical tests and allow students to individually analyze their results.”

Subject areas other than the physical sciences also faced significant challenges, including the visual arts. Professor Sandra Lee, who teaches sculpture courses, explained the challenges that she faced and how she is addressing them.

“Working side-by-side, in a physical space with equipment choices, tools, and materials is key for empowering students with the knowledge and ethics of making,” said Lee. “Adapting this learning solely online isn’t really possible, but we can focus studio-making processes instead on resourcefulness, a basic rule for artists. We’ll create ‘kitchen-table’ studios and virtual critiques to keep the culture going.”

Professor Lee continued by explaining what exactly her adaptations would entail. “I prepared material care packages for each student, but not everyone was able to pick it up before the school closure. This now requires students to be extremely resourceful in their making process, collecting bits from their daily lives and home environment.”

Even classes that took place in traditional classrooms, including the social sciences and humanities, demanded quick thinking and planning from their professors. Certain professors with discussion-heavy courses, including professor Erik Anderson’s creative writing classes, simply moved the in-class discussions to discussion boards on Canvas, where students post responses and reply to each other’s comments.

Other professors, including English literature professor Tamara Goeglein and history professor Ibrahim Hamza, host weekly Zoom meetings with their classes to check on everyone’s personal lives and continue class discussions. However, these host potential problems, including professors and students losing connection and being unable to rejoin a meeting.

Yet professors are understanding of the myriad of issues that many students face. For instance, professor Tasker stated that exams in her class are now open-book, albeit with time limits that require students to study beforehand, and students can earn participation points by following up with her and watching the lecture if they miss any class sessions.

“I’m more concerned with my students’ wellbeing in these tumultuous times,” said Tasker. “What I’m most concerned about is not hearing back from a student and not knowing if that means they just aren’t checking their email or whether something more serious is going on.”

Professor Tasker also offered some optimism amid all the chaos. “The best part of this whole experience has been how the chemistry department has really come together and worked hard to support each other under these circumstances. I think our training as scientists gives us a lot of experience of failure and unexpected results in the lab. You have to face reality and see where it takes you!”

Professor Lee also shared the silver linings that she found. “Artistic breakthroughs have always come from urgent conditions. It’s exactly the space of imagination that can provide comfort and inspiration in the most challenging and limited conditions.”

“The work our students make will document this unprecedented time,” Lee continued. “They’ll be responding from a range of contexts and they’re resilient, so I’m sure we’ll learn so much from each other as we adapt to this new reality.”

Sophomore Jeremy Mauser is a staff writer. His email is jmauser@fandm.edu.

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