Adaptability and resilience - what the pandemic looked like in CLA
This time last year, the world came to a screeching halt. Many of our students and faculty were in the process of trying to enjoy their spring breaks while simultaneously hearing rumors of university shutdowns as COVID-19 began to make its way around the globe and the US.
Faculty had to make do with little to no notice about taking their courses online; students weren't allowed back to their dorms to access their textbooks and laptops; and officials at every level were making the best decisions they could with the information they had at the time. All the while hospitals were being overwhelmed, and people were suffering and dying at alarming rates.
At the time, it was frenzied and worrisome. There are still a great many unknowns. Thankfully, there are vaccines now, and Auburn University has been very efficient in getting its faculty, staff and students vaccinated. There's also an abundance of PPE items (masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, etc.), which is a major reason the university decided to send their faculty and staff back to campus, and offer more in-person classes this spring.
While a year out may not be enough time to properly reflect on what went right and what didn't, it's a good place to pause and evaluate what took place to keep things running, and how it all happened.
We recently spoke with faculty members and staff from the College of Liberal Arts about what they recall from the beginning of the pandemic until now. It was enlightening to discover what took place in order to keep the college running. It was also inspiring to learn of the compassion our faculty displayed towards our students during the uncertain and often frightening times.
Resilience, accolades, and compassion – a recipe for remote teaching
During the 2020 spring break, Adam Jortner, Goodwin-Philpott Professor of Religion in the Department of History, was in Philadelphia for a library company fellowship. After spring break, his world history class would have a big test, as they had every year for the past 10 years. But then word came that in-person classes were going to be cancelled and faculty would have to adapt their classes for online instruction in less than three days.
When Jortner received the notice from the university, he left his fellowship early and returned to Auburn as quickly as possible.
Jortner recalled those early days, "One the first things I did when I learned we'd be closing was call the various counseling services on campus and find out what numbers students should use to get psychological help. Knowing that this pandemic was something we all were going to be dealing with and that everyone would have some fear and anxiety—I called them up and asked about best practices. I also knew my job as a professor in this situation is to promote well-being, and to keep calm and really think about what's going to be safe and how our actions affect other people. I knew I needed to model that behavior and provide information to my students, many of whom had only been here a semester at that point."
Jortner specializes in the history of American Christianity and joked that historians are socially distanced just by the nature of their work, so that part of the equation would be easy for him. What wouldn't be so easy was deciding what to do about the big test his students were supposed to take.
"It was a hard decision to make, but students were home in their various states across the country without their books, so I cancelled the test. They were all very relieved by that decision," Jortner recalled.
With the decision of what to do about the test out of the way, Jortner turned his focus and time to learning more about Canvas, the learning management software both faculty and students use to participate in virtual courses.
"I was plotting ways that I could continue to have a worthwhile education experience on-line—which is different than in person," Jortner said.
Jortner said his thought process essentially became twofold: Figuring out how to scale back what he normally did in-person while still giving the class the information they needed.
"I listen to Pope Francis a lot and he asked, 'can you ever have too much compassion?' I tried to let that guide me. It helped me clarify things and gave me a sense of purpose. And it guided my students too because they admitted some of their teachers became more insistent on getting all the Ts crossed and Is dotted. Some of the students said they were having a really hard time with it. I was teaching this huge class and many of them were in college for the first time, so I let compassion be my guide."
For his efforts to keep his class engaging and informational, and for keeping his students' well-being a priority, Jortner topped BuzzFeed's list of “17 Teachers Who Deserve an A++ For Their Efforts to Educate Their Students In Quarantine" in March 2020.
Compassion was also at the heart of Emily Friedman's approach to her class, as well as to the GTAs who were learning how to teach.
Friedman, an associate professor of English, is a scholar of the long eighteenth century who uses book history and digital practices in her classroom and in her research.
"I have a firm pedagogical belief that you cannot assume what students want, you have to ask them. So, I send out a survey every semester anonymously asking all kinds of questions about the class subject matter, but also including questions of, how are you? And what concerns and anxieties do you have? I try to meet students literally where they are," Friedman said.
Friedman was also out of town when she received the information about going remote. "I was in Washington D.C. I always go there to visit my nephew during spring break for his birthday. His birthday party was the first thing canceled in the pandemic. It was really difficult to explain to a kid who just turned 5 that we can't have it and we can't tell you when it's going to be. It was heartbreaking because I've moved heaven and earth the past five years to see my godson for his birthday. To the extent that children get it, he gets it, but it's still hard."
Friedman made the difficult decision to leave D.C. for Auburn as soon as possible. "I didn't know when I might be able to come back, so basically I got on a plane, flew home, got in my car, drove home, went into quarantine, and have pretty much not left the house."
Friedman was named a 2021 winner of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies' (ASECS) Innovative Course Design competition. She is also at work planning her next innovative course on narrative structures in video, board, and role-playing games, to be offered in fall 2021.
While Friedman had the software, hardware, and knowledge to convert her classes to online, there is the disappointment of not being on campus and being able to visit the library's special collections. It's something she says she looks forward to being able to do again, perhaps in the fall.
A temporary measure leads to a new approach
Susan Fillippeli, a lecturer in the School of Communication and Journalism, was visiting family in North Carolina during spring break. Fillippeli recalled telling her family she wouldn't be surprised to learn that Auburn was going remote. "A few days later the announcement was made and there was not a lot of time to prepare but we jumped right in. It was a very fast transition. I was teaching an overload of five classes—three were in person, and two were already distanced learning, so those just went on as usual," Fillippeli said.
This fall, Fillippeli taught legal communication. The class meets for two-and-a-half hours every week. They used to meet in person and took that time to cover as many components as they could leading up to their big project at the end of each semester—a mock trial. Because of the pandemic, Fillippeli has had to adjust how many people can meet in person at one time, so she split the group of 30 into two teams who take turns meeting each week. When a team isn't meeting with Fillippeli in class, they are working on assignments in theory and knowledge of a selected topic. When they next meet in-person, that entire time is dedicated to a skill pivotal to mock trial—opening statements, questioning, closing statements, jury selection, and jury deliberation.
At the end of the semester, the teams go before a Lee County circuit judge to present their mock trials. The teams travel to the Lee County Justice Center, and the judge presides over their cases. "He sits there in his robe and the class loves this. It's such a great experience for them," explained Fillippeli.
Previous classes have done well during their mock trials, but Fillippeli said this class, in particular, was extraordinary. "Having time to really delve into all of that made a big difference when it came to the mock trial. I really saw a difference, and the judge did, too."
Fillippeli said the difference was so noticeable that she will be conducting all her legal communication classes this way.
"I think there's a perception that teaching remotely decreases the amount of work, but in reality, and especially if you're trying to do it consciously and well, it doubles or even triples the amount of work that you're doing," Fillippeli shared.
The faculty interviewed for this story said they prefer in-person teaching so they can “read the room” and get to know students better. However, in an effort to make the best of the situation, many faculty had to adapt to new technology and a different way of teaching. To do this effectively, many faculty turned to the College of Liberal Arts' Instructional Technology staff.
"In the beginning, we were just trying to make sure faculty and staff had the hardware they needed, which included laptops and web cameras," Darrell Crutchley, CLA Informational Technology manager, said.
Thankfully, Crutchley and Instructional Technology Specialist Stacey Powell already had the knowledge and resources to assist faculty and staff throughout the transitional phases of remote teaching.
Powell said that thanks to many previous workshops she and the IT office hosted, many of our faculty were ready for the switch to online and distance learning.
“We had a history of face-to-face workshops about teaching online (since 2014), so we adapted those and turned them into fully online workshops. We were truly modeling how to teach online in a fully online format,” Powell said.
Crutchley and Powell said they both stay on top of the different instructional technologies that debut, and since they’ve both been in their positions for many years, they have a great network of people around campus.
“Whenever one of us had an issue, someone would ask the group if anyone else was experiencing the same issue and you always had an answer in five minutes or less,” Crutchley said.
That network, combined with the workshops, led to a quick and seamless transition, which was noticed and appreciated by faculty.
“I remember calling on our IT office a lot,” Jortner said. He recalled conferring with the IT staff for his technical needs and his colleagues who were able to share some of their online teaching experiences with him.
“I felt very supported by CLA IT and the Biggio Center. Thanks to them, I was able to see Canvas from the student perspective, which was very beneficial,” Friedman recalled. “They worked so hard to help us out and their expertise and guidance were invaluable.”
“I'm extremely proud of the dedication, compassion and adaptability our faculty and staff have displayed during the pandemic," said Joseph Aistrup, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “It was not easy, but they stepped-up and did what needed to be done to ensure our students were getting the best possible education during these extenuating circumstances.”