Imagine yourself adding flour, sugar, salt, milk, water, and eggs to melted butter. You mix the batter before adding the vanilla last. Today, you are making crêpes. As the butter swirls around in the pan, you ladle the batter in, twisting it to create the delicate pancake soon to be enveloping strawberries, Nutella, or ham and eggs. Voilà!
Now, imagine you pause and ask someone over Zoom how they are doing in French. This is not an average Saturday morning or late night Tastemade binge. This is Elementary French with Professor Elsa Stéphan.
“This morning, we did a cooking workshop through Zoom, which I was a bit nervous about,” Stéphan shared. “I had no idea what it was going to be like, but it did work. So I showed students how to make crepes on Zoom.”
Foreign language courses are just a few of the many courses that have been drastically affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Across the country, countless universities have transitioned online. At Columbia, the web conferencing platform Zoom hosts virtual classes for the rest of the spring 2020 semester. For students, this transition means adjusting to online learning and embracing the term “zoomer.”
With the wonders of the Internet at one’s fingertips, paying attention in class is much more difficult, says Skylar Li, a first-year in the School of Engineering and Applied Science intending to study electrical engineering. “You’re easily distracted and also, being in SEAS and having a bunch of bigger classes, I can’t concentrate in classes that have 200 people in them.”
Being at home is, as Leila Tejani calls it, a “motivation-killer.” She goes on to stress the challenges that occur with adapting to new technology as a first-year at Columbia College studying neuroscience and behavior. “A lot of the class is just the professor trying to figure out how to use Zoom, which can't be helped. It’s no one’s fault, per se, but it is pretty bothersome.”
As the University transitioned to online learning within a few days, instructors had to adapt quickly to the challenge of teaching online—and many have found value in it. According to Collin Else, a first-year studying biochemistry on the pre-med track, the size of large lectures is not as big of an issue. Because of tools like the chat feature, posing questions becomes easier when the sea of stares that can come from it is eliminated. Moreover, being in a lecture class that can sometimes feel like simply “reading out of the textbook,” Else feels that professors have been using the online resources like breakout rooms to facilitate more “independent learning” and interaction among both students and professors.
“I’ve actually been impressed with my teachers. They’re very understanding about students in time zones and accommodating, giving easier assignments instead of having more quizzes,” Tejani said,
But for many, this is uncharted territory. Getting to this point for teachers has not been easy: Some have never taught online courses prior to Zoom, others have an array of time zones to accommodate. Prior syllabi that prohibited the use of technology in the classroom have become obsolete in virtual settings. Classroom expectations must be adapted to fit the mandatory pass/fail policy for this semester and account for students’ varied access to resources.
While each situation is unique and difficult, the transition to online learning has been especially challenging for those teaching classes that have been designed for in-person interaction. When students can tune out the lecture simply by clicking to another tab or turning off their video and audio, keeping a classroom engaged becomes difficult. But when adapting classes to an online format, some professors have considered the new opportunities for interaction and even found success in creating a classroom community remotely.
“there is plenty of scope for creative contribution in all these places.”
For Barnard’s theater department, moving classes online has forced professors and students to reconceptualize the idea of what goes into a theatrical production. Not having a physical set to practice and perform on has raised issues for all parties involved in the production. Actors can no longer practice face-to-face, set designers do not have a physical set to design anymore, and costume designers can not get their costumes to the performers.
Even so, the theater department has been finding new ways to incorporate the roles of the set designers, costume designers, sound designers, and lighting designers. Michael Banta, a production manager for the theater department at Barnard, says there are still ways members of the production crew can do their jobs digitally when speaking about the Senior Theatre Thesis Festival—an annual showcase directed by seniors’ doing their thesis in directing. Perhaps set designers could help actors manipulate their environment, Banta suggests, costume designers could send costumes or help the actors dress for a look, and light designers could experiment with ways to even out different lighting between screens.
Despite the challenges of a virtual environment, he is optimistic that “there is plenty of scope for creative contribution in all these places.”
Same Faces, Different Places
Rather than Hamilton’s rough wooden chairs, many professors and students are on beds and small desks. Since switching online to Zoom, students and professors now interact in their respective home environments. Situations that would seldom occur in person, like having kids come into the room during class or cats roaming around the room, are now part of remote learning. Some professors have gotten creative as they learn how to juggle their professional and personal lives. Stéphan now has “two jobs because it’s full-time babysitting and teaching.”
Columbia has offered resources for professors who are parents, like reimbursement for the costs of babysitting services, but the need for social distancing has prevented Stéphan from using it. While it can be a challenge to have a child at home, she recognizes the mutual empathy between both students and professors and believes her students would understand if something came up. The unique situation posed by trying to find that work-life balance has created this shared understanding of student expectations also, as “we are all more understanding if students cannot complete an assignment.”
A tour of Ullah’s home office
Speaking of work-life balance, Sahar Ullah, a lecturer in Lit Hum, describes in between laughs the ways in which Zoom has shown her different sides of her students, whether it’s watching them try to find a comfortable spot on their bed or noticing a pizza with pepperoni faces as their background.
“I was wondering, are the quieter students gonna somehow be more chatty… Are there gonna be transformations of personalities?” Ullah says. “And it’s funny because I’m seeing some parts of their lives come out.” Each class, Ullah picks a theme that students can participate in, like wearing a favorite headpiece or bringing a bag of one’s favorite chips to class.
For some courses, rather than bringing Hot Cheetos to class, students can bring a glass of wine or a White Claw if they prefer. Laughing, Li explains how her French professor’s revamped office hours on Wednesdays from 2 to 4 p.m. “When he usually has office hours, what he does is "happy hours'' now, so we all go in front of the screen and drink while talking with him in French,” she says. It is the little things like this that have changed Li’s experience in class. Li feels like professors have generally been more available over Zoom than on campus. While it is hard to picture “wine o’clock” with a professor in Hamilton, over Zoom, anything is possible.
For Stéphan, teaching on Zoom has created an environment for trying new things in class, like the crepe-making workshop and creating digital postcards in French. “I don’t think I realized how stressed the students were before and how much it affected me too. Now, it’s just more informal and we have more time for cultural activities, which I love,” she says. Not a stranger to using technology in the classroom, Stéphan has been exploring different features of Zoom, even finding a way to have students type subtitles while a peer speaks, immersing themselves in French.
In a similar way to how Stéphan has taken advantage of Zoom’s subtitle feature, another key function of online class that has helped both students and professors to adapt is the ability to record lectures and learn on their own time.
David Vallancourt, senior lecturer in circuits and electronics and professor for the art of engineering, mentions the benefits of being able to record lectures for his students.
“I prefer they use methods that I’m trying to teach and this way everyone can just do that and I’m not worried now that they’ll go see what some rando posted on the internet,” he said.
Like recording content, teachers are utilizing other technologies to ease the shift to virtual learning. In art of engineering, a Core Curriculum requirement for first-years in SEAS, students must complete a department project in their chosen engineering field, as well as a common project. According to Vallancourt, electrical engineering has always required students to use circuit simulations for their projects, which are, in fact, better for learning than in-person experiments. “The fact is, these simulations are in many ways [more similar] to real engineering practice than going to a lab and playing with simple circuits.”
In terms of the common project, where students work in teams to program and create a game in the Columbia Makerspace, the only sacrifice that has been made is the building aspect of the assignment. Vallancourt continues, “Things like the gameplay, the hardware programming, even the artistic design can all be done without physical building.” Thus, students can still decide on the gameplay with their teams, program it online, and design the appearance of the game.
Banta has also found new software to adapt the curriculum in the theater department. He is putting together a software survey course with the other advisors in order to teach students various software applications used for theatrical production. Like Vallancourt, switching online has provided him with the opportunity to expose students to the virtual aspects of theatrical production. He explains, “Photoshop for scenery design and costume design, Google Sheets and Excel for working on the budget for the physical production element.” In the end, he hopes students will “still gain some skills this way that they can use in future production.”
I think, therefore I can
The change to pass/fail has also been a motivator in changing teachers' teaching styles. For Clémence Boulouque, assistant professor in Jewish and Israel studies and lecturer for Lit Hum, this mandated policy has made her find a balance in both scaling back expectations and maintaining a sense of time worth spending for her students. By shifting assignments away from passage identification and more towards introspective discussions on texts, Boulouque wants there to be “this kind of intellectual investment that is going to help them peel off some layers of anxiety, or at least think beyond or through the situation.”
This idea is echoed in Professor Jennifer Rhodes' approach to teaching Lit Hum. She says pass/fail has made her ideal Lit Hum experience—reading in the grass and having discussions, sans grades—somewhat of a reality.
“We do have a bit more freedom to think, ‘What do we want this education to do?’ For me, it’s about ideas and community. Those are the things that brought me to teaching,” Rhodes said. “Just to create different ways in which we can explore ideas and engage with them, with everything that we’re able to bring under these very difficult circumstances.”
Despite seeing their students through a screen, professors like Boulouque have recognized the power of finding community through uncertain times and are using their classes as vehicles to do so. Using the question of “How do you cope?” as the direction for the rest of the semester, she sees potential in Lit Hum to help students process challenging times like these.
“Senselessness is really what seems to capture the experience of people dying. How can you make sense of those texts, and how can you make them yours?” she asks in her Lit Hum class. “I want them to understand that those texts can help them know how they're feeling because the times of confusion are, by definition, the times where you don't understand what's going on.”
Through close reading, analysis, and discussion, Boulouque hopes these texts will serve as resources for her students and provide opportunities for introspection during these times.
"We do have a bit more freedom to think, ‘What do we want this education to do?’ For me, it's about ideas and community. Those are the things that brought me to teaching,"
Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, set against the backdrop of the Black Death, is a collection of short stories told by young people who escape to the countryside. For Else, a student in Boulouque’s Lit Hum class, reading and discussing this text in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic has been both a comforting and eye-opening experience. “Even though we’re off campus, the situation has provided some meaningful opportunities to learn more about my classmates and professors,” he says. “It has helped to build a tighter sense of community.”
In this whirlwind of emotions and precariousness, it can be hard to imagine the future or life after the outbreak of COVID-19 and what lasting impact it will have on higher education. It has managed to affect every aspect of people’s lives, and for our instructors, it has forced them to dramatically rethink how they engage a classroom. This wasn’t how they pictured the end of the semester, but that has not stopped many professors’ teaching efforts, nor stopped them from feeling connected to their students.
As Boulouque says. “At least there's a sense of ‘We're in this together,’ and even if that means that sometimes, we are in this together, but our face looks weird, and we’re frozen, and there’s a kind of disconnection, [we’re] still there. ”
Enjoy leafing through our sixth issue!