On the last day of classes before students abruptly returned home amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Daniel G. Donoghue, who teaches English 103G: “Old English: Working with Manuscripts”, made sure his students would not leave campus without a bit of fanfare. He and the course’s teaching fellow E. Claire Adams made a special effort to send off the seniors in their class with an improvised awards ceremony. “We made them, all the seniors, a sort of a congratulations diploma and signed it, and we put on our robes and presented it to them, and we had some donuts,” Adams says, “to try to make a little more pomp and circumstance out of everybody being shoved off campus.”
Even before the beginning of remote classes, Donoghue and Adams had already begun adapting to the effect the pandemic would have on teaching and learning at Harvard. Lectures and seminars have moved to bedrooms and living rooms in hometowns spread across the world as the College transitions to online learning. Alongside technical difficulties and time zone differences, virtual education has brought a new set of challenges for professors and students: How do you foster a social-academic community when you can’t see anyone face-to-face?
Donoghue’s tight-knit Old English language course, one of the more obscure courses offered by the College, has been making the transition to online learning in unique ways. For the instructors of the small class, which spans two semesters, activities like the makeshift graduation ceremony came naturally.
“Because it’s not a lecture class, and because there’s a lot of interpersonal contact, and because the students have been together for a full year now, there’s a pretty tight community there with the students,” Donoghue says. His students know each other well, and they’re already used to unusual academic experiences, such as a professional calligraphy lesson held earlier in the year. According to Donoghue, preserving this dynamic of “collegiality” between classmates remains an important priority.
Beyond maintaining Harvard’s academic standards, Professor Donoghue also expresses his overarching desire to be of “service to students,” saying that he wishes “to present them with some version of what is normal, that the business of class is going on, that other parts of the world might be in great distress, or uncertainty, but here’s something that you can rely on.” For Donoghue, this meant keeping his class syllabus relatively unchanged.
In classes with laboratory and field trip components, the problem of community building is especially hard to solve. Noel M. Holbrook, who co-teaches OEB 52: “Biology of Plants,” says her teaching staff is working on replacing in-person activities with handouts and recordings, “but it’s not the same.”
“We just miss the — you know, the looking at plants together,” Holbrook says. The course is adapting by trying to replicate some of that experience virtually. “Lots of our students are sending us photographs — ‘I saw this, what’s this, I saw that!’” she says.
Holbrook is also pioneering a series called “ZESPP Conferences” for the Environmental Science and Public Policy concentration. The hour-long talks, held weekly on Zoom, span a range of environmental subjects. Holbook says the intention is to bring faculty and students together in a cooperative discussion.
“We work hard already to have a sense of community in that group because our students are taking classes sometimes at MIT and all over the place,” Holbrook says. She considers the pilot program a success: “We had over 30 students who signed on last week for our first one… So we had what I thought was a far ranging, interesting discussion, participation amongst all the students.”
Caroline Light, the director of studies for the Women, Gender and Sexuality department, describes in an emailed statement the “loss of spontaneity” that she has witnessed in the switch to digital learning. “I dearly miss those often unscripted, spontaneous encounters with colleagues and students, as they are a large part of what makes WGS special,” she writes.
Light has found creative ways to maintain a sense of intimacy with students, however. “This week, for the first time, I tried out an ‘open discussion office hour’ using zoom, and it was tremendously fun because my GenEd 1073 students could just pop in when they wanted,” Light writes. “I even got to meet some students’ siblings!”
Phyllis Thompson, who teaches the popular WGS lecture course WOMGEN 1225: Leaning In, Hooking Up: Visions of Feminism and Femininity in the 21st Century, had to make large changes to a class once centered around live interaction with students. Her weekly lectures, which used to be an hour and 15 minutes long and involved “a fair amount of student participation throughout,” are now pre-recorded in smaller segments. Thompson worries about her ability to maintain the “atmosphere of trust” and “mutually supportive environment” made necessary by the often personal, difficult subject matter of her course.
“It was not realistic to think that that was going to carry over post-pandemic,” she says, regarding the kind of active engagement the class had prided itself on before the move to online learning. In thinking over how to simulate this intimate class community in the virtual space, Thompson and her teaching staff decided to schedule a large group meeting each week where she leads a discussion. So far she’s been pleased with the results, reporting that she was “incredibly impressed” with the “amazing rate of participation last week.”
For many professors, the ongoing crisis has also created a new need for levity and humor in the classroom. Donoghue and Adams, for instance, have decided to organize “zoom themes” for each class session. Adams explained that last week the class engaged in a “wicked cool sunglasses” day, a theme appropriate to that day’s translation assignment: a poem in which Lucifer is shunned out of heaven and into the glaringly bright fires of hell. They have scheduled a drinking horn day and big bold ‘baeg’ (the Old English word for jewelry) day for later in the semester.
For Donoghue, introducing these lighthearted elements to the course is an essential aspect of keeping his classroom unified. “If there’s a pedagogic point to this, it’s to keep that kind of cohesion with the class,” he says. “Everybody is off separated in their own little place now, and this is a way of bringing us back together in some way — in some fun way.”
Robin Bernstein, who chairs the WGS program, has reworked the syllabus for her course Gen Ed 1113: “Race, Gender, and Performance,” in an effort “to create a sense of belonging” by emphasizing the healing and unifying powers of performance art. “I want to focus on the qualities we need now: empathy, connection, courage, honesty, and humor,” she writes in an emailed statement. But Bernstein, like Donoghue, also has other, slightly less educational ideas for raising students’ spirits. “I'm going to wear a different hat to every lecture. Plus, my hats will become sillier as the semester progresses (I own a lot of silly hats),” she writes. “I've already picked out my hat for the final lecture. It’s a doozy.”
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