By Ben Pate ’22 (he/him), Staff Writer
Seemingly, the only constant during the COVID-19 pandemic has been change. From a whole new class schedule to three different types of class meetings, Davidson professors have had to alter their usual lives alongside their students. Whether that means teaching night courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or recording a lecture to prepare students for a socially-distanced, in-person lab section, professors are changing their usual strategies to adapt to the new normal.
In particular, professors who are new to the college have had to move across the country or around the world to start their new job in a new environment alongside a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
Dr. Adrianne Kalfopoulou, McGee Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, gave a summary of being a new Davidson professor during the pandemic: “It’s rewired all of our psychologies,” she said. “I’m really happy to be here at such a strange and contested time.”
In talking with Dr. Kalfopoulou and other new professors, there were a few recurring themes. New professors are excited about opportunities through digital learning, yet despise its drawbacks. They appreciate the community at Davidson but feel isolated at times. They long for the traditional classroom experience while appreciating the humanity that comes through this particular shared experience.
Beginning a new job in any situation requires a great deal of adjustment, rapid learning, and the application of that knowledge. But how do you adjust to a new job in an environment that virtually no one knows how to navigate?
In the age of Zoom, professors and students must adapt to new forms of classroom technologies. Professors praised Davidson’s Digital Learning Institute, a remote-teaching boot camp for professors to learn about Moodle, Zoom, Slack, hypo.thesis, and other useful tools they could employ this year.
Dr. Kalfopoulou commented on her motivation to teach this semester. If not teaching, “I would feel like I missed an opportunity… to learn new ways of communicating,” she said.
Dr. Naima Starkloff, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology new to Davidson this year, noted that “in the online teaching realm things can be a bit rougher and more real” between students and professors. According to Dr. Starkloff, this online world leads to “a lot more understanding [between professors and students] that students are human and I am human.”
These spontaneous connections that might never occur in a classroom or office seem to permeate the experience of students and professors this year. During an interview with Dr. Solmaz Bastani, Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics, her dog Mr. Galileo Galilei (also known as Mr. G) jumped into her lap. These are the kinds of random interactions students and professors would almost never experience outside Zoom.
Reflecting on his teaching, Dr. Bastani does see opportunities in digital learning for physics courses; for example, she is interested in increasing her use of simulations and digital visualizations of physics concepts online. This opportunity comes in parallel with developing a new kind of physics course: a class-lab hybrid that Dr. Bastani says the department has been developing.
Professors also described the flexibility Davidson gave them in designing courses, especially in the age of Zoom and virtual learning. Dr. Aarushi Bhandari, Assistant Professor of Sociology, shared that across Davidson, “different courses have different needs,” and the college respects this by giving faculty “complete liberty of how [they] want to run [their] classrooms,” allowing them to adjust anything as they see fit.
While a digital learning environment provides a wealth of opportunities for faculty to innovate, going online is not without its challenges.
Dr. Bastani told a story of assigning her students their midterm review on a night when Davidson’s Microsoft system temporarily went down. “Imagine how much stress is on the students and on the professor themselves. I had to just postpone the exam,” Dr. Bastani said of that evening.
In more general terms, professors emphasized that teaching online feels as strange for them as it does for many students. Dr. Diego Luis, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, said that teaching over Zoom “requires more contingency plans” for just those types of situations. On a more personal note, Dr. Luis said, “it’s more difficult to read visual cues,” which creates a challenge as he tries to build an environment “that is both sensitive and adept at listening” in the classroom.
Dr. Kalfopoulou offered insight as to how professors and students continue to adapt together. She said that her classes are in regular conversation about adjusting assignments and readings, likening her process to “changing gears in the middle of the drive.”
Overall, Dr. Kalopoulou said her philosophy for teaching in a pandemic remains straightforward. “We’re going to meet these learning outcomes, and how we meet them might be shaped as we go along, but we will meet them.”
For some first-year professors, the journey to academia began in their undergraduate years, meaning they have recently attained a goal they have been working towards for years: to become a college professor. Like any new job, however, a certain level of acclimation is necessary when one begins, bringing a new set of experiences with it.
Professors overwhelmingly expressed appreciation for the community they have found in Davidson, while also recognizing the isolation that can be so easy to feel when behind a computer for hours a day.
Dr. Bhandari explained she never expected to work a nine-to-five desk job, but added that “this semester has been more like that” in terms of spending time at a desk in front of a computer.
While managing screen time this semester has been a challenge for some professors, Dr. Sakib Miazi, Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science, noted that there is a sense of community both at Davidson and the academic community at large.
“People are helping each other,” he said. “Different professors at different schools are sharing their content for free.” In this way, Dr. Miazi is able to improve his courses based on what has worked for other professors, while connecting with colleagues in a different way.
When it comes to getting to know students in class, Dr. Bhandari said, “I can see that my students have a lot of brilliant ideas.” While it may take a while for students to open up in class, she said, “They’re bursting with energy and knowledge.”
While professors see the positives of Zoom and online learning, they are acutely aware of the failure of technology to single handedly capture and create the sense of community that Davidson fosters.
About her Zoom experience, Dr. Bhandari said,“It’s isolating a little bit. It’s a little bit concerning because it feels like we don’t really know the students on the same level that we might in a different type of setting.”
Specifically, Dr. Bhandari lamented the loss of professor-student exchanges after class, which she said gave professors a sense of how students are doing and makes her feel like she is mentoring students directly outside of the classroom in addition to teaching them.
To combat this sense of isolation, Dr. Miazi offered a word of advice to students: “don’t hesitate to reach out to your professors […] talk to them!”
Dr. Starkloff teaches one course in person, and she noted that during that class especially, she has to take on roles as a teacher, facilitator, and observer, in addition to enforcing COVID-19 protocols, especially about social distancing.
The time it takes to prepare for class has been one factor that digital learning has changed, according to Dr. Bastani and Dr. Miazi. Dr. Bastani estimated that she spends up to three times more hours preparing for an online class than she would for an in-person one. She says this largely has to do with needing to record a mini-lecture before class to ensure that she has enough time in class to cover the content.
Similarly, Dr. Miazi, who teaches an upper-level computer science course, said he tries to debug his problems before class now, whereas before, when he could work more fluidly with students in the classroom, he might have left some of that debugging up to students. This means that his class often does not have time to ask all their questions during class, which leads to more out-of-class time spent helping students. Dr. Miazi was quick to point out that this extra time does not bother him; he just wishes there was a better way to arrange his class.
COVID-19 has presented the world with a choice about how to connect with others. Speaking about her experience with students on Zoom, Dr. Starkloff noted that “there’s just a whole lot more humanity that you see on both ends.”