This is the second of our two-part series seeking faculty impressions from the first week of classes at Middlebury. Since the sudden disruption of their classrooms last March and the abrupt departure of their students, Middlebury faculty have been on an intense roller coaster ride, learning about remote teaching, wondering about the viability of a fall semester, and anticipating the time when they would reunite with students. That moment came last week—both in-person and remotely—as classes began with students excited to engage once again with each other and their teachers.
How did your first class meetings go?
Christian Keathley, professor of film and media culture: I spent the first 30 minutes or so of class doing my usual course introductions, and this led to some interesting conversation prompted by questions from the students about what I especially liked about the filmmakers we’d be studying. Then I left time to chat with students, as I typically do in the first class after the summer, asking what they’ve watched recently that they enjoyed. It’s often a good way to get the students limbered up, so to speak, to talk about movies, and also an opportunity for them to share with one another and get a bit acquainted. This week, students seemed especially eager to talk about what they’d been watching—that is, I think they were keen to be back in class, focused on a topic they’re interested in, and enjoying some sense of normalcy. I didn’t really spend any time talking about how odd and different things are now. I chose to focus on what was the same: being in class, taking new classes you’re interested in, having lively discussion. They seemed to respond to this very positively.
Eliza Garrison, professor of history of art and architecture: I am teaching a very small methodology seminar (four people!) remotely, but it is going well. We meet twice a week synchronously, and I have created discussion boards on Canvas to get a sense of what sorts of concepts in the assigned readings that students are latching on to. Their responses to reading questions basically help me figure out how to organize our discussion. There were a few technical glitches on the very first day of class—a student who is learning remotely at home in Jamaica had trouble with the Zoom link—but we have those figured out. I suppose one other glitch is that students who are learning remotely and are outside of the US/Canada and have added classes late will have trouble getting their hands on required textbooks.
Greg Pask, assistant professor of biology: Our first class meeting exceeded every expectation I had. The students were so eager to share their interest and personal experiences with insects, that we planned an impromptu black lighting (attracting nearby insects to a bedsheet with UV light) evening on campus to see the diversity of insects we could attract. A lot of students came (distanced and masked), and some even brought friends as we observed plenty of beautiful moths, beetles, wasps, and a gregarious praying mantis. Developing deep relationships can be really challenging with an online course, but we were able to have a lot of fruitful, informal conversation that will serve as a great foundation for the semester ahead.
Bert Johnson, professor of political science: It’s been a steep learning curve of a week, but I can say that my courses have gone pretty well, considering everything. I’m coming off of a year of leave and am teaching entirely remotely, so there’s a lot that’s new on my side of things. As I told students, I’m an expert in U.S. politics, not in technology, so they should let me know if things go awry.
Matthew Evan Taylor, assistant professor of music: The first week went well, all things considered. The students have been upbeat and eager to learn. I am teaching my first First Year Seminar course this term, “How Do I Improvise,” and I have found the students to be really enthusiastic about the topic. I am also finding that my students in Music Theory II are curious and willing to put up with the tech issues we’ve had in class.
Michelle McCauley, professor of psychology: I had a great first week. I am teaching predominantly in person. I broke my environmental psych class into three small separate seminars, and I meet with two of these sections in-person once a week and the third is on Zoom to accommodate remote students interested in the class. Wednesday we had class outside behind McCardell Bicentennial Hall. For my research methods class I meet the students twice a week in-person in Bicentennial Hall for lecture and the lab group work is done outside class.
What’s your sense of how students are feeling to be back in class?
Greg Pask: They seem thrilled to be back, and as a new faculty member I’m seeing how vibrant they make the campus feel despite the challenges this semester. And they are hitting the ground running this semester, with many wanting to share photos of insects they took this summer after they enrolled in the class.
Michelle McCauley: I have been inspired and impressed by how conscientious students are—they are obviously working to keep themselves and the community safe. And I hope we will all be flexible and nimble as we continue to find our way through our new normal.
Christian Keathley: When I was introducing the course, one student was actually leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. I don’t think this was because my intro was so incredibly compelling. I think it was because he was excited to be back and in class. I feel the same way.
Bert Johnson: Students seem just as engaged as ever. I just came out of a very lively discussion in a relatively large Zoom “classroom” (22 students) with most people contributing to the conversation. People seem glad to be back and prepared to engage with the material, despite the occasional technological hiccup. A few people’s audio wasn’t working, so they had to ask questions in the comment section. Personally, my main error was mistakenly scheduling Zoom discussions for 10:20pm tonight instead of 10:20am this morning. But all my students used common sense and joined the Zoom at 10:20am anyway. (And nobody even told me about the mistake; I noticed it after the fact.)
Are you trying anything new this semester that you might not have done otherwise in “normal” times?
Bert Johnson: Like others, I spent much of the summer reading materials on education research in general, and online education in particular. It was a refreshing experience. I can’t say that I’ve changed everything about my classes (that would be impossible) nor that I’m trying every tool or technology that I want to try (that will happen over time, perhaps), but I am thinking about education in a way that I don’t usually have the opportunity to think about it.
Greg Pask: The biggest adjustment has been made to our lab. One aspect underway is a self-directed field experience, where students are getting out and searching for diverse insects on campus for Phase 1, and then beyond in the later phases. Each insect observation is entered into our course collection, and the students will work together to identify each specimen gathered throughout the semester. It’s already going so well that I expect to continue this into the future and we’ll have a sizable multiyear dataset of insects in the Middlebury area!
Michelle McCauley: I have added more one-on-one Zoom meetings with students into the syllabus as well as more personal reflection assignments so I can be in conversation with them about the material and their ideas over the term as informal conversations in Bicentennial Hall are not happening.
Matthew Evan Taylor: In order to allow students to perform together, but to also keep me remote (I have preexisting conditions that increase the chances of complications due to COVID-19) I have asked my students to meet with each other in person, while I join via Zoom. For one course, taught in MAC 221, the available tech is good for the reverse scenario, but with some work arounds, I have been able to approximate my preferred modality. Unfortunately, my FYS is in Wilson Hall, which isn’t equipped for teleconferencing. So we have been full remote until a solution is found. Those complaints aside, I have been impressed with the students’ resilience and sense of duty to one another. I have many reasons to feel optimistic.
Eliza Garrison: I ended up keeping the organization of the class as much like what my in-person version of this class would look like, in part because I want to avoid screen-time burnout for myself and my students. Who knows if that will work. I think that the students are why I’m here and why I love teaching here, so it’s important to me to engage with them one-to-one (or in this case one-to-four) as much as I can, and I don’t need a huge amount of digital bells and whistles to do that.