When the Middlebury campus shut down in the spring, it left many members of the community dazed and disoriented. Suddenly students were going home, classes were switching to an online format, and everyone was needing to adjust. While continuing Middlebury’s strong academic program in this new and foreign world was first and foremost on the minds of faculty, Caitlin Knowles Myers, professor of economics, and Sarah Stroup, associate professor of political science, also had another concern. With the sudden lack of in-person contact, Myers says, “both Sarah and I independently were pondering how we might be able to re-create the magical things that happen on campus when you run into your colleagues and hear what they’re up to or those serendipitous lectures you sit in on or the conversations you have in the Grille.” In short, what could they do to preserve those connections?
With a nod from Provost Jeff Cason, Myers and Stroup began investigating ways they might be able to keep faculty interactions alive. “It’s important to note that Caitlin and I were on sabbatical,” says Stroup. “I knew my colleagues were working overtime to take care of our students, to continue their learning, to make sure they were okay.” Without their own students to worry about, Stroup and Myers had the bandwidth and energy to take on the project. They felt it was a way to support their community.
Both professors had ideas about what might be done, but it really came down to two thoughts: Myers had had a lot of her talks canceled and knew others had as well. She says, “We’re academics. We totally select into this job because we like to talk about things that really interest us.” Stroup was one of the faculty directors of the Engaged Listening Project, which had received a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to support listening and speaking in the public sphere, with part of the grant targeted toward working on the digital public sphere. “What I found so important about that moment last spring was that the digital sphere was the only place people could connect,” says Stroup. The next question was, How should they proceed?
Enter Amy Collier, associate provost for digital learning. She says, “My role was to connect the dots on Sarah and Caitlin’s great ideas, get support from decision makers, and build the team that would help make Faculty at Home come to life. Caitlin, Sarah, and I met and we developed a set of goals, potential audiences, potential partners, and needs.” Collier rounded up help from the Office of the Provost and ITS. She also found a very enthusiastic partner in the Office of Alumni and Parent Programs. Not only could the project reach students, staff, and faculty, it could connect with alumni and parents as well. Collier pulled together a planning group. With the dedication of that team, which worked to make the series happen, Collier notes, the project took on its form. Collier suggested they make it a webinar.
Once the format was set, Myers and Stroup brainstormed ideas about content. “We wanted a mix of topical material related to the pandemic and topics totally not related to the pandemic, ways of showing the richness of our intellectual life and providing a welcome distraction from the stressors related to COVID,” Stroup says. Knowing how stretched thin the faculty was, they thought at first of people who might already be teaching subject matter that could be turned into a talk. One such person was Bob Cluss, professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
“I was honored to be asked and felt it important to discuss COVID-19 and the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Having taught a first-year seminar on the topic of pandemics and emerging infectious diseases over the past 24 years, infectious diseases are a well-established area of interest for me,” Cluss says. His talk, “Coronavirus and the Science of Epidemic Disease,” aired on May 29.
Another thought was bringing in faculty with something to debut, such as Julia Alvarez ’71, writer in residence emerita, who had recently published the novel Afterlife, or Daniel Houghton ’04, arts technology specialist, who had a new short animation. Myers and Stroup also thought it important to tackle timely topics. They turned to Carolyn Finney, scholar in residence in environmental affairs, who had recently published an article in the Guardian titled “The perils of being black in public: we are all Christian Cooper and George Floyd.” Finney immediately said yes when asked, but added, “Let’s make it a conversation between me and the audience. I always say it’s challenging to talk about a thing when you are the thing itself. And I may have some hard things to say. But, by making it a conversation instead of a lecture, we create a context where we can meet each other where we stand, practice deep listening, and reflect, together, on our common humanity.”
Each talk took on its own format, but one thing was constant: in the vein of Terry Gross, Stroup and Myers would be moderating and running the show. It was a difficult adjustment for both. “Asking good questions on the fly is a real challenge,” Myers says, and Stroup adds, “It felt like a lot of responsibility. Plus we were all getting used to talking to that tiny little light on our computer camera!” Each talk also ended with a Q&A, with a very responsive audience asking many questions. It was a whole new arena for the women to navigate, but they soon figured out how best to choose questions that represented different voices and perspectives.
Feedback from the viewers has been positive. Karen Burnap Gallup ’72 loved the episode where Julia Alvarez discussed her book with John Elder, retired professor of English and American literatures. She even watched it twice and said, “I recommended the book to my book group and it was voted to read it in February.” The group will also watch the interview. Julie von Wettberg ’69 wrote, “I just attended Bill McKibben’s talk and came away reenergized, even during this trying time.” Analytics show that hundreds of people attended the lectures over the spring and summer, with attendees coming from all segments of the Middlebury community, and almost half of the viewers belonging to the alumni group and representing all decades.
Talks have continued right through the fall. Will the series survive into the spring? Stroup says, “I love Faculty at Home. I think that this has been such a wonderful experience, and I very much hope that it’s going to outlive the pandemic, especially with this format that reaches so many different parts of the community.”
To learn about upcoming talks or to watch recordings of past talks, visit go.middlebury.edu/facultyathome.