‘We are all in this together’
How Arts and Letters faculty rapidly adapted their courses for distance learning
More than 300 undergraduates in Notre Dame’s God and the Good Life course were slated to discuss the “problem of evil” — why a benevolent and omnipotent God would allow suffering and sickness — when they returned from spring break.
The topic became particularly relevant as the coronavirus pandemic prompted the University last week to move from in-person classes to distance learning.
After taking just one week to restructure their courses, familiarize themselves with new technologies, and transition to an online environment, the GGL faculty team — along with their colleagues across the College of Arts and Letters — were ready to continue teaching.
From philosophy to musical theatre to economics, Arts and Letters faculty are using technological innovations — as well as creativity, patience, and empathy — to reach their students in this unprecedented time.
“Having this sudden challenge has brought us together in a new way, with a shared sense of purpose,” said Justin Christy, director of the GGL Fellows Program, who led an online discussion on the problem of evil with the 150 students in his section of the course. “Our students’ lives have been upended, and we want to both provide stability and ensure that our classes continue to offer a meaningful experience.”
Honoring student work
For Matt Hawkins, director of the musical theatre minor, the transition to online teaching brought unique challenges. Many of his performance techniques class sessions involve students singing songs in front of the class, accompanied by a piano, followed by critiquing and workshopping their performances.
Re-examining his course structure has led him to reflect on how technology can help his students now, as well as how they will rely on it in the entertainment industry after graduation.
“In the real world, we use technology a lot in the audition process by submitting online audition tapes to theatres,” Hawkins said. “So for my first project, I’ve asked my students to create an audition tape, considering all aspects of song selection, acoustics, lighting, and costume. It’s a crucial skill to have in the industry, but it’s one I have never included in my syllabus before. And I think that going forward, I’ll take two weeks every semester and make it about the online audition process. It is an interesting added benefit.”
As the students work on their audition tapes at home, pianist Daniel Padilla ’19 is still available to help — by recording himself playing the accompaniment at home and then emailing it to the students. Once the tapes are submitted, the students will gather virtually to watch them and offer feedback.
Hawkins, who was in the midst of directing FTT’s spring production of Jesus Christ Superstar, also understands that his students are experiencing a lot of stress and emotions, and he shares in their disappointment over the cancellations and missed events this semester.
Although the musical has been canceled, Hawkins wants to ensure that his students’ work is seen, in whatever way possible. To do so, he is publishing a series of behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube of his students’ rehearsals and work on the musical that was done prior to spring break.
“I wanted to put this out there so at least the students can show their parents and the world what they’ve been working on,” he said. “Right now, it feels like the right thing to do to honor the students’ work and to salvage something. It’s rough and it’s not a final product, but in a way that’s one of the silver linings of this time — even though we don’t have physical contact, we’re becoming more transparent and more vulnerable with each other through technology.”
“I have my own kids at home, and we’re trying to make sure we keep their learning progressing — and my research is on how we best do that at scale for all kids,” she said. “At the same time, my own students are in the same boat of having a major disruption to their education, and so we’re focusing on how to best deliver content and move them toward the milestones we were aiming for. It really does feel like this confluence of all the things I’m interested in studying and doing.”
Gibbs, who is teaching an Economics of Education course, has adapted the content to include discussions on the current context, exploring how school shutdowns might affect kids and how different programs and technology investments could improve their outcomes.
“I used examples from research on the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which led to widespread school closures in affected areas, and historical evidence on previous pandemics,” Gibbs said. “I’m largely keeping to the original content that I had planned, but I also wanted to give students a lens through which to consider this current event.”
She is offering her students a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous content, including weekly Zoom meetings, podcasts, and pre-recorded lectures and interviews. Like Hawkins, she sees a long-term benefit to the innovative methods she is developing now and plans to incorporate these new pieces into her classes in the future.
One of her most immediate concerns was ensuring that all of her students could access a statistical software they use on campus. But with the help of the University’s Office of Information Technology, the students all had licenses by the time they returned from spring break.
“I am absolutely amazed by how well the University has handled the transition for faculty and students and how they have anticipated our needs with various supports and services,” she said. “I also have confidence that any future questions or issues are being discussed and that the University is trying to address them in the most fair way possible. I’m very grateful for that.”
A momentous event
Robert Edwards, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Theology, was one of the first students to experience the effects of the University’s transition to distance learning as he successfully defended his dissertation in a Zoom meeting on March 18.
While Edwards was disappointed that his father, who was planning to fly out to attend, could not be there in person, he said the online format went smoothly — and even had some unexpected benefits.
“It still felt momentous even though I was sitting in my home office, and I still dressed up in my suit,” he said. “And because it was virtual, not only were my wife and my dad able to be present, but my mother and a few brothers were able to be a part of it, as well.”
Edwards, who plans to stay at Notre Dame next year for a postdoctoral fellowship through the Arts and Letters 5+1 Program, wrote his dissertation on John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople and an early Church father, and his doctrine of divine providence — how God has cared for humanity throughout history.
In his dissertation defense, one faculty member asked how Chrysostom might respond to the current health crisis.
“The question of how God cares for us, even in the midst of suffering, is a perennial question and a personal question,” Edwards said. “I think Chrysostom would turn to Biblical narratives to see how even in the midst of suffering, God has cared for people and that he has brought that suffering to an end. So we can be confident that God cares for us and will bring an end to it. In the meantime, we continue to give thanks to him in whatever way we can.”
‘A greater sense of empathy’
Through all of the changes, Arts and Letters faculty are doing everything they can to help their students through this crisis — and that includes talking openly about the strangeness of the situation.
“We have to redefine our expectations and have empathy for our students,” Hawkins said. “When we meet on Zoom the first time, it’s OK to talk about what we’re going through and to show each other our apartments and houses and dogs. There’s a human side of this, and we cannot just expect to operate as we always did.”
The current crisis, faculty members said, has forged a new bond with their classes, instilling a sense that “we are all in this together.” Gibbs says she is touched by how her students are seeking to support each other — and her, as well.
“There is a greater sense of empathy from my students, and I hope they feel that from me, as well,” she said. “This particular crisis is manifesting itself in different ways for people, depending on their family’s situation or where they are. I think it just has made everyone more aware of the challenges we are all facing, and one thing that I hope comes out of this is that we all feel more empathy for what other people are experiencing — both in this particularly challenging time and in general.”