After months of improvising in response to a deadly pandemic, colleges are wrapping up a very unusual semester. Faculty and students are puzzling over how to find closure as they conclude their virtual courses.
Subsequent to the Great Pivot Online, professors who ran their remote classes asynchronously—recording materials for students to use at their convenience—say they didn’t necessarily have an opportunity to seal off their semesters in ways that felt satisfying.
That was the case for Kathleen Arnold, assistant professor of psychology at Radford University, who started taping her lectures when the Virginia campus closed and didn’t get much virtual facetime with her students after spring break. Even when she did host live office hours and exam reviews, not many students participated. Those who showed up generally kept their webcams off and their mics muted.
“It’s very odd to speak to a group of silent black boxes on my screen, knowing they can see and hear me, but I can’t see or hear them,” Arnold said in an email interview. “It did feel odd to not really have any kind of live wrap-up to see them off.”
Still, Arnold was able to have a final virtual lab meeting with half a dozen undergraduate and graduate students.
“We read a ‘fun’ article and talked about the effects of online learning from a cognitive psych perspective,” she said. “I was able to congratulate and wish well the graduating seniors of the group and tell the others I looked forward to seeing them next year (or over the summer—some are doing summer research with me).”
Instructors who regularly convened live virtual class sessions didn’t always see much of their students, either. At Oberlin College, most students in Jane Sancinito’s survey course on the history of Rome kept their cameras and microphones off so as not to create internet bandwidth burdens.
But at the start of Sancinito’s final Friday morning class, a student proposed via the chat box that everyone turn on their webcams to say hello, and goodbye.
“It was a very emotional moment to stop sharing my screen and be met with my students for the first time in weeks,” Sancinito says. “It was exceptionally sweet of them. They had gotten desperate for each other’s faces.”
The farewell had extra resonance for Sancinito, who is leaving Oberlin this summer to start a new job at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
“Of course I burst into tears,” she says, “overwhelmed by the finality of it.”
‘A Pandemic-Response Class’
When Susi Keefe’s course about reproductive justice assembles for the last time on Google Meet, a few students reveal their faces, but most show up only as dark boxes labeled with names.
The Hamline University associate professor encourages them to reflect on the “epic” challenges they faced this semester while trying to accomplish an unusual mission. Thanks to a partnership with the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute, the students were asked to devise ways to educate peers about HIV and AIDS using a digital comic called “Tested.”
They got in six solid weeks of community engagement and research before coronavirus swept in. One group spent time in a needle exchange clinic. Another worked with campus counseling and health services. A third assessed needs and opportunities at the Hamline Women’s Resource Center. A fourth partnered with a college peer educator organization.
Then, campus closed. As the class shifted online, so did the assignment. Keefe’s students found themselves trying to virtually teach their classmates about health in the middle of a pandemic.
“We are doing something that hasn’t really been done before,” says student Parker Reindahl during the video call. “We are the first people to do this in this circumstance.”
Representatives of each group recall the original programs they planned—a comic coloring contest, a sexual health fair—and describe the alternative, virtual options they came up with as replacements. They got help from the AIDS Institute, which acted quickly to publish additional comics that address COVID-19.
“We are lucky the comic is awesome,” Keefe says.
Student Parker Reindahl created this image using characters from "Tested" to advertise a virtual college event.
The peer educator group moved their fair to social media—and had nearly 80 people show up online to hear from four invited speakers and participate in a giftcard giveaway.
“I thought it was a really good experience, to bond with people in our group, to bond despite the circumstances,” Reindahl says.
“The turnout was phenomenal. You should be super, super proud,” the professor says. “There was a real sense of connection and community building. There was clearly a deep need in our community to connect at this time.”
The counseling and health services group launched the department’s first Instagram account. That required so much effort that students didn’t do as much outreach as planned.
“It’s been harder to be online,” says Brooklynn Worms. “I’m a big face-to-face person.”
“This is harder, but I was able to overcome this,” Tong Yang adds.
For the Women’s Resource Center, students also turned to Instagram. Planning a social media event without being able to meet in person felt inefficient, Kaitlyn Moos says, but the gathering ultimately attracted more students than many of the center’s previous events.
“I don’t think it would have been as successful if we were doing it in person,” Moos says. “To have 54 people show up—I don’t think we would have had the same impact without COVID-19.”
Yet not all public health work can happen virtually, notes Metadel Lee, pointing to the services provided by the needle exchange clinic.
“Realizing we are careening toward a more virtual world, we have to make it person-centered,” she says. “Access to basic human rights is essential.”
“It’s been a cool class,” Lee adds. “A pandemic-response class.”
Reindahl concurs, and notes that shifting the project-based course online worked better than expected.
“I was nervous that we were going to lose a lot of that engagement and not be able to do as much as I thought we were going to do,” Reindahl says. “The main reason I took the class was for community engagement. We didn’t lose the engagement I was looking for.”
The class session runs a few minutes over, and eventually Keefe cuts in, a bit reluctantly. People are waiting for her in another virtual meeting room, she says. It’s time to go.
“I am really appreciative we took the time to debrief,” Keefe says. “It’s made me feel better.”
Students on camera wave. Students not on camera call out, “Goodbye!”
One by one, their boxes vanish, dissolving their class, and their semester, and their community.
Keefe ends the meeting, and disappears.