s Boston College reopens for an in-person fall semester, only time will tell if students will be able to live and learn on campus without an outbreak of the novel coronavirus taking place. With the first day of classes finally here, faculty plan to return to class both physically and virtually to begin a new semester.
Suntae Kim, professor of management and organization in the Caroll School of Management, will teach his class, Organizational Behavior, in a hybrid style. His class is split into two groups—Group A will come every Monday, and Group B will come every Wednesday, with the respective groups joining in on Zoom on the days they aren’t in person.
Mara Willard, a professor in the international studies program at BC, will be teaching two smaller classes in the fall. One is a senior seminar, and the other, an international studies course that only intended majors enroll in. She’s wary to immediately believe that class will be the same when everyone is wearing a mask, she said. Nonetheless, she feels like she’s facing an important task by being in the classroom.
“I feel that I’m taking up the challenge that BC has given of teachers needing to lean in and create these ways of learning in the classroom with masks. … I think we need to have some humility about it,” she said. “We’re doing our best, but it’s not an ideal circumstance.’
Willard almost wishes she had closed captions following her around the classroom, she said. But she recognized that being in person gives her an advantage this semester—saying it’s hard to blame someone for being distracted by Nordstrom sales during class if they’re staring at a computer all day.
Communication Department Chair Matt Sienkiewicz, one of the administrators behind the reopening effort, said he hopes that students and faculty will have more success with online learning this semester.
“It was fully understandable during the first semester where we were dealing with this, to be a little bit shy of a Zoom session and not know how to raise your hand,” Sienkiewicz said. “I’m hoping that we see students more comfortable with sort of a greater level of awareness to get the most out of the educational experience.”
The Center for Teaching Excellence has resources for professors to help them teach through the pandemic. But Communication professor Mike Serazio said his main worry about teaching is being heard well in the entire classroom with a mask on. The University has “enhanced” the microphones in classrooms, according to its reopening webpage.
Sienkiewicz shares concerns about wearing a mask while teaching.
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“It also has to do with facial expressions and sort of more subtle cues that can be lost at the microphone. So that’s true for students in addition to professors,” Sienkiewicz said. “Obviously, we need to [wear masks] for safety, but there’s a real potential there for miscommunication for people having to, you know, speak things in slightly different ways.”
Serazio also noted that he likes to “wander” the classroom when he teaches, so he will need to be conscious to stay within the designated zone within each classroom for the professor.
“I think there’s a lot of guidance [from the University], but you can’t guide people through the psychological part of it,” Sienkiewicz said. “You can tell them where it’s safe to stand. You can tell them what the flow of traffic is, and all. But we’re all gonna have to learn how to get our head around the fact that things are different.”
Theology Department Chair Richard Gaillardetz has also had to take on the responsibility of managing an entire department revamp.
“In our department, we’ve really taken on the challenge, I think, [in] important way,” Gaillardetz said. “All of our faculty have recognized that what we did in the spring isn’t going to work going forward.”
He said his summer has been significantly busier than most. While most of the professors who requested online teaching received accommodations, Gaillardetz had to work out accommodations for the few who didn’t.
“I think for faculty with serious concerns about their own safety and the safety of their loved ones, we’ve been able to arrive at a satisfactory accommodation for them,” he said.
Gaillardetz knows he and his colleagues have to re-imagine their entire approach to teaching. While he’s asked them to adapt to hybrid and online teaching, he also has pushed them to incorporate pertinent social injustices into their syllabi. He said it’s important for the Theology Department to take on that responsibility.
“Because we’ve got to do some things differently, while you’re at it, why not also ask yourself if there are ways that you can address, in your courses, some of these larger questions about systemic racism and white privilege, and so on?” he said.
Away from the classroom, Willard, as well as many other professors, is facing yet another challenge—figuring out what to do with her kids in the fall. As of now, Arlington, her family’s district, will be using a hybrid model. Willard, who has had her class schedule set with the registrar for a year, teaches on Wednesdays. But what happens if her kids aren’t in the classroom on a Wednesday?
On top of her own availability, Willard worries about child care. She can’t ask her parents, she says, as their age puts them at risk. While the administration has been supportive the entire time when it comes to planning student arrival with professors, Willard would embrace more help on the child care front.
“I have not heard anything from the administration yet about support for families with young children. … It would be welcome, I think, if there were a drop off option for an art classroom, if faculty have children whose parents are working at BC and otherwise don’t have a place to be,” she said.
Willard heard the news that the University was going online in the spring the same day that her kids, ages 9 and 13, were told they would no longer be learning in person. She scrambled to appease both her students’ panicked worries and her children’s confusion at the same time.
“My kids came home and school was closed, and they didn’t have their Spanish book, or they had taken out a library book on how to make cupcakes and we couldn’t return it,” she said, recalling the pandemonium.
Willard grew up in Newton—having the opportunity to raise her kids in the environment she loved so much in her youth is a privilege, she explained. Her experience as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College has driven her love of a liberal arts education. At BC, she said she has found a really intense intellectual place.
So when the University announced that learning would transition online, Willard’s class of mostly seniors felt a unique pain.
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“I was with these amazing students who were ready to go on to the next phase of their life and to go on to internships and jobs, and instead we’re back in their childhood bedroom,” she said. “Or [they were] like really ripening in so many ways, and then also struggling to be under these conditions of high school all of a sudden.”
Serazio believed he wanted to be a journalist after he completed his education, but when he discovered his passion for book-length articles, he began to pursue teaching. Ten years after this realization, he is navigatigating an unprecedented teaching situation.
“What I didn’t realize was how much fun teaching is,” Serazio said. “I knew I would enjoy researching and writing and that aspect of it, but I don’t think I knew how much joy the teaching part would be.”
Serazio designs his classrooms to be engaging and interactive, making it fun for both students and himself. But in the era of social distancing, this teaching style is harder to implement.
“The teaching is without a doubt the most enjoyable, invigorating, memorable part of the job, and particularly the interactions of the students,” Serazio said. “I try to design my classes to be as interactive as I humanely can make them.”
Last semester, like millions of students and professors across the country, Serazio struggled to cultivate the same classroom environment on Zoom that he had enjoyed in person.
“I don’t want to put it all on the technology, but definitely, it’s limiting, and definitely, it’s frustrating,” Serazio said. “I think one thing that helped a little bit was that we did have half the semester in person, and so I think that builds a little bit of the rapport.”
Serazio said that there were a variety of factors contributing to the challenges that remote learning posed for students in the fall. The impact of being evacuated from campus, challenges at home, and financial struggles likely all contributed to an adverse learning environment, according to Serazio. “One of the biggest challenges with going emergency remote in the spring was just the dynamics of the conversation are not yet replicable via Zoom as opposed to in person,” Serazio said. “I tried to plow ahead and approach in the same way and create opportunities for feedback and conversation and debate.”
Kim described the transition online in March as chaos. He said BC isn’t to blame—after all, no one could have been prepared for what was coming. Still, it was hard for him to see students struggling to stay engaged on Zoom, he said.
Kim obtained permission to teach on campus due to both poor quality internet connection and having two kids in the house, ages 5 and 9. But being in a nearly completely empty building was creepy, he said.
Like Willard’s, Kim’s children also found themselves learning through a screen. He said the teachers worked hard at catering to online education—almost too hard. The build up of his kids’ assignments forced him to leave campus and come home to an entirely new task.
“I was being a teacher in my office and at home as well,” he said.
But helping his own kids through online learning has helped him understand how to better adapt to the platform.
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“I learned that I should not give too much [work]—people are already overwhelmed,” he said. “I learned I have to articulate better when I was in Zoom. And I learned I have to be slower, be more patient. If I were not on the receiving side of that path … online education, then I would not have learned those things.”
Serazio is not worried about contracting the virus himself, but he said that he sympathizes with any professor who is. Professors were able to apply to teach online if they were concerned for their own safety or the safety of someone in their households.
“For me, the upside of being able to be in class and the joy of in-person class experiences with students is worth the risk because I think based upon the way I understand the virus, I feel grateful and fortunate that I am not in a high-risk category,” Serazio said. “My wife and my daughter are not going to be at high risk. I’ll be taking every precaution.”
The University does not have a policy for dealing with cases of professors who need to teach remotely after beginning the semester in person—instead, they will be handled by the appropriate dean and chair as they arise, according to Sienkiewicz.
Kim’s wife has an underlying health condition, which influenced his thought process around going back into the classroom. He went back and forth, ultimately deciding he owed it to his students to be partially in person.
“I debated a lot. I debated within myself a lot,” he said. “ … I was debating between, you know, my responsibility as a father and my responsibility as a teacher, and I think I was looking for the ways to balance these two.”
Kim said he has faith in BC and its effort to minimize the risk. Though he is anxious about himself and his kids potentially posing a threat to his wife by interacting with other people, he is confident that he can safely provide his students with an in-person education.
His main hope is that people comply with BC’s regulations and that nobody gets sick. He also wants to try and recreate a normal semester for his students as best as he can.
Willard said that at the end of the day, she wants people to keep a light approach toward the inevitable difficulties that come with online and hybrid teaching.
“We need to not be chastising ourselves for the ways this is going to be awkward or frustrating,” she said. “We should not be pointing fingers. We should instead be encouraging ourselves to do the best we can.”
This situation comes with an opportunity, Willard said, to think about what success means in a broader sense—it’s not just about the grades that go with an individual.
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As for an entire student body, faculty, and staff heading back to campus, she has mixed feelings. BC needs to continue to hold itself accountable by prioritizing its own workers, she said.
“That means to be there, foremost, in terms of people at the campus, including the dining service and the cleaning service and not just the students who may be pretty healthy in their early 20s, but the whole world behind them that generates their college experience,” she said.
Serazio will be worried about his students, saying that the pandemic and its economic fallout, racial injustice, and the upcoming election could all weigh on them.
“I’m going to be aware constantly that there’s multiple major catastrophic things unfolding outside of the classroom, and you have to be aware of that, you have to be empathetic,” Serazio said. “For me, the biggest challenge in all that is I want to be there for my students, and I can’t be there, because the virus quite literally makes it difficult, and in some cases, impossible to be there.”
Gaillardetz spoke candidly about what professors can and can’t do coming into this semester.
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” he said. “We have no control over student behavior. We have no control over whether something happens here like happened in North Carolina or Notre Dame.”
Like Willard, Gaillardetz said that this time can be used for creative growth. It’s new territory for everyone, meaning perhaps a burst of creativity from the faculty will emerge.
Serazio said he’s pleased with the job that the administration has done to position the University to reopen this week, but similarly to Gaillardetz, he said the outcome of the semester will be dependent on student behavior.
“I really do think BC is doing everything possible to try to pull off this semester given the impossible conditions,” Serazio said. “Ultimately, I don’t think BC decides whether or not we make it through the semester. It’s going to be the students who decide collectively.”
Photos Courtesy of Mara Willard, Suntae Kim, Michael Serazio, and Richard Gaillardetz