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More impressions, insights and lessons learned by faculty during spring’s historic shift to remote teaching.

Self-portrait by Daniel Wallace of him wearing a mask.
“Self-portrait, with PPE,” by Daniel Wallace, English and comparative literature.

Read the first installment of essays, “One strange semester,” here.

Matthew Andrews
Teaching associate professor, history

Matt Andrews
Matt Andrews

When I learned that in-person classes were suspended and we would teach the rest of the semester online, my first reaction was, “This could be fun. I won’t have to comb my hair, and I can teach in my pajamas. Snow days are fun, so why not this?”

I was wrong.

The transition to online teaching took over my life. It was two weeks of trial and error — many errors! And I learned that you have to dress up and comb your hair just like any other day. Where’s the fun in that?

This semester I taught HIST 220: The Olympic Games — A Global History; and HIST 362: Baseball and American History. These are large lecture courses, about 200 students in each. Mindful of internet limitations for some students, I decided to prerecord my lectures and post them online, so students could watch when it was convenient for them.

My students told me the format worked well, but it’s not the same. There is a feeling — a connection — you get in the classroom that cannot be duplicated online. I can’t hear the students laughing at my jokes. Hands no longer shoot up with questions or comments. Most of all, I miss the reverential silence when talking about an injustice from the past — that silence is what lets me know I really have their attention. So as I sat at my desk in my basement and delivered my lectures not to other human beings but to my laptop screen, I feared that any emotional power my courses might have would be lost.

Then I began receiving emails from students. Some wanted to tell me they appreciated how my enthusiasm for teaching translated to the new format. Others wanted to say thank you for making their lives a little less boring (I’ll take it). But some of the messages were longer and more personal. Dozens of students shared stories — and photographs! — of them “attending class” with their family members. There they were, sitting on the couch or on the porch with parents and grandparents, watching the lectures together and discussing issues like gender verification at the Olympic Games or the persistence of prejudice in American sports.

I received an email from one student who returned home to Prague and who was watching the lectures and discussing the collapse of communism with three generations of family members. Very politely, she said nothing about my pronunciation of Bohumil Hrabel and Věra Čáslavská.

Thomas wanted me to know that my lecture on “Baseball and the Sixties” prompted a frank discussion with his grandmother about growing up in the Jim Crow South.

Carolyn wrote that my discussion of baseball and the romance of loss strengthened the bond with her 92-year old grandfather, a Chicago Cubs fan. “Now I get it,” she wrote.

And then there was Alyssa, who wrote to tell me about her grandfather who has Alzheimer’s disease. They sat down together and watched my “Baseball and Nostalgia” lecture. Alyssa told me how her grandfather suddenly opened up and the stories came pouring out. “It warms my heart to have him recall some things that you mention in your lecture that he remembers watching or reading about!”

We teach history to make connections between the past and the present. I miss being in the classroom, striving to make those connections with the students and in person. But this semester, my students showed me how the connection I feared lost in our classroom was replaced by connections between them, their loved ones and our class material. That wasn’t what I was expecting, but I’ll take it.

Malinda Maynor Lowery
Professor, history
Director, Center for the Study of the American South

Malinda Maynor Lowery
Malinda Maynor Lowery

I mentored grad students at both the master’s and Ph.D. stages last semester in the fine arts, humanities and social sciences. Graduate students in these disciplines have all the responsibilities of tenure-track faculty and none of the perks. They teach classes AND they take them. They travel to archives and do fieldwork. They navigate the Institutional Review Board and secure grant funding. They present their research to search committees, organize conference panels and face peer review.

This was true before COVID-19, but the disparities between faculty and grad students have become even more apparent. While they deliver the highest-quality scholarship and teaching, most UNC students earn less than $18,000 per year and don’t have consistent research funds; they can’t take an extra 18 months on their manuscript, revise that chapter over the summer or submit that book review when they have time. It’s all due now.

For the M.A. and Ph.D. students I worked with, they’ve maintained excellent scholarship. Two defended this semester; one defends this summer; and the others continued working on comp exams and early dissertation research. Almost all spent the finals days of the semester grading, and those who did not graduate also turned in final assignments for their own classes. Many of those who did graduate are taking new jobs in the fall.

It’s phenomenal how much my students accomplished after March, especially given childcare, homeschooling, elder care and their own health concerns and income insecurity. One of my students has a spouse who is a physician at UNC Hospitals; they have a small baby. Home with his child every day, my student is optimistic, organized and realistic. He and another Ph.D. candidate who is immunocompromised are working with indigenous tribal archivists who have agreed to digitize documents and send them electronically. The credibility they have in these communities is inspiring.

Many need part-time jobs to make up the difference between the cost of living in Chapel Hill and their stipends, and they have now lost those jobs. Yet they wrote summer funding proposals and created alternative plans. The Center for the Study of the American South had so many excellent applications for summer research grants that we had to partner with other programs to fund them all.

The biggest lessons I’ve learned from my grad students are not about resilience or productivity. Instead, I have learned more from them about compassion, rigor and relationships. They are raising money to support each other’s urgent needs; grad students in one department have raised almost $2,000, most of it coming from other grad students. They are distributing their resources, not saving for a rainy day. The rainy day is here, now. Most of all, I’ve come to appreciate grad students as among UNC’s most essential workers, executing the core functions of our university to make things better for their undergraduates, their peers, their communities and for those who come after them.

Abigail Knight
Assistant professor, chemistry

Abigail Knight
Abigail Knight

During my first year as an assistant professor, one of the graduate students in my research group asked me, “Do you wake up every day excited to see us?” I laughed and told her I did. Starting a position as an assistant professor requires seemingly endless energy and creativity, but all the clichéd moments watching graduate students start to design their own research directions and undergraduate students begin to connect the dots between mechanisms in organic chemistry were everything the clichés promised. And that, I thought, was something I could not lose. Then, over the course of two weeks, my laboratory emptied, and a blank and silent screen stared me in the face as I practiced my first virtual lecture.

This is my second year at UNC-Chapel Hill and my first semester teaching a large lecture undergraduate course: CHEM 262 — Introduction to Organic Chemistry II. CHEM 262 is taught with uniform course material, in-class polling questions, assignments and exams coordinated with my colleague teaching the other two sections.

I remember sitting at the Carolina Inn over spring break with a few other chemistry faculty when the decision was made to transition to virtual classes. There were so many questions about what features Zoom did and didn’t have, what exams would look like, how to make the course accessible to students in diverse environments and how to make things feel “normal.” I distinctly remember thinking, I don’t have a printer. We can’t expect them to have a printer.

We decided to offer lectures at our normal lecture times to provide structure to the students who wanted it but to post recordings for the students unable to attend. We transitioned in-class polling to an online system called Poll Everywhere. That allowed students in Zoom breakout rooms — smaller video chats — to discuss the problems as they would have in class. We converted our in-class quiz to worksheets that could be completed on blank paper to provide untimed learning assessments. We generated opt-in study groups for students who did not have the contact information of their classmates.

Despite all our efforts to provide over 500 students with the foundation in organic chemistry the course promised, there were more challenges than I could have imagined following that first silent blank screen. From power outages necessitating individual extensions on assignments to the search for the unachievable perfect testing platform, most days brought a new unexpected learning curve. During this transition, I noticed on social media and in email conversations that colleagues were using the terms rigor and compassion in opposition. But I found the most compassionate thing I could provide students was structure — along with the flexibility they needed to learn organic chemistry and prepare for the next steps in the pursuit of their career goals.

Despite those challenges, there were bright spots. I smiled every time our students said “thank you” in an email or came with questions to virtual Q&A sessions on Piazza, our online platform. Our fantastic student peer mentors dove into answering questions and bravely turned on webcams during lectures.

Above all, it was amazing to watch the creativity, persistence and resilience of my colleagues as we worked through this together. Whether it was identifying how to best use the technology available to us or supporting the unique challenges of individual students, the team of instructors and our department leadership tirelessly faced each challenge. I will always consider that a resounding success.

Hilary Lithgow
Teaching associate professor, English and comparative literature

Hilary Lithgow
Hilary Lithgow

For me, one unexpected silver lining of the shift to remote learning was the chance to hold on to moments that might otherwise slip away. “Zooming” our classes brought with it many challenges — logistical, technological, personal — but I came to appreciate the one thing it allowed me to do that I’d never been able to do before: create video recordings of class discussions.

The most obvious benefit of these videos is that they allowed students unable to participate in class to catch up on what they missed and add their own contributions to class discussion (via a new video of their own) even after the session was past. In normal circumstances, that student would have had to get notes from other students and a photo of our class whiteboard and try to reconstruct what happened in order to make up for the missed day’s participation.

As anyone who has ever looked at a classmate’s notes from a free-wheeling, fast-moving successful class discussion knows, such reconstructions are limited — to say the least! — in their ability to recreate the original conversation. With Zoom, however, my absent students had a chance not just to listen in on what they missed but to see people’s faces as they spoke and experience moments of interchange as they unfolded — crucial insights that no notes or audio-recording could convey.

Being able to offer students this opportunity was wonderful, especially when class attendance so often got interrupted by family situations, limited internet access and all the chaos that breaks loose when people have to go to class in their shared bedrooms and family kitchens and on their back porches.

But being able to record classes also had a second benefit that, for me at least, was wonderful. As a child — even before VCRs were a thing — I fantasized about being able to have a movie of my life so that no moment of the past would ever be fully lost. (Never mind the unfeasibility or mental unhealthiness of ever trying to watch such a movie! As a six-year-old, feasibility wasn’t a big concern).

I realize that not everyone would want such a movie, and I’d like to think I’ve grown up enough not to want one myself. But I have to confess, recording those class discussions reminded me of my early dream and, to some degree, confirmed my childish faith in what such a movie might accomplish.

The great Victorian essayist and critic Walter Pater is one among countless writers who try to describe the fleeting nature of human experience, but his take on it has always haunted me. “[A]ll that is actual” in our experience, he argues, is

“a single moment, gone while we try to apprehend it, of which it may ever be more truly said that it has ceased to be than that it is. To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-forming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines itself down.”

Can a recording of a videoconferenced class stop time and freeze the transience of human experience? Of course not. But — and here the six-year-old me has the last laugh — it’s sure better than no recording at all!

As I look now at the cheering catalog of mp4 files of my ENGL/PWAD 161: Literature of War class from the spring semester and open a session at random, I see one student’s hard-won insight respectfully but energetically disputed by another student, her face filling our screen as she picks up the thread of the conversation until he responds. And then another student joins the debate, together doing the crucial work of building a collective interpretation, a critically interrogated, communally-designed reading of the scene we are discussing. To such a tremulous wisp, constantly re-forming itself on the stream, what is real in our conversation — the thread we are tracing, the roof-beams of the collective conversation we are building — fines itself down.

This is the work that happens every day in discussion-based classes across our campus — and don’t get me wrong, it is harder, more emotionally exhausting, less viscerally enjoyable and rewarding than it would be if we could do it sitting together in a semi-circle around our energetically annotated white board as is our wont. But the one benefit of having to do all of this on a screen instead of in person is that that screen is so easily captured and recorded, with just the touch of a button — no camera person, microphones or awkward classroom angles to contend with.

And so I was able not just to share those moments with the students who had to miss class on a given day, but I can now return to them myself as I work on my own summer writing and research on the topics that our class touched on, revisiting the brilliant insights and productive exchanges that our incredible students generated every day in class discussion and discovering nuances I’d missed the first time through, insights and productive hints, quibbles and suggestions that might otherwise have been lost to time.

As we all know, it is always sad to come to the end of the semester in a wonderful course and have to say goodbye to the hard-won community, the strange and precious world that a small seminar course becomes when it goes the way it should. Our situation during the strange spring semester was not an easy one, and teaching online under the circumstances, for me, involved more losses than gains, but as I hit the “end meeting” button on my students’ incredibly generous, thought-provoking and exhausting final exam session a few weeks ago, I thought about the video that was at that moment winging its way to the cloud and was glad to know that I would be able to revisit that conversation again.

I am a 19th century British literature person, so of course I can’t help but think of these moments in terms of that literature. At the end of a wonderful exam session, at the culmination of a wonderful class, there is always a mix of joy and sorrow, but with that record of the session safely in hand, the scales tipped a little bit more toward joy than they usually would. In front of the now empty computer screen, I felt, at least a little, like the narrator of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”:

                                      “not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.”

I hope with everything that’s in me that it will be safe for us to go back to teaching and learning in person in the fall, in brick-and-mortar classrooms with creaky chairs and fluorescent lights and smelly dry erase pens (who knew how precious all of these things were?). But in the meantime, I am finding that having these videos of class discussion is an unexpected bright spot in an otherwise dark time.

Sidney M. Wilkerson-Hill
Assistant professor, chemistry

Sidney Wilkerson-Hill
Sidney Wilkerson-Hill

Around early March the warning signs were there. COVID-19 was ramping up around the country. And then it happened. Little by little, the University started closing facilities, until only those deemed mandatory were left open. I distinctly remember some of my colleagues scrambling. “How will we do lab work?” we wondered. “How will we grade students?” “Have you ever used Zoom before?” “What about cheating and equitability?” “Will we still be paid?” The questions seemed endless.

This semester was my first teaching CHEM 261H: Honors Organic Chemistry I. The class size was small — 12 students — and I had a senior undergraduate in the class who served as a peer mentor for the students. Relatively speaking, I had it easy, especially when compared to some of my colleagues, who were tasked with codifying standards for 250 students in our non-honors organic chemistry section.

I’m a native North Carolinian. I consider myself pretty levelheaded and tend to go with the flow. I felt uncomfortable with what was going to transpire, but I wasn’t particularly worried. Perhaps I was a bit naive. Oh, we’ll be back to normal in no time, I thought. There’s no way officials will let this go on for longer than a month.

This was the biggest surprise for me: the lack of a protocol for this type of an emergency situation. I was fortunate that during my postdoctoral training, a virtual symposium was the highlight of the year. So, I had some training in navigating a virtual platform, which helped ease my nerves.

Before COVID-19, I would walk into class, and there would be some conversation among students. But when I tuned into the virtual class, everyone would have their video off. Their enthusiasm and excitement to answer disappeared. Although some students did participate, I found it harder to gauge in real time their understanding of the lecture. Administering and grading exams online was cumbersome. Small-group organic chemistry is not well-suited to multiple-choice exams.

Making the most of the situation, I assigned virtual presentations. I essentially tasked my students with giving five-minute, Ted-Talk–style presentations on a molecule of their choice from the book “Molecules that Changed the World,” by K. C. Nicolaou. I figured that would give them a chance to read something outside of the primary coursework. It also helped boost everyone’s spirits and allowed them to pick up skills with two useful apps, PowerPoint and ChemDraw. Otherwise, I tried to keep the class on track with the original syllabus.

Overall, I faired pretty well while teaching during the spring semester. When I think of all the stress and abrupt change students had to undergo, I do wonder how this pandemic will affect their trajectory at Carolina in subsequent years. I am hoping for the best but planning for the worst. This coming fall, if need be, I will try to have systems in place that permit remote learning in such a way that will enable and empower students to learn during this pandemic.

Read the first installment of essays, “One strange semester,” here.

Essays compiled by The Well




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