“Some of my faculty had never logged into GauchoSpace before,” said Norah Dunbar, professor and chair of the Department of Communication at UC Santa Barbara.
That was in March 2020, Dunbar said — during the final two weeks of winter quarter — when the spiraling COVID-19 pandemic abruptly forced UCSB professors to trade the lecture hall for a sprawl of unfamiliar digital tools.
“The faculty basically had the week of spring break to prep their spring classes as well as finish all their grading from winter like we always do,” Dunbar said. “It was a difficult transition.”
Now, professors have been instructing during the current fall quarter with a more refined bag of tools and techniques — some new, some old and all informed by remote instruction from spring and summer quarters — that they hope will help bridge the gap between distance learning and in-person classes.
After the initial foray into the digital landscape, some professors have found that physical mediums are more useful than online tools. This was the case for Magda Campo, an Arabic language lecturer in the religious studies department.
Campo said she attempted to use Zoom’s whiteboard feature in the spring to demonstrate Arabic script for students. But, dissatisfied with the results, she resorted to using a small, physical blackboard instead.
This quarter, Campo said she will keep using her own physical whiteboard to teach her classes, but with an upgrade.
“I will try to get a bigger board so I can write by hand, with a pen or a chalk or something like this, to make it more natural,” she said.
Doug Bradley, a technical writing professor, said that certain technologies like Nectir and Zoom lack the typical social cues that come with in-person interaction.
“I like the ability to look at my students face to face — I can read their body language and more easily discern whether they are understanding ideas and concepts that we’re discussing,” he said.
To compensate for what he described as a “loss of immediacy,” Bradley said he schedules more one-on-one Zoom conversations with students, which worked well in the summer when he was teaching a three-week course with 25 students.
“For just three weeks, I think I spent as much or more time, on average, with students than I did in a normal 10-week quarter.”
Aazam Feiz, a Persian language and literature lecturer in the religious studies department, said that her challenge for fall quarter is twofold: Her students are all beginning learners — “they don’t know the sound, they don’t know the alphabet, they don’t know anything in Persian,” Feiz said — and there’s a lack of standardized Persian learning materials, such as textbooks, since the language is less commonly taught.
“We need to prepare these materials,” Feiz said. “I have recorded writing the alphabet, writing the sample words, and I have prepared videos — there are 39 videos.”
“I need to think about every minute of the class,” she added. “I check every word that could be difficult for students.”
For professors at UCSB and across the nation, this increased workload has led to a decline in their work-life balance, stirring up feelings of burnout across the board.
“I have a child at home,” Feiz said. “Before this, she was going to school and she was in the school for six hours, seven hours. And during those times, I was in my office and I could work easily.”
But with her child’s school now closed, Feiz said her work and home lives have blurred together.
“I have to spend time with her,” Feiz said. “She [becomes] bored. She needs help. When she cannot do an assignment, she comes to me. She says, ‘Mama, help me, I need you to do this math,’ and I need to help her.”
“Mentally, it’s been a real grind,” Bradley said. “I think I’m not unusual in that I know people, for example, who’ve died from COVID.”
“Flexibility is paramount,” he added. “What happens if we can’t hit our deadline; what happens if a student can’t get all of the assignment done in exactly the way I might have envisioned? I need to have a plan B and a plan C always waiting to fix that or deal with that scenario.”
Even with the circumstances, professors are working to put an optimistic spin on challenging obstacles.
“Out of adversity comes opportunity,” said Irwin Appel, professor of theater and chair of the Department of Theater and Dance. “It’s our department mission. It’s our department mandate during the year.”
“The opportunity has been presented that we could expand our reach globally,” Appel said, who teaches a class on Shakespeare in the fall. “We’re gonna try to, every week, provide really exciting events as part of the class to keep the students there not only very interested in the work, but also to feel that the work is relevant to them.” He cited guest performances as an example.
“In an odd way,” Appel said, “even though we are six feet apart — even though we are isolated — we are more global than ever.”
For Claudio Campagnari, professor and chair of the Department of Physics, the use of remote labs has likewise helped to bring far-flung students closer together in an online environment.
“In some cases, we’re sending kits to [students] to do experiments,” he said. “In other cases, we have computerized the equipment so that the student can go on a website and actually control the equipment.” In particular, he praised Professor Deborah Fygenson for leading the project to robotize undergraduate physics labs.
“We also had to put a lot of resources and a lot of money in making the labs online,” Campagnari added, chuckling. “I think I’ve overspent my budget and I don’t want to really look at it. But it had to be done, right?”
Other professors expressed relief that UCSB, compared to during Spring Quarter 2020, provided a more robust virtual learning experience this fall quarter.
“A lot of us were basically [saying], ‘Oh, we have a webcam on our laptop,’ at first, and that was all we had,” Dunbar said, referring to the beginning of spring quarter. But workshops and a $1500 equipment and software grant provided by the administration during the summer were “enormously helpful” in enabling faculty to improve their setup and better their remote teaching skills, she said.
Robert Kennedy, a lecturer in the linguistics department, also praised school efforts to aid instructors. “I’m … really glad the administration was so decisive early on about moving to remote instruction, to give us time to prepare instead of stringing us along with the hope of an early face-to-face return,” he wrote in an email. “Right now the colleges that did go back to face-to-face seem to be regretting it.”
According to Kennedy, he, along with his department, is implementing an “Inclusive Curriculum Initiative” starting this fall quarter in order to increase the diversity of both the people and perspectives being presented in course readings and discussions.
“The need for this really became apparent during the period of protests following George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota,” Kennedy said, “but it’s interconnected with remote teaching in that the pandemic circumstances are hitting marginalized populations harder than privileged ones.”
“Everything I’m doing will make my classes better and the in-person experience, when we get back to it, is going to be a lot better, too,” he continued.
Similar to Kennedy, other professors are pursuing more changes to course instruction that they believe will persist beyond the pandemic.
“The online format really forces you to granulize assignments and the whole classroom experience into a more discrete, step-by-step, ABCD-type process,” Bradley said.
While believing that this splitting up of assignments “loses some of the nuances that I’m trying to develop in students in terms of lines of inquiry,” Bradley said, “going forward, I think I will still hold on to some of those granulized elements, because for some students, doing that analog thinking is a little more difficult.”
As for their outlook on fall quarter and beyond, professors are cautiously optimistic.
“As a military veteran, I feel like it’s rather similar to being deployed in the field, where you’re out for months at a time with a small group of people on your own resources and you have to be mindful of everything,” Bradley said. “I think also I draw some strength from that. I feel like well, if I can do that, I’m pretty sure I can do this.”
For Feiz, her experiences of having to stay home due to bombardment and war while in Iran as a high school student also helps her view the present challenge as surmountable.
“At least we are at home; we have food, we are healthy,” she said. “We can take a shower, we can buy the things we have, we can study, we have internet, we have Facebook, we can listen to music.”
“Living alone, living in isolation — it is not in the nature of human beings,” she added. “But this is the time that we do not have any other choice.”