W&L Faculty Embrace Hybrid Instruction The COVID-19 pandemic has failed to hinder Washington and Lee University professors, who have adapted creatively to teach both in person and virtually this term.
In late August, when Washington and Lee University embarked on a Fall Term unlike any other in its 271-year history, faculty were understandably anxious. How would they teach some students in person and others online, navigate the perils of a pandemic, and still ensure that students receive the exceptional education for which W&L is known?
The answer, it turned out, was by being the same creative, resourceful and passionate educators they’ve always been, and by embracing the opportunity to learn and grow during a challenging time.
“Most faculty spent a good deal of time this summer making changes to classes,” said Interim Provost Elizabeth Oliver. “Their dedication, creativity and energy have brought these classes alive in this unusual and uncertain year.”
Washington and Lee transitioned fully to virtual instruction for the end of Winter Term and beginning of Spring Term 2020. In August, students were invited back to campus, where many are taking Fall Term classes in person. But ongoing concerns about COVID-19, including precautions necessary for high-risk individuals, means that most faculty are also teaching some students online.
For the in-person classes, Washington and Lee’s scenic location and campus have been more appreciated than ever this term as classes take advantage of the great outdoors for physically distanced class time. For a lesson about multispecies ethnography, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Chelsea Fisher took her in-person students to Woods Creek on campus, where they experimented with writing multispecies ethnographies for animals they found at the creek. Virtual students, meanwhile, based their version of the assignment on live zoo webcams that bring the critters to them.
Geology Professor Lisa Greer continues to take her lab students to nearby locations, such as North Mountain or Devil’s Marbleyard, in vans outfitted with plastic dividers. That system has also been used for vans used by other groups, such as the Biology Department and the Outing Club. On North Mountain, Greer’s students enjoyed the fresh air and beautiful overlook while learning about the geology of Rockbridge County.
“Getting outside has been really key to moving through this material in a way that feels real,” Greer said.
Many other professors are taking class outside to sit on the Front Lawn, in W&L’s permanent outdoor classroom behind the Science Center, or in one of two temporary outdoor classrooms set up by Facilities. Classics Professor Rebecca Benefiel is using an outdoor classroom with a whiteboard, and she bought each student their own dry-erase marker to practice writing Latin noun and verb forms on the board.
Dry-erase markers are not the only item students no longer have to share because of COVID-19. Greer’s lab students each get their own microscope and rock samples for experiments this term. Pamela H. Simpson Professor of Art Kathleen Olson-Janjic assembled individual supply kits for students in her painting class, who have been working in physically distanced work stations in the studio this term. Using that strategy, they were able to complete works that will be displayed alongside Staniar Gallery’s current exhibit, “Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly.” Their works focus on current political issues as well as gender and racial inequality.
“This is the perfect exhibition for this moment in time to force students out of their comfort zone and provide a context to view our lives and the world around us with more scrutiny,” Olson-Janjic said.
Faculty have adapted to the circumstances in other ways, as well, with some wearing face shields or teaching in rooms divided by plexiglass. They’ve changed the way they do office hours with students, holding virtual sessions instead of in-person visits. While it’s always nice to see students in person, Associate Professor of Business Administration Stephen Lind said, virtual office hours have allowed him to fit in more appointments with students and prevented them from lining up outside his office.
“It is harder to be successful as a faculty member or student in a virtual collaboration,” said Stephen Lind, associate professor of business administration. “But once you learn some of the strategies and tactics for doing it well, it can be richly rewarding and, in some cases, even more effective than in-person teaching.”
Lind taught online for nearly a decade at the University of Phoenix and served as Clemson University’s assistant director of online education before coming to W&L in 2013. When W&L first transitioned to virtual instruction in March, Lind offered workshops for students and faculty on how to succeed in a virtual classroom. He has since seen the initial apprehension turn into confidence as faculty and students report having rewarding experiences in the virtual setting.
One key step was embracing new teaching styles and tools, such as communications platforms like Slack. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Cody Watson, who has taught both in-person and virtual this term, now uses Slack to maintain consistent communication with students. It allows quieter students to chime in and prevents any one student from dominating the conversation. “Students can pose questions, direct message me in their course page to get my attention, and communicate with one another with ease,” Watson said.
Aliaa Bassiouny, the Lawrence Term Associate Professor of Business Administration, has flipped part of the classroom by pre-recording a few of her lectures and sending them to students for viewing before class time. As a result, she said, “we spend more of the class time on discussions and advanced applications. This is one thing I think I will continue to use even post-COVID.”
Bassiouny, who is teaching some students in person and others virtually, said the virtual format is useful for working on practical applications and models in finance, which students can follow on their own screens instead of a large shared projector. “It also helps us to establish the virtual classroom dynamics from the beginning of the semester in case we need to pivot [to full virtual] at any point,” she said.
Adapting to the virtual setup has allowed some professors to teach their students new skills. For example, W&L Repertory Dance Company Artistic Director Jenefer Davies taught dancers how to choreograph specifically for the frame of the camera. And Lind’s lessons in business communication now include tips on delivering an effective business pitch over Skype or Zoom.
“This is a great opportunity to highlight to students a very real-world set of skills that they are absolutely going to be working with post-university,” he said. “This is not the future, this is the now. There’s been a massive growth in working from home over the years, and the post-pandemic estimate is very high, so this is a great opportunity—even if forced on us—for students to hit the ground running.”
Another silver lining to teaching through a pandemic is increased access to guest speakers from all over the world, including W&L alumni. Economics Professor Linda Hooks invited Charlotte “Charlie” Karp ’16, Mitch Ballantyne ’06 and Thomas Blair ’99 to her Money and Banking course for a Zoom chat with students about their experiences in the banking industry. And because many artists are taking a forced break from their usually jam-packed performance schedules, the Dance Program will be able to host several for virtual master classes this semester.
“I really appreciate how these alumni bring both the real world and the alumni connection to the class,” Hooks said. “This sort of connection between people seems especially valuable right now in a pandemic. I’m very grateful to them for taking time out of very busy schedules to give back to the students and to their former professor and their alma mater.”
The pandemic also has opened doors for experiential learning in a number of classes, including Watson’s Modeling and Simulation course, which this Spring Term learned to create virtual models of real-world systems. They used current events to experiment with disease modeling, chemical reactions, environmental changes and physical models. As a final project, students created a disease model for COVID-19’s impact on W&L, and three students continued to work on modeling after the course was finished, sharing their findings with the university’s COVID-19 task force.
“The students implemented six of the possible university policies to address COVID-19 on campus and gave a report to the task force about which policies would be the strongest in preventing the spread,” Watson said.
Although the university library and Special Collections are open to students with proper physical distancing, professors can also take advantage of digitized materials to bring those resources straight to students’ screens. Assistant Professor of History Nneka Dennie is using digitized sources for both of her all-virtual classes, Women and Slavery in the Black Atlantic and History of the African American People to 1877.
In the first class, she said, “students are each writing a short analysis of a different document so that they can get a better understanding of how to think historically and how to draw logical conclusions from primary sources.” The final project for the second course will be to curate a small archival collection about women and slavery in Virginia.
Some who thought virtual teaching would feel less personal have found that it can create a dynamic that’s just as personal and focused as a small in-person class. English Professor Edward Adams is teaching two sections of each of his courses, with one in person and one virtual. “The results have been very encouraging in the sense that the Zoom classes are so small that they are practically tutorials,” he said.
These examples and many others demonstrate that although W&L faculty would rather see all of their students in person—and hope to do so again as soon as possible—they’ve adjusted to the realities of the pandemic and are working hard to give students the best possible educational experience under the circumstances. Lind pointed out that W&L’s Honor System and other community traditions have helped to establish a sense of connection and trust as everyone navigates this strange new reality.
“We already had such a tightly knit community, such a strong sense of what we want our community to be,” he said, “that we were set up well to quickly create new forms of community online in a way that would be really hard if we didn’t have this community history behind us.”
Jeff Seymour and Erica Turman contributed to this report.