Two Weeks In, Amherst Community Reflects on Remote Learning Adaptations

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to erupt worldwide, the college’s return from spring break looks different than usual. Rather than the gradual repopulation of campus that typically ensues the weekend before classes continue, students and faculty alike have instead resumed college life via their home computer screens. As social distancing and quarantine transform all aspects of the Amherst experience, the college’s academic atmosphere is figuring out how to navigate the world of remote learning.

The college began remote classes on March 23, many of which took place synchronously using the video-conferencing application Zoom.  

The prospect of remote learning raises particular doubt for certain disciplines. For Chair of Chemistry Anthony Bishop, he admitted that “when I first got the word we were moving to remote learning, I just thought ‘oh my God, what a disaster.’” Bishop was not alone in this concern —  Chemical Laboratory Coordinator Dylan Donovan substantiated some of this cynicism as lab-based courses have struggled to translate online. In an email interview, Donovan noted that most of the “hands-on” labs that had been planned for the semester are canceled, though some have been converted to “dry labs” where students are assigned exercises to analyze a given set of pseudo-data rather than gathering the data themselves. The various equipment required to conduct these experiments in their original form means that many were, as Donovan put it, “impossible to recreate remotely.” Bishop, who is currently one of four professors teaching “Organic Chemistry II” and co-teaching “Biochemical Principles of Life at the Molecular Level,” added that he and his colleagues did consider video-based virtual labs but ended up being unimpressed with the available options.

With options limited and unable to offer the full extent of an in-person classroom, students have struggled to learn the nuanced techniques of laboratory science that would have occurred in an otherwise normal semester. But even with this setback, science courses are adapting. Bishop noted that, despite his initial worry, aspects of his courses are functioning better than he expected. “It’s not that I’m enjoying this, it’s just the technology makes the teaching part tolerable,” Bishop said.

Students, too, are able to see the value in the teaching that a virtual medium still allows. “As frustrating as it is to not be able to do physical work, restriction from the lab and research work allows for a holistic re-evaluation of why and how we do scientific research. The purpose of lab courses — and undergraduate research opportunities — is to investigate how science is done,” Eric Jung ’21, a biology student who does lab research and intends on writing a thesis, wrote in an email interview. “As important as it is to know how to pour gels, grow cell cultures, etc., the physical work is rendered meaningless if students have no understanding of why certain procedures must be performed or how the interpretations of data will direct future studies.”

Despite the silver linings, the absence of the physical lab work “is definitely disorienting and frustrating,” said Jung. He explained that it affects his work for a special-topics lab course, his thesis planning and even his summer internship planning, a position which requires he familiarize himself with specific lab protocols that are now off limits — granted it does not get canceled due to coronavirus precautions. 

One department where an in-person learning experience may also seem especially mandatory is theater and dance, whose curriculum centers around performance. “The live body interacting with a live audience is a very different kind of interaction than virtual bodies,” said Roger C. Holden 1919 Professor of Theater and Dance Wendy Woodson, who currently teaches “Solo Performance” and co-teaches “Sound, Movement and Text: Interactions and Collaborations.” The shift to remote learning has meant that any remaining student productions have been cancelled, Theater and Dance Production Manager Jonathan Doyle said in an email interview. “Live public presentation of work is a major component of the academic mission of the department of theater and dance and unfortunately cannot be done remotely,” he said.

In adapting to the learning changes though, Woodson has found ways to capitalize on the situation as an opportunity to explore creativity within digital formats. Her course focuses will now shift more toward digital editing skills and video performance even “using the Zoom rectangle as a creative space.”

Of course, in a discipline like theater, collaboration is a vital skill that is best practiced with everyone in the same room. “We’re just going to have to think of the Zoom format as the room,” Woodson said. For Woodson, these trying circumstances have placed even more emphasis on the core lesson that performance teaches: that “we have to show up no matter what the situation.”

Language departments bear the particular burden of ensuring that the content of their class meetings don’t get lost in translation. Chair of French Laure Katsaros explained how virtual language learning is “extra hard because you always want to make sure that people understand what you’re saying.” From a professor’s point of view, tracking that understanding often comes in the form of students’ body language and real-time class dynamics, both of which are lost on the screen. To overcome this obstacle, Katsaros readjusted the way students engage outside of class meetings in order to boost students’ comprehension. By having students write questions on the reading before class and by posting her own summaries of class discussion afterwards — both of which, she admitted, she would not do as systematically in an in-person class setting — she ensures that students strengthen their grasp of the content.

In her courses, “French Conversation and “Madame Butterfly Lives: Cross-Cultural Exchanges in France and Japan,” Katsaros has managed to adjust her goals to meet the limitations of remote learning platforms. For “French Conversation,” she cut the reading in half in order to focus more on close-reading. For “Madame Butterfly,” the final paper will now be less research-oriented and shorter in length.

Beyond just curriculum changes, Katsaros emphasized the obstacles posed by her at-home work environment, especially due to her two young children now requiring more of her attention with their schools closed. These personal barriers speak to a larger truth about the troubles that may emerge when home and work life blend. Still, Katsaros is grateful to have her work to rely on as a sense of structure and normalcy, optimistically noting, “when you’re teaching or studying, you’re not looking at the news.”

For some courses, learning in the midst of a pandemic is a firsthand case study of the themes that they had been exploring all semester. Chair of Historyand Professor of Black Studies and History Hilary Moss currently co-teaches “Cities, Schools and Space” and “The Purpose and Politics of Education.”In these courses, Moss highlighted that this current moment is “challenging us to rethink the fundamental questions” that undergird her course material, especially in “The Purpose and Politics of Education.” Questions that students have been investigating this semester include: “Is it possible for the liberal arts to occur in a non-residential setting,” and “What is the purpose of public schools?” For these courses, remote learning  has a direct connection to the very conversations that students in the course have been engaging in all semester long. As Moss put it, this has become a “powerful intellectual opportunity.”

But without a doubt, Moss has faced obstacles. Like Katsaros, she noted that with her kids also undergoing remote learning with their schools, she has found herself having to decide how to divide her time between her students and her family, “a choice that I would have never wanted to make.”

She also noted that certain aspects of her job as history department chair have turned into something she would have never imagined “in a million years.” With the prospect that faculty might become sick, she has been facilitating the creation of contingency plans for professors’ courses. In particular, she noted that professors have had to find “pandemic buddies,” faculty who would take over a class if that professor falls ill.

Even amid all of these challenging changes though, Moss has found “a profound sense of gratitude” for the work that she does. Last week, when her internet connection faltered and she was only able to communicate with her students via Zoom’s chat feature, she found that “the idea of not being able to be with my students was a really heartbreaking experience.” Despite the challenges that have arisen, Moss added that  she feels lucky to have a job that she loves so much that if she isn’t able to do it, her heart breaks.

All departments have faced a unique set of challenges in adapting to the new look of education in the age of COVID-19. However, one thing common to most about this new learning environment is the irreplaceable human interaction that defines the Amherst experience. For Bishop, he misses the “spontaneous human interaction” that comes with working in the same space as colleagues. And it’s not just faculty. Quinten McElhiney ’22 observed that his own remote learning experience has “a general lack of those aspects so important to a college education: a community of peers, spaces to meet and multilogue and a real time forum in which to engage with our teachers.” 

While Zoom might allow for the community to talk in real time for classes and meetings, and Moodle might offer access to select resources, what cannot be replicated about the Amherst experience is that which many have found to be most essential. In Woodson’s perspective, remote learning is missing “the choreography of every day at Amherst College.”