St. Olaf professors adapt to teaching in the time of COVID

Students have descended on the St. Olaf campus once again: jogging in the natural lands, practicing instruments outdoors, playing Spikeball for hours, waiting in line at Stav and, of course, hammocking. This time though, they don face masks, stand far apart and Zoom their classes from the dorm halls. Just as students have been working on adjusting to this strange and new way of life together, so have their professors.

Some professors prepared for the first full year they have ever taught online, some are working on a complicated hybrid curriculum and all are searching for new and improved ways of connecting with and supporting their students during a pandemic and a national racial reckoning. 

“For me, personally, I felt like it was a really high stakes summer. I felt a pressure and a need to get my work right in a way I haven’t felt since I first started at the college,” Associate Professor of Psychology Carlo Veltri said. “I want to give my absolute best to my job.” 

During a normal summer, faculty members take a much needed break from teaching and often conduct personal research, spend time with family and revamp their curriculum. This year their summers consisted of technology workshops, department meetings and anti-racism classroom learning. 

Like everyone else in the United States, professors were experiencing the twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19. When the spring semester ended, professors were left uncertain as to how the fall would pan out. In early June there was an announcement that students would be back on campus, but no details were set in stone. Then, in early July, professors were notified that they could petition to have their classes completely online for health reasons or if they felt it would be more beneficial and effective for teaching their classes. 

Assistant Professor of Spanish Amy Hill Cosimini decided to have her classes entirely online. She describes needing to be at home with a young child, as well as the benefits that online teaching has, especially for language courses. 

“Pedagogically, the ability to see my mouth move and how I am pronouncing words is really important when you have never seen a language before,” Hill Cosimini said. 

Despite professors and students being frustrated with the presence of online courses, there have been some unexpected benefits such as new modes for participation, more intentional connections and learning new technologies. 

For professors committed to teaching in person, it came as a surprise, and a big adjustment, when they were notified that there would be a two week quarantine for students in which classes would need to be online close to the end of the summer. 

Professor of English and the Director of the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts (CILA) Mary Titus said that professors worked together in coming up with new ways to teach, with a lot of support from IT and resources provided by CILA. Some professors were able to come to campus to walk through technology in the classrooms and plan out how, when the time came, they would have students in their rooms. Before the professors returned to teaching, CILA offered technology workshops approximately once a week. 

“St. Olaf faculty have been amazing,” Titus said. “Some people have not just come up to speed, but they have innovated.”

Especially for classes that rely on in person interaction—dance, labs, theatre, music and studio arts—creative problem solving has become a huge part of this fall semester. Artist in Residence in Dance Anthony Roberts spoke about the difficulties of teaching dance from his kitchen and described how hard it is to see the movements of his students and adjust their work. 

“Because we have to move our physical bodies, there has to be a level of engagement,” Roberts said. He feels his classes are a space for students to move and break up their day of sitting at their computer. Roberts is proud of the engagement that comes from his classes, which require students to be immersed. 

This year, professors have been making technological and logistical shifts as well as pedagogical moves towards anti-racism. On top of his teaching, Veltri works with the To Include is to Excel Grant. This fall, with nationwide protests in response to police violence against BIPOC, as well as St. Olaf protests around racism at this institution, the College—and more specifically the grant—have been focusing on racism and its manifestations in the classroom. 

“I think the protests have made me conscious of how much work I need to do to become a better anti-racist ally,” Hill Cosimini wrote in an email to The Messenger. “It is a process that is never complete, and I am just at the beginning. Thus, for me it is about finding ways in my classes to amplify the voices of BIPOC scholars, artists, activists, etc.” 

The To Include is To Excel team has been coming up with different strategies for classrooms to break down barriers, assumptions and hierarchies. The grant, CILA and the new Task Force to Confront Structural Racism have identified resources for colleagues to help professors begin this pedagogical shift. 

“In these conversations [around anti-racism at St. Olaf] I have realized I’m not the only person making these deliberate choices,” Veltri said. “I’m not the only person who has to wrestle with times I have failed to make those choices, or times where I have made the choices and executed things poorly or that I’m frustrated that my choices seem so small when the problem is so large.”

This work has translated into the classroom in different ways. Professors are working to create physically distant community, be more accessible to students and make space for students to share how they are feeling. 

They describe missing the small benefits of in person college teaching, such as moments before and after classes, office hours or walking by and chatting with students. Veltri described how his teaching used to be so focused on reading the students: if they were distracted, wishing to ask a question, communication through eye contact, small movements of encouragement and so on. It has been a new challenge for professors to work to create space for connection and relationship building, especially for the new students. 

“I dedicate the first 5-10 minutes of every class to do a kind of community building activity, whether it be an icebreaker or a different type of get-to-know-you activity,” Hill Cosimini said. Some professors even open their Zoom calls before they arrive to class in order to give the students time to talk and connect with each other. 

With national turmoil and increased separation from students, professors are even more concerned about students’ well being and mental health.  

“I miss being able to hear a little bit more about where my students are at any given time,” Associate Professor of Computer Science Olaf Hall-Holt said. “I hope that my students know that I am trying. I would like to know if there are ways that I can make things easier for them.”

Ultimately, professors expressed that students have been flexible and open to the changes. 

“The amount of support I have received from students reminds me why I am happy to be teaching here,” Veltri said.

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