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University Professors Share Their Thoughts On Colleges Reopening

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The fall semester kicked off this week for many college students. Some are returning to campus, some are logging in online, and many are doing a mix of both. But a few universities like UNC-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame have already scaled back their in-person classes over fears of the coronavirus, and all of these changes are putting college professors in a difficult place.

GENEVA SARCEDO: I have no idea what to expect.

CHANG: That's Geneva Sarcedo. She's an academic advisor, Ph.D. candidate and adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Denver.

YANNI LOUKISSAS: I'm really worried that our campus is going to become a hot spot.

CHANG: That is Yanni Loukissas. He's an associate professor of digital media at Georgia Tech.

MAR HICKS: My biggest concern for going into the new semester is that faculty need to have the power to make the decisions to keep themselves safe and their students safe and keep the surrounding communities safe.

CHANG: Finally, that is Mar Hicks. They're an associate professor of the history of technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. All three of them join us now to talk about their university's plans for the fall. Welcome to all three of you.

HICKS: Thanks for having us.

SARCEDO: Thank you.

LOUKISSAS: Thanks.

CHANG: Yanni, I want to start with you because I saw that three-quarters of Georgia Tech's faculty signed a letter critiquing the university's in-person learning plans. You personally have objected to those plans. In fact, I saw you posted a photo of yourself on Twitter holding a tombstone that read RIP integrity at Georgia Tech. So I think I know the answer to this question, but I have to ask it. How confident are you in your school's reopening plans?

LOUKISSAS: I'm quite concerned, as are many of us. That sign was made for a die-in we had on campus this week. So we're really trying to change the administration's mind about how they're approaching this semester.

CHANG: What about Mar? I mean, how comfortable do you feel with your school's plans for the fall?

HICKS: I'm very lucky because I am teaching online this semester, and I'm planning to, you know, pretty much do all of my work remotely. And, you know, I really feel for my colleagues, both at my institution and other institutions who are going to be teaching in the classroom because I know that brings, you know, a whole host of very legitimate worries with it.

SARCEDO: This is Geneva. I'm sitting in my office on campus right now.

CHANG: Wow. OK.

SARCEDO: And campus is deserted. So even though we have a small number of in-person classes, the majority of things are still remote and online. So I feel comfortable right now. We'll see how that changes.

CHANG: I'm really curious about what adjusting to online teaching has been like for all three of you. I mean, we've been hearing for months that it's just been really hard, not only for students of all ages, for parents who are, you know, at home and certainly for professors, it's been very hard. So tell me personally what the adjustment has been like. What have been the biggest challenges to teaching online versus in a lecture hall, in a classroom, seeing your students face to face?

HICKS: For me, one of the biggest challenges of teaching online has always been making sure that you still have that personal connection and that you're able to really engage with students and guide them in a more personalized way. And we also have to face the fact that a lot of our students are dealing with insecure housing. They're dealing with living situations that aren't great. They're dealing with Internet connections that might not be stable. Or maybe, you know, in some cases, people are going outside their homes and sitting in their car in a parking lot to get a good Internet connection to attend class. And so all of these things are always issues with online learning and online teaching but even more so in this moment in the middle of a pandemic.

CHANG: And I'm curious to the extent that your students - their faces can even all appear on a single screen online, I mean, what is that like to see your students as boxes that barely fit on one screen?

SARCEDO: Right now, I'm fortunate I have a small class, so all of us do fit on one screen. On the first day of class, like, we go through setup your Zoom profile, put in a picture so when you don't have your camera engaged, you still have a face there. I start each of my classes with a check-in. And so let's engage as people before we get to the academic portion.

CHANG: I just want to check in with the three of you. How are you coping during this time personally as you're also preparing for lessons and preparing to teach in these new odd ways?

LOUKISSAS: I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old and my partner also has a full-time job. Our kids are not back in day care. Fortunately, my partner's parents live in Atlanta, and now they are starting to help us. And I'm really grateful for that, but really I only consider that possible because I'm teaching remotely. If I was on campus with students, I would be really concerned about what I might be bringing back.

SARCEDO: I have a 4-year-old. And at the beginning of the pandemic when her day care closed - so she was 3 at the time - and I was at home working full time preparing for my classes, working on a dissertation as a Ph.D. candidate and I had my 3-year-old at home, and it was a lot.

CHANG: Yeah.

SARCEDO: Now, like, it's funny to see - in her pretend play, she'll say things like, I have a meeting. Excuse me. Let me go take my call.

CHANG: Oh, funny. She's mimicking you because that's what she's observing at home these days.

SARCEDO: She's definitely paying attention to the environment around her. And so I felt, oh, an incredible weight off my shoulders when her day care opened back up. Although classroom-wise - like, I've told my students - so even though we are not face to face, this is a family friendly classroom.

CHANG: So, finally, I just want to ask each of you to tell me in a few words, what message do you have for your students as this new academic year gets into full swing?

HICKS: The message that I think I would have for my students in a nutshell is that you're not just faces on a screen to me. You're not just data in a spreadsheet. I very much see you. I understand that you're going to be going through probably really hard times this fall. And I want whatever educational experience you have in my classes to add to your life in a positive way and not be a burden.

SARCEDO: I'm telling my students I am committed to being flexible. I will prioritize your health and humanity over our academic endeavors in this course. And we will proceed from the assumption that as things change, keep in touch with me, and we'll figure it out.

LOUKISSAS: Yeah. I would second all of that. But additionally, I would add that even though there are constraints on the way we can teach now and maybe it's not what we think of as an optimal learning environment, this moment and everything that's happening in this moment is giving us so much to think about in the classroom and reflect on. And students are really going to remember this moment. And I think there's an opportunity here to engage with them about what's happening to them, what's happening around them and really making this a teachable moment.

CHANG: Professors Yanni Loukissas, Geneva Sarcedo and Mar Hicks all talking to us about teaching college this fall, thank you to all three of you so much. And, honestly, best of luck in the next several months to you and all of your students.

SARCEDO: Thank you.

HICKS: Thank you.

LOUKISSAS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.