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Faculty re-adjust courses following changes to Brown’s initial reopening plan

Professors consider access, learning styles, community in transition to remote teaching

When President Christina Paxson P'19 announced Aug. 11 that all undergraduate classes would be taught fully online until at least Oct. 5, faculty members, like students, were tasked with reimagining what the fall semester would look like.

“It’s just so sad. We are losing something that we love doing and there’s no true substitute. So we’re doing our best, as I hope everyone has been,” said Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Ross Cheit. “But boy, is it challenging.” The letter posted to the Healthy Brown website modified the University's previously announced plan to allow sophomores, juniors and seniors to return to campus for the fall semester. 

While COVID-19 cases were trending downward in Rhode Island when the original July 7 plan was announced, Paxson noted in her Aug. 11 update that the situation nationwide and statewide had since "deteriorated." Like students, professors have now had to reconsider their course plans in order to accommodate this shift to online learning for the beginning — and potentially the entirety — of the fall semester. 

Cheit anticipated a change in Brown's fall plan as colleges across the country were beginning to reverse their original plans and shift to online learning. In the past two weeks, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, among other schools, have also reversed their plans. 

Cheit will be teaching POLS 1050: “Ethics and Public Policy” this fall. Since his class generally has 80 to 100 students — far exceeding the 20-person limit on in-person classes the University announced earlier this summer — Cheit has been preparing to teach remotely since May.

“Trying to capture what we think are the best things about the Brown experience without being together physically is just really challenging,” Cheit said. He believes remote learning will be difficult, but is hopeful that students can still have valuable learning experiences — even if they aren’t seated together in a lecture hall. 

“I think a lot of professors are trying to figure out how to do things that will at least approximate or, you know, particularly put students in touch with each other so that the learning does not just become an isolated, decentralized experience.”

For Cheit, supporting students’ learning in an online setting will require an emphasis on student-to-student interaction. He plans on “turning over some of the control in class” by creating more opportunities for group work to help students connect with each other.

Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve had already decided to teach her class, SOC 1116: “Criminal Courts and the Law in an Era of Mass Incarceration,” during the summer semester after the University announced it would have a three-semester academic year to minimize population density on campus last month. By planning to teach her course then instead of in the fall or spring, she hoped to help make the summer feel like a “truly equal semester.”

While she will miss interacting with students and faculty on campus, Gonzalez Van Cleve understands that “we have to be creative and change our expectations of what (the fall) is going to look like and be extremely flexible.”

“I’m hopeful, but I’m probably just going to say to all of my students … Think of as many creative ways to try to recreate the things you care about,” she said. “Do them with joy and just try your best with this time.”

For other professors who had planned to employ a hybrid or in-person instruction model this fall, the University's change means reworking their course plans in more significant ways. 

ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics” taught by Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Economics Rachel Friedberg, usually enrolls over 400 students in the fall. Due to the large number of students, the class was among those already structured to operate largely online this fall. But originally, to allow for some in-person instruction, five of the class's 20 sections had planned to be held in-person in socially distanced classrooms.

Now, Friedberg plans to have those five sections take place online, like the 15 remote sections that were already available for students who chose to study remotely. If in-person operations resume in October, these sections will return to their initial in-person plans.

During the spring, Friedberg had also transitioned Principles of Economics to mandatory S/NC. She felt that the transition to remote instruction happened “so quickly and in crisis” and did not feel that she “could be confident that everybody would have equal access.” Now, for the fall semester, Friedberg has reinstated letter grading for the class since students and faculty have had more time to prepare and adjust to remote instruction.

Alexander Fleischmann, provost’s associate professor of brain science and associate professor of neuroscience, was planning on teaching his class, BIOL 1630: “Big Data Neuroscience Lab,” in-person this fall. But like many of his colleagues, Fleischmann proceeded with caution when preparing for the fall semester. Still, Fleischmann anticipates some challenges moving online. “The spontaneity that drives discussion and thinking and exploration is not the same in-person and online,” Fleischmann said. “It’s not a smooth transition … there’s lots of moving pieces.”

Fleischmann expects that these discussions and plans for online learning will remain relevant for the near future. “Improving your skills and taking advantage of what’s possible is an important thing to learn, so I don’t think any of this is wasted,” he said. “It’s a learning process and it’s a relevant one long term; it’ll be here to stay at some point, I think.”

The day before the University announced the changes to its original reopening plan, Leslie Bostrom, Chair and Professor of Visual Arts, told the Visual Arts Department staff that she would not be surprised if Brown announced a return to online-only instruction at some point during the semester. The announcement came sooner than she expected.

Bostrom will teach VISA 1800C: “Honors Seminar,” and had planned a hybrid seminar where students would be assigned to a studio to work on their honors theses but would attend discussions over Zoom.

Bostrom said that she felt disappointed that she might not be able to teach the class in person since she was really excited about the studio component and believes that art does not transition as well to remote instruction.“I really feel like art works better in physical space, in other words, the physicality of an art work is really important — unless you are doing, for example, digital photography” Bostrom said.

Bostrom added that she plans to ask faculty from the Visual Arts Department to adjust the syllabi of their classes to prioritize discussion sessions and readings in the first weeks of the course, and later focus on studio work when classes may return to in-person discussion.

For Barbara Meier, senior lecturer in computer science, going online nullifies the work she put into planning for in-person instruction. This fall, Meier will be teaching CSCI 1250: “Introduction to Computer Animation,” a class she originally signed up to teach in a hybrid model.

“My class really depends on a lot of audio visual information,” Meier said. “We watch a lot of animation and we look at students’ work in class, and I think that that is a little bit diminished when you go online.”

Many of the aspects that make the class unique will be more difficult online, Meier said. For example, sometimes Meier likes to act movements out, such as walking around the room while students are learning how to animate a walk cycle for a character to simulate the movements.

“My class usually builds a really strong community,” Meier said. This fall, she is hopeful that it still will — that her students “will kind of band together through adversity.”


Jack Walker

Jack Walker served as senior editor of multimedia, social media and post- magazine for The Herald’s 132nd Editorial Board. Jack is an archaeology and literary arts concentrator from Thurmont, Maryland who previously covered the Grad School and staff and student labor beats.

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