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Faculty weigh in on unprecedented summer term

Three professors discuss improving conditions of the pandemic, concern about loss of summer research

The start of the summer term in just over a month will commence the final leg of this year’s tri-semester schedule, leading numerous faculty members to focus on teaching classes during a season typically dedicated to research and future course planning.  

Three University professors spoke with The Herald about their expectations for the summer environment amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As both COVID-19 vaccination rates and temperatures rise, professors expressed hope for an increase of in-person class components and a greater sense of community on campus than in previous pandemic semesters. 

Professor of Engineering Alan Bower, who is teaching ENGN 0040: “Dynamics and Vibrations” this summer, hopes to bring more in-person components to his class. 

Bower plans to hold in-person group tutorials of about eight students each, which will help him get to know students better. Given the warm summer weather, Bower is also planning on holding some labs outside, which was not possible during the spring.

Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve described the effect an improved pandemic situation could have on campus culture in the summer. 

Gonzalez Van Cleve said she volunteered to teach SOC 1116: “Criminal Courts in the Era of Mass Incarceration” during the summer because she was “hopeful that there would be a new sense of life and a new sense of fun and togetherness on campus.” 

She added that she thinks it will be “a much more hopeful semester to be on campus than it was in the fall.”

But professors’ hopes for the summer term are accompanied by their reduced ability to focus on research during this time, in addition to concerns about the impacts of not having a summer break.

For Professor of Computer Science Kathi Fisler, who normally leads a research program during the summer, the upcoming term “will be a loss, research-wise.” 

Since she will be teaching CSCI 0180: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction,” Fisler said she won’t have the time she normally has to research, write and plan out future projects, although she acknowledged the relative scale of this loss compared to other impacts of the pandemic

Gonzalez Van Cleve said that she has lost time to do research throughout the pandemic, but plans to incorporate a research project into her class this summer. For the project, students will build an archive that will be housed in the John Hay Library, giving first-years a hands-on research experience that would typically be unavailable to them.

But Gonzalez Van Cleve added that many professors feel fatigued after more than a year of online teaching.

“Many of us feel like we have not stopped working since the first lockdown,” she said, particularly due to the “enormous” effort required to shift classes, events and research to an online format.

Fisler said that she was “very much concerned” about the weariness and burnout students, professors and teaching assistants may feel without an adequate break. Professors need to be “particularly attentive to what students need,” Fisler said, and should “anticipate that someone who says they’re struggling may actually be burned out.”

Fisler is also anticipating a point during the summer at which the University eases some social distancing restrictions, which professors will have to accommodate. 

“If that happens,” she said, “we’re going to have to expect that people’s minds will not be on classwork, faculty included.”

Gonzalez Van Cleve also noted the importance of accommodating and empathizing with students, echoing sentiments she had previously expressed in a viral letter of support she penned to her students during the transition to online learning in March 2020.

Throughout the pandemic, and including the imminent summer, Gonzalez Van Cleve said that students’ focus should not be on “grades, or more papers, or more labs,” but rather on “finding joy in learning.” She expressed optimism that the summer would be a “resurgence of that joy,” giving students and faculty “a bit of hope of what it will feel like to be on campus again … learning in a community.” 

“Students are so excited to be on campus and to have some level of normalcy” that “some of the fatigue will go away when the excitement kicks in,” she added.

She hopes that first-years in particular will be able to make the most out of the summer term. 

She wants freshmen to be able to “find the joy that they missed this fall,” and have a chance to truly celebrate their start to life at Brown, she said. “I think everybody deserves to celebrate,  even though we’ve had such a tough year.”


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