Beyond the Technological Barrier: Pacific Faculty Navigate Online Switch

Through the screen sits Sociology Professor Daniel B. Eisen, cooped up within the small Zoom window and decked out in his typical uniform of a sweatshirt. He continues to adjust himself in his chair— much like back in Marsh Hall when he would revolve around the room, catching student attention as our heads spun like owls. When asked how he is adjusting to teaching an online course, Eisen was quick to reply:

“I don’t think that what we are doing is online teaching … I think that we are adapting to a pandemic through an online space, to try to maintain some kind of normalcy, to try to provide content that is still important and that students and faculty still care about,” he said. “I really don’t want anyone to think that their experiences in our current online space is reflective of what an online class might actually look like.”

The abrupt switch to an online platform was enough to give Pacific faculty whiplash. Professors were given two-weeks to rework their entire syllabuses, to create interactive and engaging online courses that met the quality of in-person instruction. But beyond the Zoom calls and eloquent emails sits the truth:  this situation has been difficult for Pacific staff, who have done everything possible to make this experience easier on students.

“I think faculty have to be compassionate with students, but at the same time students have to be compassionate with faculty,” Eisen said. 

Jennifer Hardacker, a Media Arts Professor at Pacific elaborated, “It’s hard on everybody, right? But we’re in it together.”

In an attempt to lift student spirit, Hardacker created a Youtube video offering a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to teach from home. Throughout she gets interrupted by her howling Beagle and her son, and even jokingly goes to record her lecture from the quiet of her closet sighing, “Hopefully this will work.” 

Hardacker explained when questioned about the inspiration behind her video, “I think it’s so important right now to do what we can to keep our good humor … and to do something to stay connected— I can’t stress that enough,” she said.“I really think, for me, the key to keeping that connection is making sure I’m checking in with folks one on one.” 

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Sarah Phillips discussed Pacific’s goal to maintain relationship-based teaching and connections with students during this time. 

“We’ve been encouraging faculty to take time in class just to check-in with students, just to take a few minutes out of what would be your normal curriculum to make sure everyone’s doing okay, see where people are, that kind of thing,” Phillips said. “My hope is that’s the focus that underlies whatever each faculty member … [decides to] do in each class.”

Fulfilling this hope, Eisen decided to make all Zoom meetings for his classes optional, transforming them into a platform for student engagement and connection. “That gives students space to drop in and have normalcy or engage with content in a deeper space if they want to … The class isn’t like ‘Come in and let’s just jump right into the readings!’ … they’re check-ins, they’re ways for us to connect what we’re reading and what we’re engaging in,” Eisen shared.

Other professors have also been flexible with their class structure during this time. Hardacker described how due dates are now malleable in her classes. “I’m meeting people where they’re at,” she said. 

Director of Bands, Dr. Michael Burch-Pesses explained how his ensembles are now learning about the band’s musical history instead of creating music pieces. “I think if they learn where the tradition of the band came from, they’ll understand why the band is so important,” Burch-Pesses explained. To help students on their refined final exam, Dr. Burch-Pesses is providing them with textbook-style notes.

Along with classroom flexibility, Eisen talked about how he has also tried to be flexible with the expectations he holds for himself during this chaotic time. “If I put those kinds of [rigorous] standards on myself, this space is going to be hectic for me [and] it’s going to be hectic for students,” Eisen shared. “I think engaging in the space as empathetic and compassionately as possible [is important]. It doesn’t make the situation ideal, but I think it’s not as stressful as it could be.”

While faculty members work hard to rearrange their classes and reach out to students, it remains difficult to work through the technological barriers of distance learning. Eisen shared, “It’s also been hard to support students from afar, because there’s a lot of things that students are going through, and the technology space creates additional issues for outreach and support.”

Dr. Burch-Pesses admits how upset he, and other music professors, are that they can no longer create music with their students. “To do that [create music] you have to be together,” he explained. “A lot of students say … they miss that, and I wish I could provide that, but I just can’t do it long distance. Making music remotely is not the same as making it together.”

“I think that’s probably the biggest obstacle that any of us music professors are experiencing right now. We have always looked forward to having our ensembles meet together and to create music as a group. To lose out on that is difficult for us.”

Though Zoom is an attempt at a typical classroom experience, other professors can relate to Burch-Pesses’ sentiment that it is simply not the same. Hardacker shared her dilemma with the online program. 

“It’s just hard to have a vibe [on Zoom]—especially when on one hand people have to have their mics off or it gets too chaotic, but when people have their mics off I just feel like I’m talking into a void,” she said. “Most of my classes are actually … one-on-one or small group chat, because I just think that’s way more effective than a big, giant group Zoom.”

Along with technological issues, Eisen pointed out some of the equity issues present with the expectations of distance learning on an online platform. 

“We can’t assume that everyone has a stable internet access, we can’t assume that everyone has reliable computer or technology resources … We can’t penalize students for not having privilege,” he explained. “If you’re grading in [sic] this moment, you’re grading privilege … I know not all my colleagues will agree with that, and not a lot of professors across the U.S. will agree with that, but as I think about equity and justice I find that to be true.”

To aid this issue, like many Pacific professors, Eisen has been reasonable with his standards, flexible with class deadlines and assignments, and empathetic towards his students. “My grading practices in the pandemic space … reflect that,” Eisen said.

There are many programs Pacific has been adopting during this time to help faculty remain involved with students. Over 100 faculty members have volunteered with Boxer Link to safely meet up with students. The sociology department has been hosting equity and diversity lectures throughout this month. Many clubs and organizations are offering ‘Virtual Happy Hours’ as opportunities for students and faculty members to engage from a safe distance during this time of social isolation. 

“[Teaching] is what they [faculty members] want to do with their lives,” explained Dean Phillips. “[They want to] spend their days with students. So, it’s a hard transition for everybody.”

Dr. Burch-Pesses shared more on this. “Passing on what we know to our students is really important to us,” he said. “We’re accustomed to doing that on a face-to-face basis. I think everybody in the faculty at Pacific is striving their best to continue that tradition of teaching, but in a different way, and I think we’re all learning and growing from this unhappy experience.”

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