With the coronavirus pandemic eliminating the in-person element of academic environments globally, students have been forced to adapt to learning through a computer screen.
However, it is not entirely up to the students to continue learning at the same speed or standard as in the pre-pandemic world. Rather, the upkeep of quality education falls into the hands of the educators.
Equal to the pressure of continued learning during a pandemic is the pressure of continued teaching, and for USC professors, it has not been easy.
Frustrations with administration
Ariela Gross, professor of law and history in the Gould School of Law, felt that the administration’s lack of transparency in the face of the pandemic increased the burden placed on professors.
Gross is also the chair of the Concerned Faculty of USC, a group of almost 500 faculty members that was formed in 2018 under the administration of former President C. L. Max Nikias. Since the creation of the group, the Concerned Faculty of USC has published several letters and statements demanding improvements in moral governance from University administration.
In 2020, the Concerned Faculty was again in conversation with Provost Charles Zukoski regarding the pandemic and the administration’s communicative shortcomings in relation to it.
“It was very, very late in the process that the University finally announced that we would be online for this year,” Gross said. “Because we were constantly told to proceed as though we were coming back, people put an enormous amount of time into preparing for hybrid teaching. It was really unfortunate that we all put so much effort into something that was pretty clearly futile.”
Gross and the Concerned Faculty of USC felt that the administration’s opaque communication and decision making over the summer significantly heightened the pressures felt by faculty, as they were tasked with developing an entirely new form of teaching with little time to prepare.
On top of these pressures, faculty also dealt with cuts to their benefits and subsequent lack of explanation from the University to account for these cuts. The Concerned Faculty voiced their concerns about this at a summer meeting with Zukoski, yet did not receive a straightforward answer.
“People had concerns … about the budget, because there were significant cuts,” Gross said. “Faculty had their retirement benefits cut, and merit pay was cut. [There was] a lot of opacity about what actually required those cuts. It was blamed on the pandemic … but it’s been hard to explain why those cuts have continued.”
Though the group of Concerned Faculty will continue to push for increased transparency and accountability from the University, professors were forced to make do with what resources they did have in preparation for the coming year of online school.
Finding joy with teaching over Zoom
Erika Wright, a professor in both the English department of Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the medical education department of Keck School of Medicine of USC, used resources through Dornsife to become more adept in Zoom teaching.
“Dornsife [collected] together different recommendations or different things professors had been doing,” Wright said. “The school did provide a lot of different tools and advice and tech support.”
Though this compilation of advice and tools was helpful in preparing for the fall semester, the true learning curve wouldn’t occur until the semester actually began.
Despite summer preparation, Wright discovered that the emotional weight of Fall 2020, with stressors even beyond the pandemic, necessitated additions to course layouts.
Wright began setting aside time at the start of every class to hear from every student. It began as “tech checks,” where Wright went around and asked everyone how their WiFi, sound and camera fared. As the semester progressed, the tech checks evolved.
“Going around and doing a tech check then turned into … a little check-in prompt. Every person would say something. That was something I wouldn’t have done in-person,” Wright said. “They’ll talk about not feeling as creative or as productive. Just a range of things that make it hard to feel connected. I think sometimes that helps alleviate that pressure. And then they’ll give each other advice, and then the chat will blow up with advice.”
Changes that sought to keep students engaged proved helpful to professors as well. Wright found the pressures of online teaching to be slightly alleviated by honest communication with students on how everyone was feeling.
“Some of the most touching and important moments [with students] have occurred in this venue,” Wright said. “Students have been amazing. [They] are pretty spectacular.”
Charles Radovich, associate professor of mechanical engineering practice in the Viterbi School of Engineering, was similarly impressed by his students’ abilities to cope with the strenuous situation of the past year.
Not only does Radovich teach a number of lab courses in Viterbi, he is also the faculty advisor for AeroDesign Team, a student organization that designs, builds and flies airplanes. ADT competes annually in the Design Build Fly Competition, hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which was held virtually this year on April 15-18.
Radovich worked with ADT members to discover creative ways to build an airplane while adhering to coronavirus protocols. The team accepted the challenges and got to work, dividing into subteams that were each responsible for designing and assembling various parts of the airplane.
“The team embarked on a full-on distributed manufacturing campaign,” Radovich explained. “Landing gear captain sourced and assembled components at their house. Wing and tail captain is building wings and tails at their house, and then we’ll ship everything to the chief engineer [to be integrated]. It was a little slow to get going … but the team is building an airplane!”
After months of planning, reworking and building, the plane will soon fly. Given that the competition cannot be held in person, the flight will be recorded and submitted for review.
“It’s going to be the coolest plane the team’s ever built,” Radovich said. “It may not be the prettiest or the most optimized, but the sense of accomplishment of building an airplane in your home and pulling this off is going to be pretty awesome.”
In addition to ADT, Radovich also faced the immense challenge of translating an upper division lab course, “Mechoptronics Laboratory,” which involves heavy hands-on experimentation, to a Zoom environment.
Radovich and other professors spent the summer developing clever tricks to work around Zoom, such as enabling remote desktops and preparing lab kits that could be mailed to students’ homes. However, these still could not account for the disconnect between professors and students that inevitably comes with virtual learning.
“The hard part is, if I can look at my students when I give a lecture, I can tell immediately if they are not understanding,” Radovich said. “I can have a lot more back and forth and I can correct in real time. But in the Zoom world … not a lot of conversation happens. A lot of people are just kind of listening along [and] approach it differently than they would have in a normal lecture style.”
For engineering students, being able to physically put things together is often imperative to gaining a holistic understanding of a concept. The inability to gauge students’ comfort with the material through Zoom was one of the difficult things for professors to overcome, and Radovich looks forward to a return to in-person teaching.
For what it was, Radovich is proud of what his students have accomplished in this past year. It’s not easy to build an airplane even in normal circumstances, yet in the face of a pandemic, they did.
Lessons learned from remote learning
David Allen Moore, Thornton School of Music professor of double bass, shared a similar concern for ensuring that his students were staying connected and engaged through Zoom.
Teaching double bass online is no easy feat, and technological shortcomings were the essence of Moore’s initial struggles. Early versions of Zoom interpreted musical sounds as background noise, thereby blocking them out. Tweaking the technology to allow for optimum video and audio recording was the first challenge.
Once Thornton became more comfortable with the technological aspects of distanced learning, Moore was able to recognize that there were subtle similarities between pre- and post-coronavirus learning environments for Thornton students.
“In a lot of ways, music and performance is always asynchronous learning,” Moore said. “Everyone’s working at their own level, and they’re only getting interaction with the professor one to three hours a week. The vast majority of their time is spent practicing by themselves.”
Students studying a musical instrument may spend a lot of solitary time indoors during any semester. However, with the heightened stress of the pandemic and the many other social catastrophes of 2020, Moore developed a new focus that aimed to encourage students during these stressful times.
“It’s been really important to help sustain the optimism of my students that are looking at something that they’ve basically invested their whole lives in and then seeing it grind to a halt,” Moore said. “But if you can sustain your focus then you’ll come out on the other side and the opportunities will be there again. That’s been my focus over the year.”
Following this era of online connection, there are a few Zoom tricks that Moore intends to keep up his sleeve for future post-pandemic semesters, such as recording lectures for students who may be ill, offering online lessons while out of town and video conferencing with guest speakers.
“All the professors that I know across the world … are all set up with the gear to be able to do this.” Moore said. “So you can have the freedom to contact somebody anywhere in the country, no travel fees, no hotel stays, and work within their schedule to bring them in to enhance the content.”
Despite the pain of the past year and all of its losses, Oliver Mayer, professor of dramatic writing in the School of Dramatic Arts, found value in the learning experience that came out of Zoom.
SDA students and professors took a hard hit last March when the pandemic forced everyone into quarantine.
“Our entire school is based on connection between people,” Mayer said. “Our work was all about being in the room together, warming up exercises together, laughing together and [having] serious discussions together.”
Disrupting that crucial element was heartbreaking not only for the students, but professors who had to find ways to keep students engaged even after the ability to be together was taken away. Mayer, though grieving for his students, recognized the life lesson to be taken from the experience of everything going wrong around you.
“I think that it’s the kind of thing that’s gonna happen anyway if you have a life in the business — in any business — you’re gonna get buffeted by the world.” Mayer said. “And if you survive it, I think you’re that much further along.”
With this mindset emerging during the pandemic, Mayer also realized the importance of bringing compassion to his classroom and ensuring students have the proper emotional support and encouragement needed to hold out until a time that the community can gather together again.
“I want [students] to remember that there will be life after this,” Mayer said. “We will return. We may never handshake the same way, but we will at least be in the same rooms. Stuff is gonna happen. The theatre is big and open. I remind my writers all the time that this, too, shall pass.”
As USC struggles toward the return of normalcy, or at least a semblance of it, Mayer applauds the students who have fought on through a year that was easy for nobody and trying to all, insisting that there has been value in the experience.
“As soon as we give it our best selves, it becomes valuable,” Mayer said. “People are gonna be able to read that and see that in the work. Even when we’re past this and we’ve shut down the laptops … we’re going to remember these days.”