Ready for Their Close Up
How SBU faculty adapted to virtual teaching in a hurry.
By Ellen Cooke
Elyse Graham (pictured above, in costume as a steampunk Ada Lovelace) has always had a flair for the dramatic. While dressing up in period-, topic- and season-relevant costumes is nothing new for the associate professor of digital humanities, Graham turned things up a notch when the pandemic forced a dramatic shift to remote learning and teaching last spring.
“I figured if students couldn’t be in the classroom, at least they could be at the movies,” she said, explaining her own transformation from behind-the-scenes writer to starring role actress in short educational films featuring everything from Shakespeare, Mozart and Queen Elizabeth I, to Harry Potter-esque wizards and Frankenstein-like settings.
“People in her classes were so entertained and so enjoyed her different costumes, backgrounds, really cool videos and innovative projects. She spurred people in our department and grad students, including me, to ‘up our game’ and get as dynamic as we could with our presentations. She also gave us the opportunity to record our own short virtual ‘guest lectures,’ which was good for the students and for us.”
— Jon Heggestad, Digital Humanities PhD Candidate
Graham let her students “preview” mini-movies and online lessons individually at home for deeper, richer discussions together in class. This is a practice she’ll carry forward, whether in live Zooms or in-person classrooms, as well as periodically sharing frames from these mini-movies on social media.
“Learning is a magical experience, and any way you can help get students into the magic of it — and make them feel how much you love what you do — seems like great pedagogy,” Graham said. “I’ll keep chasing that vibrancy in the classroom.”
Delícia Kamins, a doctoral philosophy student who was a TA for Graham, said, “One might wonder how successful full-on themed costumes can be in an online class. When done ‘Elyse style,’ the answer is VERY successful. We all looked forward to seeing what costume would accompany the theme of the lecture. Regular attendance was high (another surprise considering there were hundreds of students), and I am certain that her ‘pet-of-the-day,’ pre- and ending-class music were a big part of the draw.”
“I went out of my way to seek to TA for Elyse because I was so impressed with how she taught a multi-hundred student in-person class. She brought the same level of approachability, insight, passion and creativity to teaching online that she had in person. She made it fun and spices up her lectures with just enough to keep you listening for it, with that lingering effect that carries from one topic to the next.”
— Delícia Kamins, Doctoral Student, Philosophy
Graham’s colleagues found similarly inventive methods to conquer the madness of transforming entire syllabi and ways of teaching. From the most to the least tech-savvy, and from the most confident to the introspective, faculty tailored remote classes to their students’ unique needs, sometimes shifting on a dime to address constructive feedback. They also learned from each other, from graduate students and with support from CELT (Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching), which customized department-specific training and helped faculty quickly and efficiently develop whole new classes, where needed. Most important, faculty members did everything with the aim of creating the best possible student experience under novel and trying circumstances.
“My job is not to lecture; my job is to make sure you learn,” said Anurag Purwar, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, to his MEC 101 students. Purwar was no stranger to using technology to teach, and happily shared all he had learned and accomplished over the years with more novice remote instructors. But he quickly pointed out, “It’s not about the tools or technology. It’s about how you creatively use them to achieve the same, or an even better, learning outcome.”
It’s also about adapting which, for him, included rethinking traditional exams and assessments, and focusing more on engaging with students and keeping them motivated.
Purwar’s toughest challenge was helping students in his Freshman Design Innovation class complete their robot design projects, this year focused on providing COVID-19 solutions. “It was a logistical nightmare in a lot of ways, but we successfully shipped 130 robot kits to students around the world. While they couldn’t physically share parts, they got very, very creative in their collaborations. Once they got excited, I knew my job was done.”
Students Ralph Viggiani ‘24 and Christopher Caporusso ’24 agreed the experience was both enriching and enjoyable. “It was an opportunity to make connections with my peers and put our newfound knowledge to the test by designing a robot capable of solving an important societal problem,” said Caporusso. According to Viggiani, “Despite being done remotely, we worked together cooperatively as a small group and everyone got to contribute to the finished product.”
Omar Badessi, a PhD candidate and lecturer in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, added karaoke to his curriculum as a fun way for students to practice pronunciation in his elementary Arabic and Spanish classes. He also tailored instruction to students’ interests, from athletics to Disney movies, and had them share fun facts, such as what they did the prior week, headlines from newspapers and inspiring quotes.
“I aim to develop an inclusive and equitable environment where we form a genuine connection of trust, and where there’s less of me and more of them talking with each other,” said Badessi. He also shared his own life lessons, which were particularly relevant in these days of uncertainty. “I told them you have to adapt, evolve and embrace the unknown, look at challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, and always do your best. Enjoy the process, enjoy your life and strive for excellence.”
Student Chiagoziem Okolo ’22 said, “There’s no way to put into words how much Professor Badessi has been a ray of light in these troubling times.” Another student, Rikza Sohail ’23, said, “During this very stressful time, Professor Badessi made his course engaging and fun. He took the time to understand his students, made them feel comfortable, and made sure to teach us all individually and meet our learning needs.”
Cassandra Skolnick ’22 is a women’s, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS) major who has also clearly benefited from her professor’s extra efforts to ease the pain and strains of distance learning. “Professor [Nancy] Hiemstra made learning even more meaningful by applying lessons to the real world, making sure everyone clearly understood what was expected, expanding her virtual ‘office hours,’ and working to connect with students, individually and in groups, to encourage their contributions. She has been my hero.”
For her part, Associate Professor Hiemstra, who also serves as director of undergraduate studies for WGSS, learned Zoom for the first time and challenged herself to become even more organized, prepared and objective-focused in her lesson planning. She also incorporated regular polling, chat features and breakout rooms to increase student engagement throughout each Zoom class, and set up anonymous forums where students could provide honest feedback. She explained, “It’s not about just converting classes to online. You have to re-conceptualize them and reteach yourself in many ways. Part of that was just figuring out what students could handle mentally, time-wise and concentration-wise, then adjusting accordingly. I let them know they have a voice and that I hear them. I also let them know we were in this together and would try different things and stay flexible. I’d say, ‘Buckle up and we’ll see how it goes!’”
“The biggest hurdles were all the logistics – trying to get everyone the equipment they needed to do their jobs, and rescheduling class times and sizes to meet COVID requirements, among so many other things. But everyone rolled up their sleeves to do what needed to be done and I feel really lucky to be part of this community.”
— Elizabeth Newman, Vice Provost for Curriculum and Undergraduate Education
April Masten, associate professor, Department of History, also took students along for the ride with some stimulating new ideas, like having her 73-member class memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address all together on Zoom in a somewhat “chaotic,” synchronous fashion. “They really enjoyed that. I found debates also work really well over Zoom, and tried to still include music and dance as much as possible in the learning experience. Even during lectures, I encourage, encourage, encourage student participation, interaction and experience sharing. Whatever size class, you have to teach just as if they’re in the room with you.”
Freshman American history major Liam Noonan said Masten played a significant role in inspiring him to choose his major, giving him the confidence to enroll in upper-level courses, as well as providing all the tools and support he and his classmates needed to thrive in the online environment, and beyond.
“I thought it would be really difficult to keep my concentration for 55 minutes online, but everything she does keeps us engaged,” he said. “She puts key term handouts on Blackboard for each and every lecture beforehand, clearly outlining what we need to know. She always stays on track and asks and answers all the right questions. She cares so much she’ll sometimes start welling up with tears when we talk about moving subjects in history. And having music to start every class really captivated my attention.”
Masten also made an effort to stay enthusiastic, friendly and cheerful, and tried to cater to even the shyest of students during class. “I actually had more repeat students signup for my upcoming classes, so I tell myself, ‘Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it right.’”
While Shyam Sharma has been teaching international students remotely and training instructors around the world for years, nothing he’d experienced compares with the past year in terms of both learning opportunities and inspiring surprises. But while he’s sensitive to issues of stress and isolation among his students, Sharma also sees the glass as half full.
“This was a crisis that was an opportunity to learn and grow, and be accommodating and flexible and dynamic as teachers,” said Sharma, associate professor of the program in writing and rhetoric. “I saw less tech-savvy instructors come up with the most innovative technology solutions, things I wouldn’t have thought of myself. I also learned from my students more than ever before. It made me more informed, empathetic and collaborative. I would not wish to do this but, looking back, because we had to do it, I think we did it well here at Stony Brook.”
Ellen Cooke is Associate Director of Internal Communications, Office of Marketing and Communications
Top image: Photo of Elyse Graham by John Griffin. Background image courtesy Stanislav Vovchuk.