Asha Kinney providing zoom training for faculty
Academic Technology Specialist Asha Kinney, conducting a Zoom training session for Amherst faculty to support remote teaching and learning. [Photo by Jiayi Liu]

Amherst courses will soon be in session across time zones and over smartphones, as part of the College’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are stories of four professors’ early plans for remote teaching, with more stories (from faculty, students, staff and alumni) to come in the weeks that follow.

We invite all members of the Amherst community to write to to tell us about your own experiences with remote teaching and learning.

Geology 112: “Surficial Earth Dynamics: Climate, Environment and Life”

David Jones, associate professor of geology The students in Geology 112 were about to do a lot of hiking. “After spring break is when all the labs turn into field trips,” says David Jones, associate professor of geology. 

He and his students would normally use their spring hikes to form and test hypotheses about the local landscape. Now, Jones will undertake the field trips on his own, possibly with his two young children in tow. “I don’t have any doubt that I can produce basic videos that would show what you would see if you were to go on these trips,” he says. “But there’s a seeing component and there’s a doing component. And it’s the doing component that presents a much bigger challenge.”

Fortunately, the broader geosciences community has plenty of online resources. The Science Education Resource Center offers virtual lab experiments. Panoramas on GigaPan allow viewers to zoom in on a single blade of grass and zoom out to appreciate the wider landscape. There are no GigaPan images yet for the Connecticut River Valley. “But so be it,” says Jones. “We can still achieve some of the same goals, even though it’s not with our local landscape.”

Jones sees the situation as an opportunity to develop accessible alternatives to geology field trips for students with mobility challenges. “I’m thinking of a student who may use a wheelchair and can’t easily go on a hike to see a particular rock outcrop,” he says. “Now maybe we can start to bring that experience back to the student in an educationally meaningful way.” –Mary Elizabeth Strunk

Music 136H: “Choral Ensemble”

Arianne Abela, director of the choral music program and a lecturer in music “Singing is communal by nature,” says Arianne Abela, director of the choral music program and a lecturer in music. “Everyone feels that their choir friends are their family away from home, so I’m trying to find ways to create community.”

Abela’s Chorus, Glee Club and Concert Choir students were in Music 136H when they learned that classes would shift online. Grief-stricken, the students sang together in the lobby of the Arms Music Building. Determined to find a way to keep singing, they proposed that Abela launch a version of Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, in which individual students would film themselves singing along to a recording of Abela directing. The dozens of videos would then be knit into a seamless whole to reproduce the choir’s sound. A virtual choir “doesn’t replicate the actual sensation of singing together,” Abela says. “But it would be something fun to keep [the choir] together,” and one student is eager to help engineer it. It might even become something to share in place of their cancelled springtime performances.

Abela may convert the class into a choral literature course, lecturing on specific pieces of music and inviting students to listen and respond to different choral works. She may ask them to watch TED Talks on choral music. The students will also have a live, virtual session with Minnesota-based composer Linda Kachelmeier, who had planned to visit campus ahead of the April world premiere of her new piece on immigration and refugees, which was commissioned by Abela and her students. The premiere will now take place in 2021. –M.E.S.

Chemistry 161: “Chemical Principles”

Christopher Durr It’s a monumental task to move the College’s largest course (115 students) into a virtual laboratory. Christopher Durr, assistant professor of chemistry, does much of the “steering” of Chemistry 161 and its lectures, with his colleagues Richmond Ampiah-Bonney and Stephen F. Cartier overseeing the labs. Their plan: Students will watch lectures as a video series, and the instructors will shoot various labs—making voltaic cells, working with acids and bases—as demonstrations. Friday discussions will take place via videoconferencing.

Durr has also started recording a 10-minute weekly podcast. Among other material, “I’m going to use that podcast to cover a chemist of the week,” he says, “to highlight chemists that we don’t usually get a chance to talk about in class.” –Bill Sweet

Theater and Dance 355: “Solo Performance”

Wendy Woodson “The arts are all about creative problem solving,” says Wendy Woodson, the Roger C. Holden 1919 Professor of Theater and Dance. Now, the problem that she and her Five College Dance colleagues are working to solve is how to apply remote teaching and learning strategies to an art form that usually depends upon bodies being present in a space together, providing mutual inspiration and feedback. 

Woodson expresses sadness for the student actors, dancers, writers and musicians who've had to cancel or change their senior honors performances. But her own thesis advisee, Leah Woodbridge ’20, was able to have a rough draft of her original play Right Women staged and videotaped before leaving campus. There was also a run-through of Anna Plummer ’20’s musical The Puddle Jumping Society, directed by Associate Professor Ron Bashford ’88. 

Each student in “Solo Performance” has been working on an individual final project that would have been performed in concert. “I think that they can create a video version of their solos,” says Woodson, who in the past has incorporated video into some of her own performance pieces. “I’m doing a lot of research right now, in terms of giving them examples of solo performers in the video, digital world.” –Katherine Duke ’05