Teaching Through (and About) the Pandemic

Full Interview

The story below is adapted from a conversation between Austin Sarat, associate dean of the faculty and the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, and Betsy Cannon Smith ’84.

September 17, 2020

Austin Sarat, associate dean of the faculty and the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, is teaching the first-year seminar “Secrets and Lies” via Zoom, after teaching and taking classes remotely last spring and summer. (Roughly half of the student body arrived on campus this fall, with the other half scattered across the globe, and with 30 percent of courses taking place in person.)

Here, Sarat shares what he’s learned so far. 

Adapted from an interview by Chief Advancement Officer Betsy Cannon Smith ’84 for the Amherst Conversations series

What worked well last spring

We say we want to teach students to be resilient, flexible, creative and persistent. The spring was a test about whether I would be resilient, flexible, creative and persistent. Over spring break I connected with every student individually. I sent a Zoom protocol. For example: If you have a sign on the wall about how much you dislike Professor Sarat, it would probably be a good time to take that sign down. I reminded them that one of the real problems of Zoom is that people stare blankly into the camera. They don’t nod and smile. A Zoom classroom lacks the energy of the crowd, the chemistry of the connection. So even in my small seminars, I sent students into breakout rooms to talk. I gave them group projects on the weekend with a social component: I would ask them to choose a film or music video that best exemplified what we were going to read and talk about in the next week.

Distraction, loneliness and more

It wasn’t all roses. Zoom teaching takes more energy from me. And an hour and 20 minutes on Zoom is a long time. Student face the challenge of distraction. So you have to say, don’t look at your phones, don’t check your email. They face the challenges of loneliness and infantilization. Many—not all—were back in their families’ homes last spring. And frankly, we were all scared. The world felt like it was coming undone. I provided some scaffolding. I urged them to arrange, at 8 at night, with four or five of their friends, to study together on Zoom, just the way they would have done in Frost Library. I felt that my students needed me more than ever. And I confess I needed them more than ever. One student said at the end of the semester how much she had appreciated what she called “the touch of the normal world” that our class represented.

What students need most

Students want faculty to reach out to them, to realize there’s a difference between being in a classroom on a college campus and being home alone confronting moments of doubt: “I can’t understand this reading; it must be me.” The effort to stay in touch with students, send them emails, check in—those are things that I think we all do when we’re teaching on campus but we all really need to do when we’re teaching virtually. This year we’re asking students to talk about what it’s like to be learning remotely, because even students who are on campus, some number of their classes are remote.

Summer school for faculty

More than 90 percent of the faculty spent the summer retooling their courses, meeting weekly to hear about tricks and best practices in online teaching, to talk with each other, to become communities of learners. The best thing I did this summer was I took a class about teaching online, online. So I experienced what it’s like to be a student, sitting in my living room alone, not having anybody nod or smile when I say something. I experienced the disconnection. I think we’re all going to end up being better teachers, more inventive, more creative, more resilient, more responsive to our students.

Making larger classes work

Everybody who’s teaching a class with 35 students or more has worked with an online-education company called 2U to learn techniques for making a larger classes work in the way that Amherst classes always work—that is, to produce an intense, engaged and inspiring learning experience. We want to use Zoom time wisely. That means larger classes are doing a lot of things asynchronously. We’ve learned that shorter videos work better than longer videos. We’ve learned the virtue of discussion groups. Some of the most inventive, inspiring examples have come from STEM colleagues. They’ve found ways to do virtual labs, to get students as close as possible to the in-person experience of a lab science.