Evaluating a Turbulent Year: YU Professors Reflect on 2020
There seems to be a consensus that 2020 was an “unprecedented year.” For months, YU students turned to social media and student publications, including The Commentator, to express concerns about their academic and social lives that arose as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Professors, however, have thus far not had the opportunity to share their thoughts on what it was like to teach during a pandemic. We reached out to 18 professors from both campuses –– representing a wide range of academic departments –– who shared their reflections on 2020 with The Commentator. Here are their thoughts on what the other side of Zoom is like.
When the university went virtual in early March, professors were left to grapple with transitioning to online learning while maintaining an interactive and engaging class format. At first, back in Spring 2020, many professors simply aimed to complete the suddenly virtual semester on time, which they found “challenging” and “stressful,” yet also “rewarding.” “At that point,” shared Prof. Rachel Mesch, department chair of the Yeshiva College (YC) English Department, “my concern was to maintain the intellectual community we had been building and to support the students,” as well as “stay connected.” As it became clear that the fall semester would take place remotely as well, professors’ attitudes shifted, as they worked on providing a “more rich and satisfactory experience” than “Zoom school,” as Political Science Prof. Maria Zaitseva put it.
Overall, it appears that professors were cognizant of how their students were feeling. “In many ways the students rose to the occasion and brought their best selves to class over Zoom,” said Prof. Ronnie Perelis, who teaches Jewish History at YC, Stern College for Women (SCW) and Revel, yet other times he “felt that the upheaval and uncertainty of Covid weighed on them heavily.” Apart from the academic and technical difficulties, many students and faculty members had close family members and friends who were suffering from coronavirus –– medically and financially. Mesch noted that it “was painful to deal with and not really talked about” in the classroom.
Prof. Herb Leventer, who teaches philosophy at SCW, pointed to a phenomenon of widespread depression. He “sympathized much more” with his own students when he found himself “being late in handing back student papers, and watching Netflix and reading mystery novels instead of preparing” classes halfway through the term. “I imagined how much more depressed my students must feel, living cooped up with their siblings 24/7 and harried parents juggling tight schedules while keeping the household functioning,” he said.
Indeed, remote learning produced a wide range of novel issues for faculty. When asked, professors indicated that shortened student attention spans, time difference complications and interruptions by their own family members or roommates were the top three challenges they faced.
A handful of professors opened up about their struggles balancing teaching and taking care of small children at home. One professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Commentator that students took “advantage of the online learning environment,” citing students’ inattention, lack of integrity and “suspicious behavior” while completing assignments. Other professors pointed to more technical obstacles, such as no longer being able to help students visualize concepts by drawing on a physical board or being able to make proper eye contact with students. “I want every student in my class to feel seen and valued,” said Prof. Joy Ladin of the SCW English Department. “Zoom makes that very difficult.”
Acknowledging these challenges, many professors highlighted their efforts to provide students with an enriching experience. Prof. Alan Broder, chair of the computer science department at SCW, has been using high-end video mixing equipment, including a green screen and a physical white board, to make it easier for students to understand computer science concepts. He also used Zoom’s built-in features, such as breakout rooms and poll questions to add interactive elements to his class format. Many professors added small breaks to the regular class schedule and adjusted their syllabi to meet their students’ needs.
Most respondents taught synchronous classes via Zoom this past fall semester, and will continue to do so in Spring 2021. Only a handful will be teaching synchronously with some asynchronous or in-person elements, and not a single professor we reached out to will be teaching completely in-person this upcoming spring semester. Other professors, however, will reportedly be returning to campus in the spring. Sociology Prof. Daniel Kimmel said that he credits YU “for not trying to strong-arm” professors into in-person teaching. Kimmel told The Commentator that his supervisors asked him what format he was comfortable with and “respected those preferences.”
Some professors shared that they will be incorporating elements of the 2020 academic year into their future teaching styles, even post-pandemic. “I hope to take along some of the new habits I’ve picked up,“ said Prof. Lori Linzer of the Wilf Hebrew Department, referring to more flexible office hours conducted via Zoom and using Canvas to administer assignments. “Saving paper is a pleasure, and I’m enjoying not trying to decipher illegible handwriting!” she added.
Nevertheless, nearly all professors agreed that overall, the 2020 academic year was less enjoyable and that they look forward to returning to traditional teaching. “I can't believe I miss the crowded elevator at 215 Lex!” said Prof. Seamus O’Malley of the Beren English Department. One professor noted Zoom class was “a flat, and dull way of teaching. I know that students didn't learn as much as they had in previous semesters.”
Unusual teaching circumstances also offered a unique opportunity for professors and their students to become better acquainted with each other’s personal lives. “I had [students’] parents, friends and girlfriends listening in on my class,” said Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, who teaches Judaic classes on Wilf. “It's nice to connect more holistically with student's lives.” Another professor shared that “during an evening class last Spring, my 4 year old son ran out of the bath and right into my lap while I was teaching!”
Since universities across the country have adapted to remote learning, students are concerned that they may never be able to return to a proper, in-person, socially and academically enriching university campus when the pandemic is over. When asked whether the pandemic has shaped higher education forever, professors addressed quite a vast array of issues. Rabbi Shalom Carmy, professor of Jewish Philosophy and Bible on Wilf, pointed to a national trend of the devaluation of Liberal Arts. “Liberal arts claimed to offer extra value for face to face learning. [I’m] not sure that most professors enact this, or that all who give it lip service are ready to deliver,” he told The Commentator. He hopes that “our school can do better to resist the trend and to defy the fashion.”
Despite those concerns, most professors emphasized that the pandemic had, in fact, highlighted the necessity of in-person instruction. “There will surely be the temptation to switch away from in-person teaching, but that is clearly second-best,” said Leventer. “Much of the learning that occurs in college is from other students, in face-to-face casual conversations. This is mostly lost online,” he added. Prof. Marnin Young, chair of the Beren Art History Department, agreed, emphasizing that “traditional education offered by universities is now clearer than ever.” Perelis pointed to the practical advantages of virtual components, predicting that Zoom will offer an alternate option for students who are feeling ill or are unable to attend in-person. This, Perelis said, will also “be true for cultural events on campus.”
The vast majority of professors who shared their reflections expressed appreciation towards their students for their handling of remote learning. “I want my students to know that I very much miss teaching in person, and I know how difficult it is for them to learn via Zoom,“ said Broder. “Overall I was very impressed with the level of engagement of my students,” he added. Bashevkin said that his expectations of his students were “exceeded by miles.” Prof. Lauren Fitzgerald, who teaches English studies at Wilf, echoed Broder’s sentiments. “I have been so impressed with the resiliency of the students and faculty I've been in contact with since March,” remarked Fitzgerald. “I've been humbled by what I've seen and heard about.”
As YU students approach yet another semester of mostly remote learning, perhaps professors’ encouraging words will boost their morale. “We're all in this together, friends. If you're having trouble, come to us,” said Kimmel. “We know this isn't easy; it's not easy for us either. We'll do anything we can to help make things work,” he added. In a similar vein, Ladin remarked, “your professors know how hard it is to maintain attention and concentration on Zoom (it's hard for us too!), and how hard it is to focus and work with all the stresses of the pandemic on top of the usual stresses of school, and we are proud of you!”
Editor’s Note: The author would like to express her thanks to all professors who took the time to share their thoughts with The Commentator. All responses directly contributed to her research for this piece.
Photo Caption: Assistant Dean Shoshana Schechter holds an in-person class while remote students tune in via Zoom.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University