Walking into the Mauney 115 classroom on Thursday, March 12, 2020, for my 8 a.m. class, I believed I was about to experience something that I had never felt in my four-decades plus college teaching career. Much trepidation was looming in the air, though it appeared the students weren’t sure what was to come to fruition. Many times I had closed out a term, semester, or academic year by virtually skipping into class as I, and the students, prepared for some much needed time off. But this was different. My gut feeling told me it was possibly the last time I would see many of these students, even though we still had more than half of the semester remaining leading up to the planned graduation date – but I didn’t believe there would be any graduation festivities on the planned date, May 8.
While the conversations on campus had somewhat prepared faculty to be ready to shift seat-based classes to an outside-the-classroom course delivery, I found that students rejected the idea that there would be any need to change. They were ready for planned spring break trips and dismissed the concerns about a virus that could bring the campus, the state, and even the world to a screeching halt. The conversations I heard as I walked into class that morning were all about which beach, ski resort, or hometown they were about to visit.
But a sense of nervousness was in the air and the excitement was a bit subdued and stifled because students learned that the Japan Global Business Study Tour had been shifted to Europe just weeks ago, and then cancelled altogether. So there were palatable inklings of foreboding as students were aware some of their classmates’ trips were being affected. But equally evident was denial as the majority of conversations were still focusing upon the beach attire or snowboard purchases that had been made for scheduled spring break exits.
One young man was getting married on Saturday, in just two days, and his planned honeymoon to Puerto Rico was tenuous. International students were hearing from parents and friends that they needed to come home and that if they did, travel between countries was unstable at best because borders were being shuttered due to the virus that had started just a couple of months before in China.
I had been indicating in each of my classes that with spring break beginning on Friday, March 13, how appropriate that it was Friday the 13th by the way, that we may have to shift to a remote/online/distance platform for course delivery if COVID-19 continued to wreak havoc. But the air was still receptive that we would go away for a week and then reassemble with tales of “what I did on my spring break.”
But alas, my gut intuition was right; that what I feared on the near horizon would come to be and I would not see these students again except on my 13” Dell laptop screen. We not only didn’t reassemble in one week, spring break was extended an additional week, though the faculty soon discovered that it was an extra week off for students, not faculty. Faculty were being asked to establish remote/distance/online course assignments, discussions, etc. that met the Student Learning Outcomes for the course with appropriate metrics that would be ready to roll out though Canvas, our Learning Management System, in just one week. For those of us in the Charles M. Snipes School of Business & Economics, we had very few issues with the shift because most had already taught online, streamed, or hybrid classes. But that was not the case for others on campus. My classes were ready to go in Canvas once the elongated spring break concluded and the spring semester resumed, but I soon discovered there was one piece of the educational experience that was missing.
The dynamic that was missing was my direct contact with my students, as the majority of my classes through the 43 years of being a professor were in brick and mortar, seat-based classes. I am not ashamed to admit that I Missed My Students. I missed seeing them, reading their body language when they didn’t “get it,” and I missed the comfortable, face-to-face debates we would have for the “what ifs” and “whys” as I challenge my students to build defenses for their positions, not to provide lame, unsubstantiated opinions that had no firm foundations in statistics, facts, or research. I missed the direct contact with them; I realized that the pandemic was robbing me of that chemistry that teaching had provided to me through the years. While it wasn’t stunning to realize this, as I had long prided myself on connecting with my students whether through virtual or seat-based classes, I realized that the immediate interactions with these 80+ students were being taken away by an unseen interloper. I grasped that the COVID-19 virus was robbing me of the seat-based motivators for me over the last eight weeks with my students and I also soon realized that my students missed being in class as well.
For all classes, graduate as well as undergraduate courses, I assigned the first Forum Discussion post-spring break to be one where they could share how their lives were changing because of COVID-19. What I found in their reflections were candid revelations that they missed being in class; but more than that they shared that they were scared. The campus cocoon was no longer a protective coating for them, and they realized that while the extra week of spring break sounded exciting, they realized it came with a massive price.
The mechanics of the class had changed and that wasn’t all for the students but for me as well. I was a tool in their learning process as I set out to creatively and innovatively meet Student Learning Outcomes in a completely different modality than what was first positioned in January when classes began. Just two months earlier seemed like eons ago and yet it was only weeks ago. Campus looked like a ghost town and students were literally spread around the world as they dispersed to their homes across the globe. But again, I realized that I still was only a tool in student learning, as I also found myself taxed by the pandemic. With Zoom class meetings, advising sessions, or student consultations, I found that though I had my “Zoom half-suit” at the ready, students would Zoom into the sessions in their pajamas and literally in one instance, still under the covers. I found that some were not truly prepared for what remote learning would entail. And when I reached out to them, I also found that my ability to help them had to take different avenues and abilities. As an example, I asked for their addresses if they wished to share it and mailed each of them a personalized card with two balloons in the card. Why you may ask? To demonstrate that we can all lift each other up and share in what the pandemic has presented to us as students and as faculty. Many students noted this small gesture in their evaluations of the course for the Spring, which was somewhat surprising.
As we are now getting ready for fall in a few short weeks, we are also finding some anxiety and apprehension about what is before us. While remote learning is still an optional mode, the university is targeting for a full return to campus with adjusted interactions with students in amended class schedules. While I would find that I will be re-energized to see my students again, I also have found that the pandemic has reshaped the landscape of me as a linchpin, a nexus, in the educational process. It has restructured the conduit between the students and me, as well as how the verve which feeds my soul in my calling as a teacher is executed. However, I have found that what is needed in the instructional mechanics is the ability to develop and create cognizance, resolution, and kindness with vigor so that my students recognize I am upholding the integrity and tenets of my commitment to business higher education.
In that vein, I wrote a tribute to our graduates and posted it on my LinkedIn page. I wanted to share that, as suspected, they would not graduate on May 8 since the ceremony was cancelled. I shared in this tribute that the regalia we are accustomed to seeing in graduation ceremonies was actually replaced with the regalia of their skillsets they were equipped to take into the world of work. The dynamic between faculty and students is a two-way street; COVID-19 has taken a great deal from each of us in the higher education arena. But more than that, it has demonstrated that faculty and students both have a commitment to uphold the principles and objectives of quality business education.