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For faculty, a semester of challenge, creativity and resilience

A fall term defined by COVID-19 has been anything but normal, as professors work to modify curriculum and meet the needs of students — and double check the WiFi connection.
bernard means at a lectern teaching during the covid pandemic

Right: In addition to running a laboratory that 3D prints ancient artifacts, Bernard Means is teaching four hybrid instruction classes this fall, with students attending in person and virtually. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Throughout VCU this fall, professors and students have found creative ways to continue their work. It has not been easy. While the abrupt pivot to online learning in March was a case of remote emergency instruction and shifting quickly to virtual classrooms, the summer and fall have been about adapting for the long run and modifying curriculum for a hybrid learning environment that will extend at least through the first half of 2021.

Still, ingenuity among faculty and students has allowed for some of the ordinary rhythms of daily university life to return, even though things look different. VCU News spoke with faculty in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and schools of Nursing, World Studies, PharmacyBusiness and Arts about their experiences this fall, and the challenges, issues and successes they are having as they teach in an extraordinary time. [This post includes only faculty from the College of Humanities and Sciences. Visit the full VCU News feature to learn about teaching ingenuity from across the university.]

Bernard Means, School of World Studies

Many professors at VCU — including Austin — are proof that adjusting to the pandemic is not as simple as recording a lecture and uploading it to an online class discussion board. Bernard K. Means, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, had multiple concerns when it came to adapting to the coronavirus protocols on campus. Besides teaching classes, Means runs a laboratory that 3D prints ancient artifacts.

“It’s been challenging,” he said.

bernard means at a lectern teaching a class during the covid pandemic
Bernard Means in the classroom. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Means shut down his lab on March 19 and was not able to return until June 16. He had to develop a safety plan for undergraduate students, student workers and interns to operate in the lab. He had to space the machines and workspaces far enough apart and make sure supplies to operate the machines did not get cross contaminated with the virus.

He has found a way to run the lab, but believes students are not getting the same experience. He had to limit access to some machines because they are hard to clean. And students are not able to go to museums and other locations to conduct research and meet museum professionals because many museums are closed or have limited access.

Means is teaching four classes this fall. Three are in person and online where the students can log on to the lecture when they want. His other class, an anthropology capstone course, is in person and the online component is live because students are required to participate.

Overall, Means said the process is working, but he emphasized that it requires a lot of time to teach online and in person. He produces videos outside of class for the students who are learning online.

“I tried recording my lectures live with a mask but the mic was muted too much,” Means said. “You couldn’t make out what I was saying. So I have to do all the lectures in advance. That has really been one of the biggest issues for me.” 

In general, Means said he and other faculty are adapting, but the learning environment is challenging for the students, especially since some are not in Richmond. He talked about a project in his “Death and Burial” class where one of the students is living in California. For the class, students go to a cemetery and study burial plots. The goal is to understand how social positions play a role in where a person is buried.

“I went out and my interns went out and we took lots of photos,” Means said. “We put them online and I told the students, ‘Try to do what you can.’ It’s different because a big part of Hollywood Cemetery is how the landscape controls the way the story is being told.”

Means said he often thinks about his time as a college student and how talking directly to professors and fellow students was such an important part of the learning experience. The students who are online do not get that experience, and that can take away from the overall university experience, he said.

“Some aspects of socializing that are really important to learn in person are not there.”

Veronica Garabelli, Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture

The pandemic has not only meant trying new things for classroom instruction. Capital News Service, which produces stories for more than 100 clients across the state, including The Associated Press, has had to take a new approach to coverage.

“We want to cover certain events, but we have restrictions due to COVID,” said Veronica Garabelli, co-director of Capital News Service and a journalism instructor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Things you would have covered in the past, you have to cover differently now.”

Reaching sources is also more challenging. “We usually encourage students to call or meet in person, but due to COVID-19 we don’t require them to meet in person. Now we encourage doing interviews over the phone and on Zoom, email is the last resort,” Garabelli said.

Students are getting more creative in how they reach out to sources, tapping into social media outlets and crowdsourcing, she said.

“They are being resilient,” Garabelli said. “I’ve been impressed with how they have adapted. I think they are proactive about working around the challenges that come up.”

Those themes — of being resilient, adapting and struggling together through difficult circumstances — have resurfaced constantly in interviews throughout the semester. Caldas, the pharmacy professor, said it has been a year of “reevaluating priorities, not only in my teaching but in my life.”

Sitting in her home office in Hanover County in late October, she reflected on a semester that has pushed her to rethink her classes and the needs of her students — and has stretched her as a teacher, parent and person.

“You are sitting there and asking ‘What does the student need to learn and how do I deliver it to them?’” she said. “That’s something we had to really consider: how to work around individuals’ lives. And the same thing with having [your own] life in the background: ‘OK, I am going to have to pick my kids up at 2 p.m. today, because the after-school program has limited space and limited transportation.’ And, ‘It’s OK if I’m not on campus, as long as my WiFi is working.’”

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