June 18, 2024

Instructors at UT discuss educational transition brought on by COVID-19

University of Tennessee students have expressed their challenges and problems with COVID-19. Now its the instructor’s turn. Instructors at UT offer input on their experiences with the changes brought on by COVID-19.

Professor Glenn Reynolds teaching his online courses.

COVID-19 has changed the face of college campuses across the United States. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville is no exception.

Most of the coverage has focused on the challenges students are facing, leaving out the experiences of their instructors. However, professors have been working diligently to comply with new COVID-19 regulations and striving to find the best way to educate students.

“Workloads are magnified for everyone.”

“Its been rough, more so on many of my colleagues than it has been for me,” said Bob Hutton, a senior lecturer in the Department of History. “In many ways, we’ve had to reinvent the wheel when it comes to classroom dynamics, and when you’re mid-career, that’s not easy.”

Instructors have not just had to switch from typical in-class learning to online and hybrid courses. They have also had to alter their style of teaching in some cases.

Glenn Reynolds is a distinguished professor for the UT College of Law. Reynolds has spent substantial time and effort in order to ensure his ongoing best efforts in the classroom.  When classes switched to remote learning in the spring Reynolds set up a high-end webcam to teach his classes.

However, this semester he decided he wanted to do better.

“I have three video cameras and a switch box the law school provided that lets me switch between them…a nice USB lapel mic and a black backdrop for a Ted-talk ambiance and I’m in business,” said Reynolds. “I also set up a teleprompter-type see-through mirror reflecting a monitor so that I’m looking straight into the camera while I’m interacting with students, instead of looking down at the laptop.”

While some instructors have gone above and beyond, others are keeping it simple.

Arjun Banerjee is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science. Banerjee asked his students what would be best for their education after the switch to remote learning in the spring.

“I took an unofficial poll about some key elements of how I should be teaching from my then students. We agreed to have me add audio clips to my [Powerpoints],” Banerjee said. “I have moved completely online now and continue to teach that way.”

“Just keep teaching.”

Distinguished Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics, Jeneva Clark, has also undergone changes brought about by the pandemic.

“Workloads are magnified for everyone,” Clark said. “Each deadline we have or exam to give feels like a small race and our adrenaline helps us cross the finish line.”

Clark recently wrote an article for the American Mathematics Society Journal titled “Larger Lessons of a Pandemic: Anchored in Pixar Films,” aimed at young and new math instructors.

She used themes in Pixar to relate to instructors and the new challenges they face due to the pandemic.

“Each instructor needed to make decisions about what made sense for them, their students, and the mathematics they teach. Each person had to figure out what it should look like to ‘just keep teaching’ even in a pandemic. Resilience is often valiantly flawed and beautifully imperfect, but it doesn’t give up,” Clark wrote.

“The most difficult challenge is making sure all students are still engaged.”

In addition to the chaos of educational transition, some instructors are wearing multiple hats during this shift. Rochelle Nelson is a Master Advisor and lecturer for the College of Communication and Information. She teaches a section of CMST 210 as well as work as a full-time advisor. Both positions have brought about changes for Nelson.

“I felt comfortable entering into the fall term. Now, that isn’t to say that being online hasn’t presented opportunities for me to stretch my thinking, but overall with the support I have received as an instructor and an academic advisor, I can say as a non-technical person that it has actually gone very smoothly,” Nelson said

Every instructor and student has had a different experience with COVID- 19. However, it is the Volunteer spirit for every Vol, including instructors, to persevere through difficult times.

“The current circumstances certainly present some unique challenges, but it’s nothing insurmountable and there definitely are people in the world dealing with bigger issues,” Hemant Sharma, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, said. “I’m not great at making videos, and editing out the moments where I curse at the screen has probably been the most time-consuming thing. Beyond that, the most difficult challenge is making sure that all students are still engaged with the material and keeping up with their work.”

“They deserve a lot of credit.”

The instructors also made comments on how UT handled the pandemic from March to the present.

“​I communicate online with math faculty from institutions around the world, and I participate in many forums where math faculty discuss teaching. Through those means, I know that our institution has shown more care for students and devoted more resources to student needs than most, if not all, the others I have heard about,” said Jeneva Clark. “For example, when we transitioned to online learning last spring, UT provided laptops and hotspots for students who needed them. After a tornado knocked out power for one of my students, UT overnighted a hotspot to her. This type of service was unheard of and was unique to UT. Most other universities could only invite students to come park in their parking lot to take advantage of on-campus wifi. UT did much much more for students.”

Sharma made similar comments about the way UT handled the pandemic.

“Overall the University has done an excellent job…I know that is the result of a lot of hard work on the part of department heads, department administrative assistants and many others,” said Hemant Sharma. “The maintenance staff and cleaning crews have been fantastic as well. They deserve a lot of credit.”

“We are giving our best effort.”

Education certainly looks different this year, but the world is not pausing for people to catch up. Professors and students alike have had to roll with the onslaught of punches from COVID-19. However, that doesn’t make their work any less valuable.

New ways of teaching, learning and even living have also emerged. Even so, Rochelle Nelson feels not all of the changes have been negative.

“I think there is a greater sense of community as a result of so many of us, students, faculty and staff, all facing a common new experience together. I feel there has been a great deal of grace given by all of us to one another in understanding that it may not all be perfect, but that we are giving our best effort,” Nelson said.

Edited by Donna Mitchell and Maddie Torres

Featured Photograph Courtesy of Glenn Reynolds