For History Department Chair Bob Weinberg, the transition to remote learning was an ongoing process. “There was a steep learning curve, but it got easier with each week,” he said before pausing.
“I hope to never do it again because that’s not what you’re paying $70,000 a year for at Swarthmore.”
Swarthmore has opened its campus to all students for the Fall 2021 semester, though it has kept stringent COVID-19 restrictions mandating face-coverings in all indoor spaces and limiting student gatherings in place. Fully vaccinated students and employees are also required to undergo biweekly testing. During the 2020-2021 academic year, the college joined many of its peer institutions in holding remote classes while welcoming staggered groups of students on campus. Now, amid increasing concerns about the Delta variant, professors are adjusting to a fully residential campus and reflecting on a year of remote learning.
“People are social creatures,” said sociology Professor Daniel Laurison in an interview with The Phoenix. “I’m sure that we don’t perceive ourselves and each other in the same way when people are little boxes on a screen.” Laurison was on sabbatical through August 2020 and began teaching remotely in September 2020. He taught two courses during the Fall semester from his basement office in Philadelphia.
“In a lot of ways it was better than expected, we often had good discussions; I got a good sense of my students.” Still, Laurison acknowledges that something was lacking. “There’s just a sort of energy that you get [in the classroom] that you miss on Zoom.”
At the beginning of the Spring 2021 semester, Swarthmore administration held workshops to prepare for the transition and gave professors who taught remotely during the Fall a space to share insights into what worked and what didn’t.
“Much of the advice I received suggested that smaller classes worked better,” said Professor Emily Paddon-Rhoads, who taught three sections of Introduction to International Relations in Fall 2020. In Spring 2021, Paddon-Rhoads taught African Politics, which initially was hybrid with thirteen in-person students and five participating synchronously over Zoom.
“The class was largely discussion-based and ensuring proper audio proved tricky,” Paddon-Rhoads said. About four weeks into the course, Paddon-Rhoads split the class into two groups — one in-person and one remote, which she found worked better.
Weinberg echoed Paddon-Rhoads’s frustrations about the technological limitations of Zoom.
“Only one person can talk at a time; people are less engaged, less present.” Weinberg also suggests that so-called “Zoom fatigue” was experienced differently by professors and their students, “I could sense they got tired quicker than I did; we had maybe one or two courses a week and they could have had as many as three or four a day,” he said.
The pandemic led Laurison to reconsider his feelings about Swarthmore’s emphasis on academic rigor, which can often mean demanding workloads for students.
“The bigger thing that changed for me was the approach that Swarthmore and other elite colleges take, which is that more work is always better, and I re-thought that a lot.”
Paddon-Rhoads also adjusted her syllabi to accommodate for the different reality of remote learning.
“I cut a few [assignments] and tried to be realistic about what was feasible in a shorter semester,” she said.
Even against a backdrop of uncertainty and loss, professors experienced moments of learning and growth.
“It pared things down to the essential,” said Paddon-Rhoads.
Laurison found an improved sense of focus.
“I got better at working in my home office and not getting distracted and that’s definitely a skill,” he said.
So far, the transition to a fully residential model seems to have aligned with the expectations of the college’s administration. There hasn’t been a significant outbreak and only fifteen students and nine staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the semester out of 5,377 administered tests — a 0.2% total positivity rate. Since the start of the Fall semester, Swarthmore’s positivity rates are similar to similarly-sized schools in the region and slightly lower than larger universities in the Philadelphia area. University of Pennsylvania and Temple University, for instance, are reporting total positivity rates of 0.36 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.
Three of the fifteen students at Swarthmore who have tested positive since August are in courses taught by economics professor Mark Kuperberg.
“I’m only teaching 20 students and I have three positive cases, [with] what’s going on here […] I feel like Charlie Brown,” he joked.
Kuperberg thinks that many of the cases among the student body are linked to off-campus events. He suggests that creating more of a closed campus and limiting student freedom to travel might reduce cases further and allow the college to relax internal restrictions on parties and social events.
“Professors think that the point of the college is education; I realize that we’re deluded,” he said, laughing. “Whatever we can do to maximize the education even if we’re minimizing the partying, I’m in favor of that.”
Still, he acknowledges the complications enforcing travel restrictions might pose. “It’s tough because of girlfriends [and] boyfriends … it’s a problem, there’s no perfect solution.”
He also opposes the college’s religious exemption for vaccination.
“I am against it in principle and I feel strongly about it,” he said.
The COVID-19 Planning Group announced that the college has approved religious or medical exemptions to fewer than ten employees and fewer than fifteen students in a campus-wide email sent on September 27.
The emergence and strength of the Delta variant has tempered summertime optimism about an imminent return to normalcy. With the threat of a sudden outbreak or uptick in cases prompting a return to remote learning, Laurison thinks a “take two” of Zoom learning might need to look different.
“We’d need to really rethink our class schedules and especially class sizes,” he said.
Paddon-Rhoads has deeper concerns about how the pandemic has accelerated technology’s place in our lives and the implications for human connection.
“I worry about what it could mean for the future. It’s great that my kids can talk to their grandparents on FaceTime, but that’s not a replacement for spending time in person,” she said.
Weinberg is hopeful that advancing technology could ease the process.
“Maybe when technology gets better we can overcome some of the limitations of Zoom and allow multiple people to speak at once without silencing each other, for example.”
For now, Laurison is glad to be back in the classroom.
“A lot of my reaction to online teaching is still ‘phew, I don’t have to do that again.’”