February 23, 2021

When in-person teaching slammed to a halt in March 2020, Louisa Johnson, an instructor at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, felt bereft.

“I was mid-divorce,” said Johnson, who teaches improvisation to scientists to help them become better listeners and to better engage audiences. (Like all the comments in this article, Johnson’s were submitted in writing and have been lightly edited.) “Teaching had been a much-needed respite from the toxic world of custody disputes, financial negotiations, and the deep feelings of guilt and shame that accompany the end of a marriage.”

She managed to get through the rest of the spring semester, and over a lonely summer, she looked forward to forging new connections with students in her fall classes. But once her classes began, all of them taught synchronously on Zoom, she felt she wasn’t getting through: “Teaching during COVID felt like trying to drive a car through a flood,” she said. “I was pumping the gas and barely moving.

“My personal situation made me sensitive to the emotions my students might be experiencing,” she added, but her classes felt sluggish. “If anything, I felt even more disconnected from my students. I wondered what it could be.”

Gradually, she stopped trying to replicate in-person teaching “word for word,” as she put it. “Instead of going exercise by exercise, I looked at the day’s lesson plan and asked myself what I was trying to convey overall,” she said. “Maybe the question shouldn’t be ‘How do we teach students over Zoom,’ but rather ‘How do we connect with students over Zoom?’”

Johnson’s epiphany — that successful remote teaching means bridging the gap between teachers and students as human beings — emerged as a common thread in discussions among journalism and communication instructors at Stony Brook nearly a year after the pandemic began. For some, that realization meant finding a new balance between planning classes and improvising in the classroom. For others, it meant reaching out for pedagogical support and engaging with colleagues to share ideas about activities.

For Elizabeth Bojsza, coming to terms with remote teaching demanded a complete rethinking of her syllabus.

For Josh Rice, it meant “leading with empathy.”

For George Giokas, it meant building the teacher-student relationship in new ways.

“Teaching dozens of students without the benefit of seeing how they enter a room, choose their seats, open their backpacks, interact with their friends or even sneak a bag of chips takes the wind out of being able to connect,” Giokas said. “Those personal, seemingly mundane acts help establish a rapport that is way too hard to emulate on screen.”

And for Karen Masterson, a science journalist who left Stony Brook in May and started her new job at the University of Richmond with hybrid in-person and remote classes, immersion in online training in pedagogy led her “to follow the advice of others by creating an ecosystem driven by student interests.”

“I’ve logged about 20 hours in synchronous and asynchronous training sessions and can say that at least 75% of what was taught I found either very useful or somewhat useful,” Masterson said. “Even simple suggestions changed my approach to online teaching.” Among her top takeaways: always be physically upbeat in Zoom, be “hyper organized” with material, and help easily distracted students stay on top of the workload by reminding them of important instructions and deadlines in class, via online instructional management systems such as Blackboard, and by email.

Like many university instructors, Masterson was hired for her content expertise and had little training in pedagogy. The pandemic moved her to seek help in teaching remotely. (Anecdotally, enrollment in professional development courses about online teaching appears to have increased in the past year, but little hard data has been published.)

Whether through formal training or simply a dawning awareness, many instructors say they are thinking more deeply about learning and student centeredness. As students increasingly express concerns about their own mental and emotional health during 2020’s pandemic, economic downturn and racial reckoning, instructors are finding new ways to be flexible. They are grappling with how to balance their expanded role — teacher, mentor, friend — with conveying content, and where to draw the lines among these roles.

For Bojsza, who, like Johnson, teaches improvisation to scientists, rethinking her role began with rethinking her syllabus. “It was a revelation when I realized how differently my online students experienced my syllabus compared to how it landed in a face-to-face class,” she recalled in December 2020. Like many faculty, she had used and reused a syllabus template over almost 20 years of teaching.

“Like a snowball, it gathered the tweaks in policy and language I made each semester,” she said, with sternly worded sections on attendance, classroom etiquette and plagiarism, all aimed at cultivating a tough first impression.

“Throughout, this syllabus for the ‘before times’ used third-person point-of-view,” Bojsza noted. “ I was ‘the instructor’ to ‘the students.’ This gave the syllabus its own identity separate from me.” And every semester, classes would begin with a full performative event: The Reading of the Syllabus.

On Day One of those Before Times in-person classes, “We had a set, we had costumes, we had background noise and fluorescent lighting, and we had the ability to see actions through body language,” said Bojsza, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts in theater. “The text may be harsh, but my tone in speaking telegraphed reassurance, curiosity, openness. At least that was the intent behind that play that reprised on every first day for the past two decades.”

By chance, Bojsza had registered for a course in online pedagogy with Stony Brook’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, or CELT, just before the pandemic hit in March. Like Masterson, she found much that was useful, particularly the “Community of Inquiry” approach, which comprises three broad types of “presence” required for effective learning online: social presence, which includes interactions between students; cognitive presence, which includes engagement with the subject matter; and teaching presence, which includes the experience of facilitating and shaping the learning experience.

With that new focus, Bojsza challenged herself to create a syllabus infused with “teaching presence.” The result: a syllabus for asynchronous classes that is “the written expression of my careful thinking and planning about the course.”

“It lays out how learning experiences are scaffolded, details how students will receive feedback and be assessed, and communicates how the activities I have chosen connect to the learning outcomes in the course,” Bojsza said. “In tone, I want my syllabus to smile. … My students won’t be able to see me, but they should see the teaching behind the words, and hopefully feel they are in good hands.”

There is no more “instructor” and “students” — it is “me” and “you”: “Rather than stating what will happen if a student does NOT do something, I focus on motivating students,” she said.

Johnson and Bojsza’s colleague Josh Rice used his background in improv to “co-create togetherness.” Improv, he noted, calls for “intent listening. It requires an abandonment of planning, and an embrace of the present moment.”

“Transparency, vulnerability, and individual and collective check-ins have become routine,” Rice said. “Allowing the students a safe space to be seen, but also allowing them to see me as a person going through the same things, has allowed for meaningful dialogue and connection.

“Deadlines have become ‘alivelines’— flexible and accommodating to unforeseen circumstances.”

Other journalism and communication faculty at Stony Brook offered these reflections on the transition to online teaching, both synchronous and asynchronous:

  • Trim the fat. Cut extraneous items from lectures, and clarify lesson outcomes at the start of each class. Change news quizzes to news discussions. For asynchronous classes, post modules early. Have students post written responses before synchronous recitation classes for reference during discussions. Drop the midterm, and base assessments on weekly work. (Jonathan Anzalone, lecturer in news literacy)
  • For larger lecture/discussion classes, consider a combined synchronous/asynchronous method: over two class sessions each week: For the asynchronous class meeting, assign readings and short reaction papers to which the instructor responds, in writing, during class time. On the other day, lecture for about 40 minutes and hold an all-class discussion. Pablo Calvi, a journalism professor who writes about literary journalism, began a new 30-student course on the journalism of the Global South in Fall 2020 and found that method worked well. Most students turned in their reaction papers on time and were ready and eager for discussions at the next class meeting, Calvi said.
  • Be constantly aware of the mood and tone of the class. Throw out planned lectures or fancy PowerPoints when the students grab an issue and run with it. Change deadlines on assignments when you sense the class is under a lot of pressure, and even drop an assignment or two. Flexibility without compromising the class outcomes is key. (George Giokas, veteran journalist and journalism lecturer)
  • Hold Zoom office hours. (Claire Holesovsky, science communication specialist)
  • Focus on student safety during reporting assignments. Change expectations to match the realities of students’ resources away from campus. Relax attendance requirements, but hold regular check-ins. Make students aware of university mental health support resources. Use communication tools such as Slack and Google Documents. Emphasize collaboration. During a crisis, focus students’ journalistic efforts on making an impact. (J.D. Allen, audio journalist and lecturer)

How will what we’re learning from remote teaching inform our in-person practices when it is safe to return to physical classrooms? Perhaps we will retain our deeper connection to students’ whole selves.

As Johnson signed off for Thanksgiving break, she emailed her students to wish them a happy holiday and to offer her personal phone number, “just in case any of them happened to be alone and feeling sad,” she said.

“It was my first Thanksgiving away from my children as well as my parents, and my own feelings of grief surprised me, so I thought it might be worth the gesture,” she recalled. “Nobody replied, and Thanksgiving went by without a call or text from any of them, which I hoped meant they were all with people who loved them.”

She thought no more of it until the final class meeting two weeks later. As she wrapped up and bade her students farewell, with promises of grades to be posted within a week, a student asked to share her screen. Up popped a video of the students singing “an adorably off-key” rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Johnson and thanking her for the class.

“Nobody mentioned anything too specific, and nobody thanked me for the communication tactics I’d imparted to them, but they did thank me for sending my phone number on Thanksgiving,” she said. “The past year has been scary, exhausting, and relentless — and as educators, it’s a good time to ask ourselves what our students really need. I spent an entire semester trying my damnedest to teach improv-based science communication over a computer screen, and what left the greatest impression was a small gesture of empathy.”

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Barbara Selvin is an associate professor of journalism at Stony Brook University. Previously, she was a reporter for Newsday and New York Newsday, covering real…
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