Barry McNamara  |   Published April 08, 2020

Professors Learn a New Way to ‘Zoom’

Teaching remote classes gives College’s professors interesting opportunities to present information and ideas.
  • Holding spring classes via Zoom has given professors new opportunities to present information and new ideas to discuss and explore.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – “Zoom” is the word of the moment in higher education.

For some Monmouth College faculty members, “Zoom” takes them back to their youth and a popular children’s education show on PBS. But today it describes one piece of the technology they are using to continue to educate their students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A month ago, for me, Zoom was an old PBS show,” said philosophy professor Anne Mamary of the TV series that originally aired in the 1970s. “When I hear ‘Zoom,’ I want to burst into its theme song.”

The 21st century Zoom is the video communication platform used by several Monmouth professors, as well as by administrators and staff, to hold virtual meetings while the College observes remote learning and working.

“(Instructional Technology Manager) Kyle Martin has been extremely helpful,” said Mamary, who went to both of Martin’s Zoom training workshops and contacted him several times for help as she spent countless hours getting acquainted with the platform during the two weeks she had to prepare for online teaching. “And my friends were extremely patient with me as I did test online sessions with them.”

Mamary is not alone in being new to Zoom. While giving his advertising students an assignment that turned into an open letter to the campus community (read here), Tom Prince told students it was his first time using Zoom to deliver a lesson.

Other professors, including Jennifer Thorndike from the modern foreign languages, literatures and cultures department, use Zoom to hold virtual office hours for students.

A glimpse of campus

Mamary conducts her Zoom sessions in her Wallace Hall classroom or her office in Weeks House, rather than from home. She said that gives her the advantage of “making it feel familiar to the students.”

“One day, I showed them a dusting of snow on the campus,” she said. “A lot of them are just plain missing the physical environment of Monmouth College.”

Mamary said that’s understandable, and one of the students in her class on the Harry Potter series, which she is teaching this semester, made that point with his discussion of the Hogwarts Great Hall in J.K. Rowling’s series.

“The Great Hall is almost like a character in Harry Potter, and that’s really the way the Monmouth College campus is for our students,” she said. “The physical embrace of the campus means so much to them. So it’s kind of like a ‘welcome home’ for them for one hour.”

Mamary said current times call to mind other similarities with the Harry Potter series.

“There are really some interesting parallels there, which my students enjoy pointing out,” she said. “One is the idea of fighting an invisible enemy – whether Voldemort or the COVID-19 virus – and empowering students to learn the facts, to take action, to be careful and compassionate actors, both personally and politically.”

Mamary noted that students in her other classes are also making connections between course material and current events. Her environmental ethics and contemporary philosophy students have discussed the reduction in air and water pollution as people stay home and wonder if we might be able to come back online in more sustainable ways.

Mamary, who graduated in 1986 from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, knows that not all of her students can attend every class over Zoom because of other pressures created by the pandemic.

“I feel awful that some of them can’t join class, because they have to work because their parents are laid off, or they don’t have good Internet connections,” she said. “How would we have done this back when we were in college? I don’t think we could have.”

New teaching priorities

Like Mamary, Thorndike tries to keep students’ welfare in mind with her new approach.

“I give them assignments they can do that week, usually with a deadline of Sunday,” she said. “That’s different from what I normally do, which is to have assignments due every one or two days. I think it’s important to extend deadlines during this time because it’s a strange situation and I don’t want to make them feel that much pressure.”

Thorndike is teaching two Spanish classes – one for beginners and one at the intermediate level – as well as an introduction to cultural analysis course. She asks herself a simple question before each session.

“What’s the most relevant thing I want them to learn? I prioritize that way, because there’s not enough time to teach everything,” she said. “This is an exceptional situation, and we’re trying to do this together. I think we’re going to learn a lot from this. I know I’m using things in class that I never thought of using before.”

Thorndike knows students miss being on campus, and she and her colleagues wish they were teaching them in person.

“I miss being in class. I miss my students,” she said. “I’m hoping when this semester is done that the students will feel they managed and that they got something out of it.”

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