The Art of Adaptation

Student studying in classroom
When students do have classes on campus, they remain socially-distant in the classroom and are required to wear masks the entirety of the class.

From the 2020 Collegian |This year has been one for the books. As COVID-19 changed major aspects of everyday life, faculty were faced with a unique challenge: how to adapt their classes to maximize safety and educational experience.

“It was kind of an interesting intellectual challenge,” said Dr. William Keel, an astronomy professor at UA. “We had to think through the logistics: How do we do this? How do we preserve the core of the experience for students with all of these constraints?”

Keel, who has taught a popular observational astronomy course for years, accepted the challenge head on, spending the summer months contemplating the processes of his course. In the past, students took turns observing the stars through telescopes on the roof of Gallalee Hall. Keel adjusted this process by cleaning machinery after each use, allowing students to sign up for observation times, and spacing students out on the roof.

Although students could safely observe in person, Keel decided it would be beneficial to allow students to observe from their homes whenever possible. Keel planned to use live Zoom observations using the digital tools on UA’s telescope or telescopes from around the world. This way, students could collect data from their own homes, and Keel could control the telescope to point out the important stars, planets, and other celestial objects on the screen.

Students with telescopes on roof of Gallalee Hall.
Keel’s socially-distanced astronomy class meets on the roof of Gallalee Hall for an evening observation.

“While remotely operating the observatory telescope, they’ve already compiled time-lapse videos of Jupiter rotating and their first color images of deep-sky things like nebulae and star clusters,” Keel said. “Students do find that the remote-operation mode improves time management, since we can schedule observing blocks and they only have to connect for their time slot on a given night.”

Like Keel, first-year writing instructors adapted their courses to fit a myriad of students’ needs while keeping their students engaged. Each instructor was given creative freedom within their instruction type: an in-person and online hybrid, an audio/visual layout, and an online-only format.

These instructors ran with it, creating Zoom breakout rooms to brainstorm writing prompt ideas, allowing students to do in-person class one day a week and then virtually the next—even using karaoke microphones for students to share their responses while having a socially-distanced class outdoors. To first-year writing director Dr. Luke Niiler, this has been incredibly successful for both instructors and students.

“In the hybrid model, what I find is that our teachers are endlessly creative. They’re resourceful. They’re innovative,” Niiler said. “Many teachers tell me their students are actually writing more. And they’re writing with greater focus and purpose and intention, because many of them are alone in their dorms. So writing for them becomes a way of connecting with their teacher and with their classmates.”

Students and professor on the quad.
A professor holds class on the Quad.

For political science assistant professor Dr. Elif Kalaycioglu, finding a way to keep students invested in their assignments and reading throughout the semester was imperative. To keep energy levels high and students involved in discussions, she decided to have her students act out class readings, ranging from empirical case studies to UN meeting minutes.

“The pandemic means that many of the interactional elements of the classroom are limited,” Kalaycioglu said. “These exercises bring some of that interaction back in as students engage each other, even if they do so by play-acting characters.”

For each reading, Kalaycioglu assigned students different characters in advance, giving them time to get into character before class began. The scene could take place in a variety of situations—anything from high-ranking employees of a major company planning international strategy to UN officials discussing world affairs to activists talking about global issues. Because it takes time and effort for students to put together a character and create robust arguments to defend their character’s stance, Kalaycioglu believes this helps the students better understand all sides of the situation.

“The personification and performance lift the issues off of the page and make them real-life and three-dimensional,” Kalaycioglu said. “The students find themselves amidst the debates. It allows them to get a sense of the issues, the multiple perspectives, power, and hierarchies at play. They might find themselves articulating a perspective they do not necessarily agree with. This compels them to learn about other perspectives.”

Like Kalaycioglu, associate chair of dance Lawrence Jackson is teaching his students to perform and collaborate virtually. This year, the Department of Theatre and Dance decided to have a virtual season, meaning all shows and performances would be viewed by audiences online.

In addition to performing virtually, dance students and their choreographers face another challenge: rehearsing virtually.

“This year, rehearsals for our concerts occur remotely, so dancers are learning choreography in various locations (home, studio, outside, etc.) via Zoom,” Jackson said. “During those rehearsals, choreographers teach choreography or lead the dancers through guided improvisational exercises designed to generate movement vocabulary that will be used within the work.”

Students with masks walking on the Quad.
Students in masks take a walk on the Quad.

Jackson and professor of dance Sarah Barry, chair of the department, agree that while this new platform can be difficult at times, they hope it allows students to showcase their talent, determination, and ingenuity to audiences all over the world.

“This could lead to additional connections with communities we’ve never reached before, which could serve as an excellent recruiting tool, build deeper communal appreciation of the arts, and serve as a pathway to support underserved communities with artistic programming,” Barry said.

What is most impressive to Jackson is the resilience of his students throughout this process. Like students in every department and program in the College of Arts and Sciences, Jackson said their creativity and determination to succeed has been outstanding.

“This is certainly not how our students envisioned their academic year unfolding,” Jackson said. “However, they soon began to problem solve and think of ways they could still produce work during the pandemic. They have offered ideas about ways to rehearse and present their work safely while adhering to both the CDC and University safety protocols. The faculty remain amazed at their levels of ingenuity and fortitude.”