It’s a clear, sunlit Wednesday afternoon in the Branford courtyard. A group of 15 students—who have just met in person for the first time—are sitting on stools and benches, paintbrush and sketchpad in their hands, filling their pages with watercolor strokes of Branford College and the cherry blossom trees. 20 minutes later, they hold up their paintings in front of their laptops. Their professor pins their video and gives a short critique of each student’s work.
Humanities professor Adam Van Doren is the instructor of this watercolor painting seminar. As a strong advocate of hands-on thinking and learning, he put plenty of thought into how to adjust his course for online teaching. For Yale students, the pandemic and shift to Zoom learning last spring came as an unwelcome surprise and obstacle. For faculty, it meant developing and navigating a complete shift in their approaches to teaching.
“I don’t have the ability to stand over the students’ shoulders, and sit right next to them and help them with the brush stroke and look directly at what they’re doing,” said Van Doren in an interview with The Politic. Despite this drawback, his goal is to make every student feel that they are getting a full, intimate experience from the course.
Other faculty members at Yale have been facing similar challenges as well; teaching in a virtual setting comes with its natural drawbacks. Senior Lecturer Sybil Alexandrov, a Spanish and Portuguese language instructor, finds it difficult and frustrating to effectively teach a language without being able to look at a room of students and read their faces. Professor Sigríður Benediktsdóttir, the Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Global Affairs department, considers herself an energetic lecturer, and has found it difficult to convey this energy virtually. The lack of in-person communication has meant that she spends about 50 percent more time on pre-class preparations.
These challenges mean that faculty have had to change their approaches to teaching. Van Doren believes that the spontaneity of watercolor can teach important lessons about adaptation and flexibility. He often plays jazz during the class painting sessions: just as no jazz piece will sound the same, no watercolor painting will look the same.
“You don’t know when you put down the color where it’s going to go, because water can bleed this way and that,” he explained. “But you have to be open to that and that’s what I teach as a way of thinking…. If you don’t fail, you will never learn. So you should get used to that and embrace it. The first try goes awry and you have to be okay with that and move on and take chances.”
These lessons he tries to instill in his students are timely and crucial for faculty as well. Like students of watercolor painting, faculty have had to learn to be more flexible and open to abrupt changes, given that they have had very little time to transition to online learning, and often must resort to trial and error.
Many faculty members’ first adaptation was to find the silver lining. Professor Brian Scholl, who is teaching an Introduction to Cognitive Science lecture this semester, has found that online teaching has had some unexpected advantages for his large lecture class.
“We can do things online that we could never do in person,” he said, “such as breaking up hundreds of students into four-person impromptu ‘breakout room’ discussions for just five minutes, which is quick and easy on Zoom, but which would be far too chaotic and unworkable in a live classroom.”
Bringing in guest speakers has also been much easier, because they can simply hop on a Zoom call rather than figuring out the logistics of travel and hotels. During a normal year, Van Doren usually has his students paint still lifes, and the result is usually similar-looking paintings. However, because each student is painting in a different location instead of a classroom, the result is 15 unique still lifes.
“There’s a way to look at that as a positive” he said. “It’s not what I intended, it’s not what I thought would be successful, but if you’re open minded and willing to see the advantages of this, you can make the best of it.” He paused and then added laughingly, “Not to say I’m ready to do Zoom for the rest of my career.”
Learning how to use Zoom is not the only adaptation that faculty have had to undergo. Transitioning online means reconfiguring entire class structures and syllabi, relying heavily on virtual communication, and relearning new ways to use Canvas and other technology. The looming presence of all these changes was overwhelming for many faculty, especially last spring and over the summer.
Most Yale students remember last year’s spring break as a frantic, panicked blur. Students were scattered around the world, some with family, some on internships, and some still at Yale. Two weeks later, everyone was scrambling to pack their belongings and make arrangements to head home, unsure of what the rest of the school year would look like. Faculty too were under immense pressure. When they were told during the first week of spring break that Yale would move online, they had to respond very quickly to the demands of this abrupt switch. “Faculty didn’t get a spring break,” recalled Professor Alexandrov. “There was no breathing time. We take our teaching seriously and we wanted to do a good job.” Faculty spent their spring break attending workshops offered by the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning and Center for Language Study to help with the transition to teaching the rest of spring semester online.
Over the summer, over 1,200 instructors, teaching fellows, and academic support staff at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning worked hard to create a website with access to resources and services for faculty to prepare for the year of online learning. Resources range from how-to guides on Zoom, Canvas, and cybersecurity, to workshops and recorded self-directed courses on how to reconfigure classes for online learning.
Faculty have also been turning to one another for support and resources. As DUS of Global Affairs, Benediktsdóttir held meetings with Global Affairs faculty over the summer to organize support for the upcoming semester. The faculty met in small groups to share ideas and tips for structuring virtual classes, and the instructors that were teaching classes during the summer shared their experiences and advice. “Most of the faculty in Global Affairs were very much thinking about how to make this semester as good as possible for the students,” said Benediktsdóttir. These meetings helped her to find methods to make her classes more enjoyable for students, such as arranging project groups to foster a sense of community. She plans to hold another meeting this month to reassess how the faculty are handling virtual classes.
The challenges that faculty are facing extend beyond the virtual classroom as well. Many, especially non-tenured faculty, are finding it difficult to maintain a sense of security and certainty. Professor Timothy Kreiner, a Yale writing instructor, is familiar with the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety caused by the pandemic. He explained that, like all non-tenured faculty, he is placed on a limited term contract that must be renewed periodically—in his case, every year. Last spring, after Yale’s hiring freeze in response to the pandemic and economic downturn, he and all non-tenured faculty were unsure of what their future at Yale looked like. This anxiety was compounded by the stress of scrambling to figure out whether they were going to have income, pay rent, put food on the table, and have health insurance. Kreiner said that this also affects his ability to be available for his students, because the uncertainty “makes it really hard to provide continuous mentorship for students and reassure them that you’ll be around to write letters of recommendation or that they’ll be able to contact you, because your Yale email address might not be in effect anymore.”
Working from home has presented a challenge to Van Doren as well, though a much different one from Kreiner’s. He has found this new routine an obstacle to maintaining focus and creativity.
“Creativity is very sensitive,” he said. “The continuous motion of creativity needs to be sustained and not interrupted because these are fleeting ideas and thoughts that we have and then they disappear. It’s almost like when you wake up from a dream and you suddenly forget what the dream was and it vanishes.”
Like every faculty member currently working from home, he has found that everyday distractions—the doorbell ringing, the dog barking, the kids screaming—disrupt the free flow of ideas and sustained focus that is easier to achieve while on campus. Yale constructs an artificial environment in which students and faculty can focus and be creative for uninterrupted stretches of time. For many faculty, this experience is much harder to achieve when working at home, so the solution is to create one’s own personal cocoon of focus and creativity.
For Van Doren, this special space is his grandfather’s old barn. He is currently residing in a weekend house in upstate Connecticut. It’s a relatively quiet setting, but he feels the need to create a space away from the humdrum of everyday home life, where he can be in his own world to focus on his work. The barn has no electricity and no Internet. His grandfather would often write poetry here, in the quietness of the woods. Here, Van Doren can focus on his creative projects, whether it’s painting or writing his next book, or simply sitting still to think. “We need to go to separate places,” he said. “We need our minds to remove ourselves from the more mundane because we’re in an elevated plane, we’re creating something new.”
When it comes down to it, however, whether they are struggling with healthcare, creativity, or job security, all faculty members miss the same thing about Yale: the students. Professor Alexandrov is often frustrated by her inability to interact directly with the students in her class. “We’re used to having a very personal interaction with the students,” she said. Benediktsdóttir also misses the community of Yalies and the energy they give her. “I always think about the first days of September,” she reminisced, “and everyone’s coming on campus and it’s full of energy. I didn’t expect how much acquaintances and familiar faces are important in my social life.” Van Doren particularly misses the spontaneous conversations he has with students he bumps into on campus. “When I take a break, I always go sit in the dining hall at the faculty table,” he explained, “and students come up to it, and they talk about all sorts of things that don’t have anything to do with what I’m teaching. That’s the great fun of it.”
Like the rest of the Yale community, he misses those moments of magic that occur in the little world of Yale, whether it’s a conversation over tea at the Elizabethan Club or watching his students’ faces light up as their brushstrokes perfectly capture the clouds above Branford. Like his students, who are learning to heed his advice and become risk-takers with their paint brushes, Van Doren is learning to evolve to a changing Yale experience with innovation and creativity. Guiding painters through a screen, however, is less than ideal, and he looks forward to the day when he can once again experience the spontaneity of watercolor painting in person and reconnect with the Yale community.