Remote professors tinker with course content and build virtual communities

By Charlie Keohane

Professor Khalifa’s dogs Frida (left) and Cleo (right) sometimes make guest lecturing appearances on his recorded lectures. (Courtesy of Kareem Khalifa)

Instead of walking into classrooms buzzing with student chatter this semester, many Middlebury professors are logging into Zoom classrooms to be greeted by a gallery of muted screens. Even though students are back on campus this fall, more than half of all classes are being conducted completely online.

Many professors found the transition to online classes in March challenging and abrupt. But with more time to plan for this semester, some have found success through remote instruction. 

“While we’re not back to business as usual, we’re in a little bit of a new normal,” said Genie Giaimo, assistant professor of writing and rhetoric. “Students are probably used to moving to the online format.” 

Giaimo, who is teaching from Columbus, Ohio, appreciates how the online format has created more independent learners. Students in her class can now complete some coursework on their own schedule, which she sees as especially helpful if they are experiencing internet issues or are feeling sick. 

“I’m realizing that you need to build some wiggle room into the curriculum just in case there’s an emergency — or several emergencies,” she said. 

Additionally, she mentioned that she has slightly reduced coursework in her classes this semester, doing away with a few reading assignments. Giaimo is instead emphasizing small group work and giving more time for peer editing. 

Remote learning has also changed the way professors approach assigning work and delivering content. Kareem Khalifa, professor of philosophy, is teaching his classes from Atlanta, Ga. this semester after spending time there during his sabbatical last year. Khalifa has been experimenting with some new features in his lectures now that they are remote, including musical intros and outros and occasional photos of his two dogs.

“Creating pre-recorded lectures has also been an opportunity to have a little bit of fun with visual images, and I try to create a new 20-second soundtrack for each lecture I create, so it’s a good excuse to make some music every week,” Khalifa said. 

Patricia Zupan, professor of Italian, is teaching online from her house in Middlebury this semester. She is relying more on visual aids and powerpoint presentations to keep students engaged in class, using photos, illustrations and even emojis to help students in introductory Italian learn new words. 

But with new benefits come challenges. In addition to navigating occasional technology bumps, professors have found that it is harder to discern the energy of the classroom online.

Khalifa explained that while teaching in person, it’s easier to get a reading of student engagement. “It’s a bit easier to recognize when material is really clicking with students and when it’s not,” he said. 

Giaimo finds that she has to stick to a stricter schedule while teaching online, and misses the more spontaneous, off-the-cuff conversations that she used to have in person. 

One factor professors and students alike are enjoying this semester is the convenience and flexibility of scheduling online conferences. 

“In many ways it’s easier to get together with students outside of class on Zoom. We can talk at 8 o’clock at night, we can talk at 8 o’clock in the morning, you can be sitting in your room, and I can be sitting at home, and we can communicate,” Zupan said. 

“Where group class discussion lagged, the individual conversations were really wonderful,” Giaimo agreed. “They were a way to connect.” 

Certain subjects have transitioned very smoothly to an online format. Khalifa can now give students more time to work through problems at their own speed. 

“Virtually every Middlebury student can do excellent work in introductory logic, but it takes some more time than others. That makes in-class exercises less than ideal,” Khalifa said. “That problem goes away in this environment.”

However, certain classes including introductory languages are particularly challenging. Zupan misses being able to teach Italian with improvisational dialogue and around-the-room choral exercises.

One area of concern for many professors is fostering a classroom community for students, especially for first years. Giaimo tries to encourage students to introduce themselves and facilitates discussions in breakout sessions. 

As Middlebury has successfully transitioned into Phase Two and currently has zero positive cases, Zupan is trying to organize a small, physically-distanced gathering with her on-campus first year seminar students. She looks forward to connecting with students in person over a meal.

Whether near or far, Middlebury professors shared their appreciation for the campus community and students’ adherence to college guidelines. 

“I’m really impressed with how agile students are and how they are following the rules, from what I hear, and doing their best to keep this community going,” Giaimo said.