New faculty comment on move to Middlebury, return to in-person teaching

By Rain Ji

While moving to a new college to teach during a pandemic has its challenges, many of Middlebury’s new professors are looking forward to the return of in-person learning.

Assistant Professor of Black Studies Viola Huang, teaching African American Activism in Education and Beginning German this semester, missed the new faculty group photo because she arrived at the Middlebury campus only a week before classes started. She moved from Passau, Germany to Vermont after finishing her degree at Columbia University and completing post-doc work at University of Passau. 

Her travels were largely disrupted by the new restrictions in place because of Covid-19. Indeed, beginning a teaching career at the college in the middle of a global pandemic has been a challenge for many. This fall, Middlebury welcomes nine new tenure-track professors and 44 new faculty in total. 

Huang was attracted to the college because she wanted to apply for teaching-focused institutions so she could work closely with a diverse group of students. Despite roadblocks on her way to the campus, she felt supported by her colleagues in the Black Studies Department, the German Department and by other administrative staff.  

Huang has not taught any in-person class for the past one and a half years.

“I have lost out on many of the most rewarding aspects of my job over the past semesters: I have never met my recent students except on Zoom and missed sending those off that graduated,” she said.

The Arabic Teaching Assistant Maryait Khader said that teaching a language in a pandemic is a strange experience. Specifically, she finds it difficult because of masks. 

“Sometimes you need [the students] to focus on the letters, so ideally you could show your mouth to your students,” she said. 

On the other hand, she also thinks that people have learned how to be more forgiving and have more patience for each other since Covid-19. Khader was happy to see students working diligently amid fast-paced changes.

“People are always smiling and give me a lot of good energy,” she said. 

Khader holds a master’s degree from the University of Jordan. She came to the college leaving two young children in Amman. On campus, she works with Arabic language students and professors to foster an Arabic learning community. Living at the Arabic House, she offers a variety of culture lessons for interested students. 

Khader found out about Middlebury College by chance from a friend, and she is most excited about the nature in Vermont. “Nature is fabulous here, although at the same time, I’m a bit worried about the snow,” Khader said.

Similar to Khader’s experience, Assistant Professor of Studio Art Matthew Schrader, formerly a faculty member at the Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts at Bard College, felt incredibly welcomed by the area as he went for hikes, shopped at farmer’s markets and explored local food.  He arrived in August from New York City and found the specificity of his new position unique as it reflects his life experience as an artist over the last decade. This fall, he is teaching a cross-listed course between the Studio Art Department and Black Studies Department titled Spacing. Students meet twice a week to explore the built environment through the lenses of race, class and gender.

In contrast to Professor Schrader’s drastic change of scenery, Assistant Professor of Biology and Global Health Sam Byrne comes to the college from St. Lawrence University, located in one of the most rural areas of New York State. Because of that, he felt that there wasn’t much of a transition.

“I love rock climbing, foraging for mushrooms, fishing, gardening and many other outdoor activities, so I am happy to be in an area that provides great opportunities to be outside,” said Byrne.  

This term is Byrne’s second time teaching an epidemiology course during a pandemic, and it is equally interesting and challenging for him. “Public health is a field defined by difficult problems that require deeply interdisciplinary answers, so public health education is a perfect fit for a liberal arts institution like Middlebury,” Byrne said.

Most of his research is focused on the health effects of persistent organic pollutants among Alaska Natives. He thinks that community-minded epidemiology can be used to benefit people experiencing environmental injustice, and to meaningfully impact policy to prevent future injustice. According to him, in the Covid-19 context, there has been a radical shift in the culture of health behavior that really emphasizes personal reasonability.

Byrne said that he tends to not explicitly discuss Covid-19 as an example in class because it remains raw for many people. “It isn’t easy to focus on learning if your thoughts are pulled away by real personal concerns and losses,” he said.

Like many of the other new faculty this year, Byrne is excited to return to in-person teaching.

“Part of what I love about residential liberal arts institutions is the concerted effort at community building,” Byrne said.