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'Like I was calling into the void': Virginia Tech classes in the age of coronavirus

'Like I was calling into the void': Virginia Tech classes in the age of coronavirus

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BLACKSBURG — Ozzie Abaye bustles about her micro kitchen, arranging packets of lentils together and pouring chickpeas in a glass measuring cup. On her countertop, beside the lemon and bottle of tahini, sit a blender, a laptop and a small video camera affixed to a tripod.

“Thank you for connecting with me, Hokies and friends, and also some relatives, too,” she tells the computer. “This is a way to stay connected while we’re staying apart.”

Abaye, a professor in Virginia Tech’s school of plant and environmental sciences, won’t let the new coronavirus interfere with hands-on teaching. So on Monday she adopted her course’s food lab — where students cook foods from crops studied in class — for the age of social distancing. Students, as well as former students and family members, cooked at home, watching Abaye make hummus and samosas over Zoom, the videoconferencing program, and Facebook Live.

“Food is love. Food is everything. Food is togetherness,” Abaye says in her empty kitchen. “I wish you could share this with me today. But, unusually, I don’t have anybody to share it with.”

‘Like I was calling into the void’

Since Tech resumed classes after an extended spring break a few weeks ago, the university has moved roughly 4,500 courses — including labs and music classes — exclusively online. With that extra week of spring break to prepare, faculty have found creative ways to keep students engaged remotely — from cooking over Zoom to TikTok video assignments, from cello lessons to virtual construction site tours.

At the same time, faculty and students find themselves working through kinks of the new online teaching world: from the more innocuous cameos of pajama-clad undergraduates and an appearance by a cat named Misha, to more serious concerns about students’ lack of motivation and existing inequalities that have been exacerbated by spotty home internet and challenging home lives.

“I think more than ever this is bringing to everyone’s attention that circumstances are not equal,” said Elizabeth McLain, an instructor of musicology. “Not everyone has a fair shake when it comes to education.”

For many professors, a major learning curve has been wrapping one’s head around Zoom — the now ubiquitous video tool that comes with its own set of pitfalls. One of those includes the risk of Zoombombing, when outsiders gain access to virtual meetings and troll them.

“I was Zoombombed, and it seemed almost quaint, the penis joke that the guy asked me,” said Alan Weinstein, an associate professor of cello, bass and chamber music. “I was kind of like, that’s all you got? You go to the trouble to figure out how to do this and you can’t be clever or personal or racist? Come on.”

(A Tech spokesman said only two reports of Zoombombing have been reported to the university’s IT department, which has provided information to faculty to prevent intrusions).

For Kristopher Hite, a biochemistry professor, his usual tendency to draw figures on a board and pause, asking students to fill in blanks, hasn’t translated quite as well over Zoom.

“The biggest difficulty for me as somebody who’s used to in-person instruction is that immediate feedback,” Hite said. “I would do the same thing. … It felt like I was calling into the void and nobody was responding back.”

Hite recalled being on campus when the decision came down last month to move classes online. TV news vans pulled up to Burruss Hall as he watched Tech administrators come down the steps to make the announcement.

“It’s been a weird time,” Hite said. “The very first thing I had the students do when we came back after the extended spring break was … they just told me how the pandemic was affecting their lives.”

Taylor Schindler, a 19-year-old freshman from Roanoke County, says she has missed the camaraderie of college life and has found it challenging to maintain a disciplined schedule.

“I feel like I’m just glued to my computer all the time now,” she said.

The biochemistry and clinical neuroscience major credits the university with revising its grading system for more flexibility and credits professors and advisers for being supportive throughout.

“In a way, it is comforting to know our professors are just as confused as we are and they’re learning about this process as much as we are,” Schindler said.

Glenda Gillaspy, professor and head of Tech’s department of biochemistry, has even restructured one of her courses to focus on the molecular biology of the new coronavirus.

“It’s very difficult for students to focus, and I think it’s difficult for them to rationalize just getting all-in and understanding the molecular nuances of something when you have this overarching pandemic around you,” she said. “I think the class is going really well because this is one case where students can see this is worth my time and energy to dig into this. … I think they’re highly engaged in the material because it’s incredibly relevant right now.”

‘High school with ashtrays’

“Do you know what a siciliano is?”

“No,” the student says. “Wait. It’s a kind of pizza, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I’m hungry, so I thought I’d ask you about a kind of pizza. No. It’s an Italian dance.”

Inside a modern house perched on a mountain in Montgomery County, Weinstein, the music professor, gives Charlotte Cannon a cello lesson over Zoom. The senior has opted to take an extra semester in hopes of giving a recital, which are all currently canceled. Weinstein explains that a siciliano is characterized by a lilting rhythm, like the melody of “Silent Night.”

“OK, so you know that now,” he says.

“Yeah.”

“College!” he says in mock wonder. “High school with ashtrays, as we say. Isn’t that what it is?”

After working their way through a Bach sonata, professor and student turn to a Dvorák concerto.

Cannon starts playing. Weinstein listens. He stops her and begins a history lesson: “You know Dvorák came to America?”

While in Iowa, Dvorák’s sister-in-law died. The concerto Cannon plays includes a section from a Czech folk song she loved and a variation of a nursery rhyme she used to sing.

“It was about her, and he was devastated that she died,” Weinstein says. “It’s like all of a sudden he remembers she’s gone and he’s anguished.” Cannon was approaching the piece too over the top, not quietly enough. “The whole second theme is a memory to her,” Weinstein explains.

“Could you start like it’s almost a prayer?”

TikTok and site tours

McLain, the musicology instructor, would catch her sophomores between classes making silly videos. Inspired by that, as well as by a colleague at the University of Michigan, where McLain is pursuing her doctorate, McLain came up with an innovative way for students to remember musical vocabulary.

“This really is not online learning. This is emergency learning,” she said. “This is about shifting courses that were never intended to be online.”

Every week, students in one of McLain’s classes make short videos through the popular app TikTok as a way to illustrate and remember terms like “cabaret” and “Rossini crescendo.”

Cat Lasky, a 22-year-old sophomore from Sterling, had never used TikTok before.

“I was trying to avoid downloading it because I knew that I would spend way too much time on it, and I was correct about that,” Lasky said. “But it has been really fun learning how to use it and seeing all my classmates on it.”

While several students expressed appreciation for how faculty have adopted courses, some have not been as impressed.

“We’re all learning less,” said Robert Bass, a 22-year-old senior from Midlothian, who noted Tech isn’t reimbursing any tuition costs. “The quality of the education that we were receiving was degraded a lot.”

Bass, a neuroscience student, mentioned his traditional lab courses are no longer possible.

(Hite, the biochemistry professor who helped adapt a lab course, noted that those students have gained in-depth understanding of molecular structures via computer modeling, where data about enzymes that is usually gleaned from a lab is now provided.)

Like McLain, Ashley Johnson, who teaches construction engineering, has also used videos in new ways for her introductory course. Typically, students go to multiple building sites, field trips that aren’t possible now.

While visiting family over spring break in coastal North Carolina, Johnson learned all classes would move online. She began taking videos and photos of a nearby residential construction site, and turned it into a virtual field trip.

Recent alums have also helped out. One gave a virtual guest lecture about his marine construction firm, while another sent Johnson a video tour of a Washington, D.C., high-rise under construction.

With so many minutes of video footage, Johnson has been intentional about compressing the sizes and breaking up large videos into smaller units. That way, students with slower internet access will be able to download them and watch them more quickly.

Even Johnson, who lives in rural Giles County, has had issues with the digital divide.

She’s driven to Tech’s empty campus to access the university’s network. She sat in her car to upload an hourlong guest lecture.

‘You cannot measure love’

Back in Abaye’s kitchen, she waxes about the Egyptian origins of hummus and her personal cooking philosophy.

“You know you cannot measure love. So I don’t believe in measuring anything,” she says to the camera. “For your sake today I’m going to measure.”

The shift to online courses was hard for Abaye, a Tech grad who has been teaching almost 27 years.

“My first reaction was I cried, basically,” she said. “The idea of moving to an online platform was basically devastating to me personally.”

But as Abaye moves around her kitchen, narrating her culinary movements like Julia Child — “I forgot garlic!” “Is it upside down again?” “I have burned the kitchen once or twice before” — she appears to gain confidence before the video camera. Her teaching assistants work through technical difficulties and field questions from students.

As Abaye heats up oil to make the lentil samosas, she returns again to her crusade against precision.

“I cannot stand measuring,” Abaye says. Sometimes friends are wary of her estimations. They ask her, “What if it doesn’t come out?”

Her reply: “Everything comes out right eventually, so I’m not worried about that.”

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