Dear Faculty and Instructional Staff,
I write this note encouraged by all you have been able to do in such a short period of time to adjust to our role in slowing the spread of COVID-19—and as uncertain as you about how this plays out, for how long, and with what lasting consequences. It is both a sprint and a marathon.
Now, with a full week of remote teaching and learning complete, you might have a better sense of where you’re headed with your courses. Even though right now social distancing and online-only contact might make things feel quite the opposite, we’re all in this together.
The interpersonal connection so central to the Lehigh academic experience is certainly more challenging to achieve in a remote learning environment. I suspect our students are feeling this lack of connection to other students and their faculty, just as you might be. The exchanges that occur so naturally in a physical classroom, studio or lab might not feel as natural via webcam or online discussion board. Conversations might seem a bit more stilted, or perhaps even interrupted by slow internet speed or a workspace distraction. It’s easy to feel disconnected.
One thing we all have in common during this time—faculty, students, staff—is that we’re all human, and we’re all dealing with the challenges of this pandemic. I suggest we hold on to that commonality—our shared humanity and the realities that come with it.
I was on a Zoom meeting last week, each of us working at home, and one such reality came into play: a background of dogs at each participant’s home, trying to get into the picture. Pretty quickly almost everyone (dogs, I mean) did. This was an accidental moment of connection that may seem a little unprofessional, but we all found ourselves sharing our relationships with our animals with each other, an interaction that probably would not have happened if we were meeting on campus.
I’m thinking that replicating live conversations through Zoom won’t completely replace the serendipity of face-to-face conversations, but maybe deliberate efforts to personalize those online connections might. I’m trying that myself by making for my class very short, very amateurish five-minute videos from my house. I’m fortunate there are relevant topics I can cover from my messy garage. Normally, I wouldn’t make a video of my home workspace because it’s not really relevant; I’m thinking maybe now it might be. Glimpses of your reality—your home workspace, messy or not; a meaningful piece of art on the wall behind you; or perhaps even the noise of children in the background—might help foster interpersonal connection.
We can help our students in other simple ways as well. Students are dealing with the distance from their friends and familiar Lehigh places, as well as the occasionally awkward experience of being ‘back home’ while continuing their studies. Those of you with college students are experiencing this yourselves. Many students are now fully ensconced with the sometimes supportive, sometimes entirely too much ‘in your business’ (as my daughter would say) family that used to be many miles away, but now is not. These students’ eager parents might be asking many questions about coursework. It’s probably a really good time to help with that by clarifying learning objectives for our students in language they can share with their now very close fa mily members.
We also have students struggling with just the opposite: a far more challenging home situation that might involve familial conflict or financial struggles or health concerns. Some might not have the support they need and were able to rely upon while on campus. Let’s pay particular attention to these needs as well, and offer students our understanding and support.
Aside from the practical elements of finishing the semester, earning credits, and, for some of our students, graduating, I imagine we also provide our students a little bit of ‘normal’ in a sea of uncertainty. I know that happens as a result of huge effort on your part. Thank you for that.
This week Greg Reihman and LTS are planning additional workshops, which I encourage you to attend. I also encourage faculty and instructional staff to find opportunities (e.g., working groups) to share challenges, solutions and opportunities. In particular, I invite you to create one of your own and, if you are willing, open it to others. If it is helpful, you can contact Greg to see how LTS might support such a group.
Please take care of yourselves and your families, and stay as healthy as you can. If you have suggestions for me, you know how to find me.