Professors navigate in-person semester, offer online learning options


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Since Sept. 13, all Pitt classes must meet in person unless a dean approves a hybrid or remote option.

By Natalie Frank, News Editor

Despite classes being fully in person for most of this semester, Liann Tsoukas still offers a Zoom option for both of the classes she teaches. Tsoukas said she doesn’t ask for an explanation from students as to why they aren’t in class and tries to make attending class as “seamless” as possible.

“I don’t expect students to tell me if they’re going to be there or not, or why, or disclose anything, or provide any official excuse or medical, anything,” Tsoukas, a senior lecturer in the history department and assistant dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, said. “When you can be in class, you’re in class, but if you can’t be in class, here’s an option for you that will make it seamless.”

Since Pitt began in-person instruction Sept. 13 after two weeks of online learning, many professors, such as Tsoukas, are still navigating teaching in a classroom and accommodating students who need an online option.

Provost Ann Cudd sent a September email to instructors to offer guidance and suggestions to follow when certain situations arise, such as if a student contracts COVID-19 or is required to quarantine. Some of these instructions include recording class sessions, broadcasting class sessions over Zoom, creating asynchronous content and being flexible with assignments, activities, due dates and exams to help students who may be struggling.

Tsoukas said while she appreciates the University’s suggestions, the best resource for professors to navigate teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic is their own knowledge of their students and what they need.

“I think that we as faculty and as instructors have a deep well of knowledge of what works best for our students in our disciplines,” Tsoukas said. “So I think that we are our best resource. And you know, our collegiality among other faculty is our greatest resource and I think that the University guidelines are helpful suggestions and it’s good that our University is providing them.”

University spokesperson Charles Finder said the option to have a class meet remotely or in a hybrid fashion is at the discretion of a particular school’s dean. He said Pitt expects instructors to accommodate students.

“All classes at the University of Pittsburgh are now meeting in person, unless permission for remote or hybrid delivery has been approved by a faculty member’s dean,” Finder said. “Instructors are expected to work with students who are unable to come to class because they are in isolation or quarantine, or feeling unwell.”

Tsoukas said the history department is very accommodating to student needs during this time and added that what’s most important is that students have the most “positive” experience they can while taking classes.

“We are trying to open up policies and accommodations that take those as they come and make a very clear message to students that there’s nothing punitive about this semester, for those reasons, and that we want to, that we are committed to them having the most positive experience possible in the class,” Tsoukas said. “And I think when you come out strong with that message, and you’re genuine about it, students hear it.”

Tsoukas said although the remote option for the first two weeks of classes was a bit of a “rough entry,” students are now starting to settle into in-person learning.

“We still have students who are sick or can’t be in class, or for whatever reason aren’t able to be there, so they have to Zoom in,” Tsoukas said. “But we managed to keep both, you know, points of entry to the class open and available. And generally, I’m finding that most students want to be in class and the overwhelming majority are.”

Julie Beaulieu, a lecturer in the gender, sexuality and women’s studies department, said most students go in person for her classes, but she still offers a Zoom option for those who need it and for everyone’s “collective health.”

“Occasionally I’ve had to make other accommodations, especially for classes that are more collaborative in ways that might be restricted by Zoom,” Beaulieu said. “I really appreciate being in the classroom and we are making it work.”

Beaulieu, who teaches classes on the history of sexuality, global LGBTQ+ literature and archival studies, said while Pitt’s guidance has been a helpful framework for professors, she said her students are struggling with how each professor approaches the guidelines differently.

“I get that a lot of students find frustration in how different teachers work within the guidance,” Beaulieu said. “But talking about it helps us to understand diverse perspectives, and it gives us a better sense of how we’re all impacted, students, faculty, staff and the entire community.”

Beaulieu said while the transition to in-person learning can be challenging, she said it’s important to be transparent with students about those challenges so they can work together as a group.

“There are many challenges, which I’ve tried to be open and transparent about in the classroom,” Beaulieu said. “Such transparency is really helpful for engaging with our students about teaching as a practice.”

Tsoukas said students from the smaller class she teaches — an upper-level course with 35 students — rarely used the Zoom option. She said more students use Zoom in the introductory course with 80 students enrolled.

Tsoukas said the history department is working diligently to ensure students still get the most out of their classes.

“And we as a department put a lot of time into adapting our pedagogy for the conditions of last year,” Tsoukas said. “We made it our life’s work to be sure that our students got what they deserved out of our classes. I mean, nobody phoned it in, you know, we really — it was our departmental ethic to do that and we took it really seriously, and we did it.”

Beaulieu said while challenges may arise during this transitional period, she tries to make adjustments and accommodations to find a balance for students.

“There are lots of little details related to staying safe, well and healthy, and this means acknowledging that we all need some space and accommodation for new challenges,” Beaulieu said. “I’ve had to make some adjustments to what I think we can do in a semester to really find a better balance for our students as we get through this.”

Tsoukas said professors and students alike are figuring out ways to navigate teaching and learning during the pandemic. But overall, she’s happy to be back in the classroom.

“Well, you know, we’re staying patient with each other, we’re dealing with each other, we’re figuring out all the platforms in real time,” Tsoukas said. “But I think ultimately, there’s a lot of goodwill, because we’re all really happy to be back in class.”