(Illustration by Brian Stauffer)

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Faculty reflect on teaching remotely.

How do you deliver a University of Chicago education remotely? Faculty members had little time to contemplate the question as they prepared for a socially distanced Spring Quarter. Some were already familiar with the University’s videoconferencing software, Zoom, and its features: breakout rooms for small group discussion, a chat sidebar, virtual hand raising, screen sharing, goofy backgrounds. Others found themselves learning new skills.

These interviews, conducted by phone, email, or Zoom throughout March and April, have been edited and condensed.

How did you react when you heard classes would be remote?

Jeanne Farnan, AB’98, MD’02 (Pritzker School of Medicine)  I was on service seeing patients in the hospital while trying to plan for curriculum changes that had to happen. One of our guiding principles was to ensure we didn’t have to extend anyone’s medical education.

Marco Garrido (Department of Sociology)  I was dismayed. My teaching style relies heavily on face-to-face in-classroom dynamics.

Joel Isaac (John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought)  Disappointment! I was regretful that the form of teaching I cherish, which makes UChicago so special—intensive face-to-face seminars in one of the University’s characterful gothic buildings—would not be possible. But we have no choice. I am trying to be a happy warrior.

Joan Neal (Law School)  I was both saddened and felt a bit of panic.

Robert Shimer (Griffin Department of Economics)  I was clued into this a bit earlier than many people, having decided to hold off on a planned trip to China. Moving to online seemed likely from the beginning of March, maybe February.

Ram Shivakumar, SM’97 (Chicago Booth)  There was a fair amount of trepidation because I have thrived in classrooms where I see people. I can change what I say and how I act and react, based on my reading of people and their body language. I’m sure students have their own fears and concerns. They signed up for A, but they’re getting B.

On the scale of Luddite (1) to technophile (10), where you do fall?

Vineet Arora, AM’03 (Pritzker School of Medicine)  Probably a 7. I am pretty comfortable with online technology but at the same time I like technology that embodies user-centered design—a lot of times in health care, this has not been factored in. A great example is electronic health records. Most doctors love technology but are not fans of the electronic health record because it was not designed for them.

Garrido  Around a 5.

Isaac  A 7. I find the digital tools we are using fairly intuitive. As someone who teaches through close readings of complex texts, I am not aiming to push these platforms to their absolute limits.

Neal  Probably a 4 or 5. When I was an undergrad, no one had personal computers (we still used punch cards for computer classes). When I was a law student, a few people were getting their own personal computers. When I was a new lawyer, we didn’t even have computers at our desks—we got a yellow legal pad and a dictaphone and gave that material to the word processing staff, who did have computers. I certainly didn’t grow up with this technology.

Shimer  Somewhere like an 8. I’ve been videoconferencing with coauthors for many, many years.

Did you have Zoom training?

Arora  I taught myself, pretty much. I did have some team members create a tip sheet of things that we noticed could really make or break a Zoom session. For example, one-touch calling is key for doctors who are often calling in on their iPhone.

Garrido  I attended a Zoom training session and read the literature put out by the administration. Biggest surprise? It’s not so hard. After my second class, a student emailed to congratulate me for “Zooming like a pro.”

Neal  Our IT folks at the Law School hosted live training sessions and put together a series of instructions and guides, and these were tremendously helpful. Kudos to our IT staff, who had to become superheroes working around the clock, with no notice, and did it with skill and good humor (see “Remote Learning, Under Control”). I also did some self-teaching and practicing.

Fred Donner (Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations)  The Humanities Division sent us tutorials to help us get up to speed. I quickly figured out how to use Zoom, in a basic way, and determined that it would probably work quite well for my small seminar Arabic text class. I can put everybody’s face up on the screen and call on them, one at a time. They can read and translate, and we can talk about it.

How are you feeling now that classes have started?

Garrido  The students aren’t laughing at my jokes as much, but maybe that’s because they’re on mute.

In any case, it feels good to be teaching. There’s something therapeutic about taking an hour and a half to really dig into ideas. It feels a bit like a break from, and maybe also a protest against, being in crisis mode.

Shimer  We have two different challenges. One is online learning. The other is all the distractions students face.

Shivakumar  If there has been a surprise, it is that students have been very engaged. During case study discussions, I let students talk one at a time. I had 37 different people talk last week.

What has been the hardest thing to adapt?

Farnan  The big challenge is third-year medical students, who would typically be doing clerkships. In March we removed them from the clinical wards because of concerns about COVID-19 exposure. Now it’s going to be a matter of figuring out when we can safely return them to the clinical environment.

For first-years, we’re transitioning to remote learning for Clinical Skills. For OSCEs—Objective Structured Clinical Experiences, which are practice patient interviews where the student gets feedback on their skills—we will be using Zoom and seeing how that works.

Neal  I teach small classes. I worry about whether we’ll be able to build the same sense of community. Some things—namely relationships—are just better in person.

Donner  I have to record my lectures, because, as it turns out, among the 50 students, there’s one who lives in Ireland, one who lives in the Persian Gulf, one who lives in Shanghai, one who lives in Australia, and one in Singapore. It’s a brave new world.

Shivakumar  In the evening program I teach in, the students are working professionals. They come to class at 6 p.m., and here they are for three hours. They’re tired, so you’ve got to work hard to keep them interested.

Has the pandemic affected your course content?

Farnan  Third- and fourth-year medical students are going to participate in a three-week COVID-19 learning module going through the virology, clinical presentation, treatment, ethics, and policy implications of the disease (see “Learning Curve,” page 30).

Shimer  Dynamic Economic Modeling is concerned with both long-run growth and business cycle issues. I can’t teach that class and pretend we live in 2019.

Are there any advantages to remote teaching?

Vineet Arora, AM’03 (Pritzker School of Medicine)  In a Zoom with our biomedical librarians, I noticed more interaction since the chat function lowered the bar to ask questions. It created a true channel for engagement and interaction.

Donner  I think about what it would have been like if this had happened 20 years ago, when we didn’t have Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp. We’re very lucky in the sense that we have this technological capacity.

For me, teaching discussions online has one great advantage over the classroom: I can actually understand what everyone says! I’m getting hard of hearing and even with a hearing aid I found over the past few years that I simply couldn’t understand what someone might say especially in a larger classroom with a certain amount of echo. Now I understand better, and hence students get better feedback from me.

Isaac  I think that the students may appreciate the flexibility. They can work on assignments and access texts, videos of minilectures, or discussions and such as they need them.

Shimer  When you’re forced to rethink everything, you start experimenting.

Zoom has a “share screen” feature. Imagine you’re doing something that involves coding. It would be easy for any student to display their solution and talk through the argument about their solution. It might be that the students are reluctant to do that—being called out. It might be a disaster, but it could be really good.

Shivakumar  It’s possible now to have expert practitioners who are not in Chicago share their views with students. You can bring in people who have something of real value to say, and have them speak for 20 minutes. You may not want to ask a CEO for an hour, but maybe they’ll have 20 minutes. I have several people in mind. Let’s see what they say.

What are you doing that other faculty should know about?

Arora  If at all possible, consider having a second person (a TA or another faculty member) monitoring the chat and helping field questions, so you can continue to lecture and then pause to see how the chat is going.

Isaac  I’m combining synchronous and asynchronous teaching. I want to convene the class weekly, but expecting a three-hour seminar on Zoom to go off without a hitch is unrealistic.

My approach is to convene shorter classes twice a week and use discussion threads and Panopto [video sharing software] to create a fund of learning materials. If a class or two doesn’t work on Zoom, the students will nonetheless have plenty of online discussion and video content to keep them going.

Ada Palmer (Department of History)  I can say there will be a live class discussion at a certain time. And if you can’t make the Zoom meeting, the written discussion board is fine. That way, the student who finds the video hard to use can use text, the student who finds text hard can use video. The student whose family’s internet package isn’t robust enough has a backup plan. It’s predesigned to have flexibility.

Something I’ve always done in my classes is to structure the class participation component so if you didn’t talk in class, but before the next class you email me a paragraph of what you were thinking, then I’ll give you full credit.

A student who has an anxiety disorder or is on the autism spectrum can use this accommodation. But so can the student who had a sore throat. The student who pulled an all-nighter. The students who were talked over by someone who was hyperexcited and wouldn’t let anybody else talk. Every student benefits from having multiple options. That’s even more important as we transition to remote learning.

Neal  I emphasized to my students that we are in this new experiment together, and we need to be patient and flexible. There will be difficulties on both sides as we make this sudden switch.

Will there be any lasting changes to teaching, at UChicago or elsewhere?

Donner  A lot depends on the nature of the university. For the University of Chicago, the classroom experience and the sense of being a part of a cohort is invaluable.

My wife teaches at San Francisco State University. A great number of their students are older, they’re working, they have families. To attend classes, they have to commute from sometimes an hour and a half away. For them, distance learning is great. On the other hand, they miss seeing the other students. I don’t think anything will replace in-person teaching, but distance learning may partially replace it for some places.

Neal  My favorite was a student who is at home with two young children. Her virtual background had storm clouds overhead and flames all around her—it was easy to guess how her week was going. I loved the sense of humor and the openness about what some students are facing.

Read more about the Universityʼs response to the COVID-19 pandemic in “Together in Spirit.”