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Electronic empathy: teaching through a screen

On Tuesday, March 10, Miami students were informed via an email from President Greg Crawford that classes would be moving online for the rest of the semester. 

Shortly before that, that same news found its way to the ears of the university’s many professors telling them to prepare to move classes online. 

When that move happened the very next day, some faculty were taken by surprise. 

“I don't think that having face-to-face classes canceled was a huge shock, but the speed that things evolved was,” said Justin Saul, a professor in Miami’s department of chemical, paper and biomedical engineering. 

In a matter of a few days, the entirety of Miami’s educational offerings turned from physical to digital. Professors who had never taught an online class suddenly found themselves at the helm of two or three. 

Some faculty with more online experience, like Cris Cheek, a Miami creative writing professor, worked to assist those who were navigating the digital waters for the first time. 

“I don’t think that most, or even many, of the creative writing faculty had taught an online class before,” Cheek said. “I happened to have some e-learning experience ... I felt like I had a lot of resources at my disposal, so I worked to share those with my faculty cohort as quickly as I could.” 

But even with a more complete mastery of online teaching in-hand, the learning experience just isn’t the same. Saul said he misses the engagement that in-person teaching brought. 

“[Online teaching] is definitely not my preferred format,” Saul said. “I think that I'm probably like a lot of Miami faculty, or just faculty members in general: we love the interaction with students, discussing things in class, trying to answer questions. [This situation] probably puts a lot more of the burden on the students to hang on to those questions until we have our weekly WebEx meeting.”

Saul, Cheek and other faculty expressed empathy for the difficult situation students are going through right now. Chief among their concerns for the rest of the semester was the ability to keep students engaged and offer them a valuable educational experience. 

“But we’re also trying to be understanding that students are in a variety of places in a variety of circumstances that they’ve never been in before in their roles as students,” Cheek said. “All of the things we take for granted are just being turned on their heads.”  

After all, they said, we’re all in this together. 

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Looking ahead, Carolyn Hardin, assistant professor of media and culture & American studies, said empathy and awareness from both sides of the teacher-student equation will be key. Hardin hasn’t been taking attendance in her multiple classes. She also hasn’t been pressuring students to do more work than she thinks is reasonable. 

“I know some of my students are out there working right now,” she said. “Some of them are essential workers out there, putting themselves at risk. I’m not gonna then take attendance about showing up for AMS 205 when we can chat at another time.” 

With that in mind, it’s a give and take relationship. 

“It’s worth mentioning that professors are going through the same thing that students are,” Hardin said. “So all of us can stay in bed and watch Netflix on our iPads. We’re also facing those routine and motivation issues. We, as professors are doing our best to be empathetic, so I hope that spreads around to everyone from every side of this.” 

When the dust settles and students and teachers alike are more sure of their footing, no one’s quite sure what Miami’s future will look like. No one is sure whether or not classes will resume in the fall or stay online for another semester. No one knows the best way to maximize educational experience for either teachers or students. 

But Hardin is sure of one thing. 

“It sucks, but we’ll get through it,” she said. “If we’re online in the fall, we’re online in the fall. But we’re gonna get through it and I know we’ll get through it together.”