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Miami professor retires amid COVID-19 pandemic

Geography and Western Program professor Dr. Hays Cummins had been a stable presence in the department of geography since 1988, but due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Cummins decided to retire.

“The decision for me was far more complicated than just simply saying ‘I don’t want to teach all online courses,’’’ Cummins said. “It’s not one thing, it’s a multitude of things.”

Cummins said part of his decision involved making sure he was protecting himself from contracting the coronavirus.

“I’m 70 years-old and have almost 35 years of teaching experience,” Cummins said. “You know, at 70 years of age, I’m putting myself in danger by coming out and teaching. Teaching in a classroom just doesn’t sound appealing to me right now.”

While Cummins doesn't want to be in a classroom during the pandemic, he also does not want to teach an all-online course load.

“I’m not interested in teaching all online courses,” Cummins said. “My strengths as a teacher and what I get as a teacher are far greater in person than online.”

To Cummins, his area of expertise revolves around hands-on learning that cannot be demonstrated fully in an online course.

“In my transition last spring, I had students develop projects from home in gardens and utilizing the outdoors,” Cummins said. “You know, I had some great final projects and work turned in doing so, but it’s not that satisfying for me. I just tried to do the best I could with it.”

Cummins also missed the liveliness of in-person learning once classes transitioned online.

“I get energy from the students,” Cummins said. “I don’t get a lot of energy from the computers.”

While some might consider favoring in-person teaching a personal preference, Cummins feels it’s more a matter of students being able to get the most out of their professors and their courses.

“I just feel like I have a lack of ability to do what it takes for the students sake,” Cummins said. “I love what I do, but I don’t think I could withstand [being fully online].”

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Former student Justin Fain took Cummins’ ecological restoration class and has seen the in-person teaching strengths first-hand.

“He genuinely cared about his students,” Fain said. “He wanted to make sure we all learned something and being in person really helped deliver that passion.” 

Fain touched on the student connection that made Cummins an effective in-person professor rather than an online one.

“He's a pleasant person to run into on campus,” Fain said. “You’ll be headed one way, and he’ll be headed for something else, but he’ll stop and talk to you for 10-15 minutes anyway.” 

While he mainly taught in a traditional-style classroom setting, Cummins also taught both domestic and international field courses in tropical places such as the Bahamas and Florida Keys, Costa Rica, Belize and Curacao.

Cummins said that although he’s not teaching this school year, he plans to continue teaching field courses next summer, pending the status of the pandemic.

Cummins’ retirement now means that there are big shoes to fill within the Department of Geography, noted Cummins’ colleague and fellow geography professor David Prytherch. 

“You know, Cummins meant a lot to this community,” Prytherch said. “We’re going to miss him being around. He’s really a gifted teacher in the fact that he loves to experience things first hand. He’s just a really good hands-on, people-person.”

Prytherch also made it a point to recognize the struggle of professors during this time. 

“You see seniors and others being celebrated for going through such difficult times, but never the teachers and the professors,” Prytherch said. “I just hope Cummins is going to get the recognition he deserves.”

Cummins said that going forward, he’s looking to be more involved in Project Dragonfly, a program designed to assist graduate students while working hands-on in the field.