Class becomes ‘dead space,’ research stalls: Professors manage impacts of coronavirus

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jean Philippe Gibert misses his students.

“We’re real junkies of that energy that we get from our students,” said Gibert, an assistant professor of biology who teaches “Ecology for a Crowded Planet” alongside Emily Bernhardt, James B. Duke distinguished professor of biology. 

For him, there’s something special that happens when he teaches.

“There's a connection with the people you're talking to. You see those ‘aha’ moments, you see them when they're not understanding and you react based on that,” he said. 

Over the last month and a half, Gibert and other professors have had to adjust to Duke’s response to the coronavirus, which included curtailing research and moving classes online. They have had to adapt to new technology while dealing with disruptions to their academic work, and they have had to learn how to teach students in an online environment.

“I’ll be honest that this transition has been incredibly difficult for me,” wrote Jennifer Ansley, a lecturing fellow with the Thompson Writing Program and instructor of two Writing 101 sections about HIV/AIDS in literature and culture, in an email. “I think that sharing the physical and communal space of the classroom is an important part of thinking and learning with other people. We need that space of connection.”

Bernhardt described recorded lectures as “speaking into dead space” and live Zoom classes, when most students have their cameras turned off, as “talking to a wall of black boxes.”

Nevertheless, Bernhardt and Gibert worked to redesign their 66-person course. They had to contend with disruptions: Two students in the class contracted the virus, and there were frequent struggles with internet access. 

Before making changes to the syllabus, the professors sent a survey to the class. It asked what students wanted to get out of the remainder of the course, particular challenges that they were facing and anything else about their situation that they were open to sharing. 

“It was really helpful to see the wide variety of situations our students were in,” Bernhardt said. “You can’t learn in a situation where you don’t feel like your professor cares about you, particularly in this case.”

Putting students first

Based on student input, Bernhardt and Gibert decided that, instead of teaching live classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they would send out recorded lectures on Tuesdays.

Thursday’s class was typically dedicated to small group work, and Bernhardt said students wrote in the survey that they wanted to continue this component of the class. After transitioning online, students were given an entire week to collaborate on the assignments, meeting with their group at times that worked for them. 

On Thursdays, the class convened on Zoom to complete short exercises and discuss what they had learned. The live meeting was recorded for anyone who could not make it, but Gibert said that attendance had consistently been over 90%.

Bernhardt said the professors had been “really flexible” with extensions, continuing to remind students that Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grading was an option. 

“We tried to change everything to make it possible for any student, no matter their level of internet connectivity, to participate and learn in the class,” she said. “Mental and physical health come first. This class comes a distant second.”

Meanwhile, Ansley canceled class-wide meetings altogether, instead providing short recorded lectures and encouraging students to connect with one another on a discussion forum.

To help students prepare for their final paper, Ansley met with each of them via Zoom and formed groups for them to workshop their rough drafts, dividing them based on their time zones. Afterwards, students submitted a worksheet in which they explained how the meeting went and noted any questions that they had for Ansley. 

The students also convinced Ansley to bring the class back together on Zoom for a final class.

“It’ll be nice to see everyone’s faces and exchange some final thoughts on the semester in real time,” Ansley wrote April 15. 

Lalita Kaligotla, adjunct professor and associate director of the Hart Leadership Program, said this difficult time had allowed for her students to further connect with each other.  

In her public policy seminar “Border Crossing: Leadership, Value Conflicts and Public Life,” students shared experiences of family members who are health-care professionals on the front lines of the pandemic, and the inspiring ways in which they have been grappling with the tragedy. Methods ranged from writing and documentary work to helping create the Duke Mutual Aid Facebook group.

“My biggest takeaway teaching and mentoring students in these uncertain times is the remarkable resilience and grit of our student body,” Kaligotla said. “I am so gratified that they are willing to take each new day as it comes and give it their best, not just for themselves but for their peers and their communities.”

Technological troubles

For Bernhardt, dependence on unfamiliar technology made it all the more difficult to redesign a course mid-semester. 

“You got a bunch of people trying to make video lectures, often with tools we've never used before. Professors sometimes can't even manage to run PowerPoint on the projector,” she said. “If we had known this was coming, which of course we didn't, we could've been better prepared and made that transition a little smoother.”

Gibert also had to learn a lot of new information at an accelerated pace. He wished Duke had given professors “emergency online teaching training” before the pandemic reached the point of requiring campus closure.

The professor noted the challenging position Duke was in, however. 

“It's difficult to criticize what things could've been doing better when things had to happen quickly,” he said. “It's very easy to criticize, very difficult to find a solution.” 

Bernhardt said this pandemic could become a long-term reality and professors would need support from the University to succeed.

“If we continue in this vein we're going to need some help to do it well, to do it at the level that Duke students deserve,” she said.

Both faculty members applauded Duke for extending spring break by a week, which provided faculty with vital time to transition the course online and learn new education tools. For some instructors, last month was the first time they had ever hosted a Zoom call.

Teaching wasn’t the only area in which Gibert has been professionally affected by COVID-19, however.  

The impact on research

All research at Duke has been suspended, except work related to developing a COVID-19 vaccine, some kinds of clinical research with human subjects and work that can be done remotely. The change has affected Gibert’s research.

The ecologist began his career at Duke a year and a half ago, when he began his lab studying how climate change affects food webs and predator-prey interaction. His team spent the past year growing bacteria cultures, which would have been used to begin experimental work this summer.

Without undergraduate and graduate researchers to help maintain the freshwater organisms, the team had to discard a quarter of their cultures.

“The ones that we didn’t get rid of, we’re just not taking care of them,” Gibert said. “We’re crossing all our fingers that perhaps in a few months, when we look back at them, they’re still there and we can still use them.”

His lab manager, who is designated by the University as an essential worker, has been visiting the lab every couple of weeks for basic culture maintenance, but the remaining bacteria have, for the most part, been left in the growth chamber to fend for themselves.

According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, Duke is an ‘R1’ school, meaning it’s a doctoral university with a very high level of research activity among its faculty.

In Gibert’s contract with Duke, he agreed to devote 60% of his time to research, 30% to teaching and the rest to service to the University or his discipline, such as contributing to school committees or hosting scientific conferences.

Gibert said COVID-19 might also jeopardize the careers of tenure-track professors who rely on their research output to gain a permanent job contract.

Duke has extended the tenure clock for all of its faculty by six months and offered “a liberal policy on individual requests,” wrote Robert Russell, assistant to the provost for faculty affairs, in an email. 

For his part, Gibert said he is “lucky” because, even though his lab has not yet collected any experimental data, for now he can focus on the theoretical side of his research and study mathematical models at his desk. However, he has colleagues whose research depends entirely on traveling to the field, which is halted for the foreseeable future.

Charlie Nunn, Gosnell family professor in global health, is a tenured professor whose lab studies how infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans. Most of his research is based in Madagascar, where Nunn and his graduate students had planned to travel this summer.

Thankfully, the four-year-old program has an established partnership with Vahatra, a local research organization designed to educate young Malagasy scientists, Nunn said. While he has been at home analyzing data from previous trips, the group, as well as six to eight employed nearby villagers, continue the field work.  

“Obviously we prefer to be present and be a real team, rather than just telling them what to do from afar, but they have a lot of training and experience, so they can do quite a bit of what we want to do,” Nunn said. “It’s not the best situation, but I feel very fortunate that we already have some data and we have a good team there, so we’re able to keep moving forward.”

Opportunities and making things work

Nunn said that despite the research challenges caused by COVID-19, the pandemic has helped the infectious disease expert identify some new research questions: How does social distancing work for agriculturalists who rely on growing their own food? How do we mitigate infection in a low-income country?

In fact, Nunn is revising some of his current work, based on the research needs presented by the coronavirus outbreak, and he said that many of his colleagues are also finding ways to adapt.  

“This has been incredibly disruptive. Most of the colleagues I’ve talked to have found this to be one of the most challenging events for their careers, research, families and teaching,” said Nunn, who is currently homeschooling his two children. “But I also found that most of my colleagues are willing to go the extra mile to make things work.”


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