Manhattan Faculty Speak on the Return to School

by Jilleen Barrett & Jocelyn VisnovAsst. A&E & Staff Writer 

Heading into its fourth week of classes, Manhattan College is teaching its students something it never has before: how to get a higher education during a pandemic. With some on campus and some in remote locations, the student body is adjusting to learning mostly online. But students aren’t the only ones learning. Faculty members, who are usually at the front of the classroom teaching, are figuring out how to instruct their students under these abnormal circumstances.

Heidi Laudien, an associate professor of English, sees her students in person as well as through Google Meet when she teaches her hybrid classes. She described herself as quite enthusiastic when she teaches, but this year she has been disappointed at the lack of connection she finds between her and her online students.

“My students who are remote often do not have their cameras on so the students in class have no sense of who they are,” Laudien wrote in an email to The Quadrangle. “Often when I ask for virtual participation, it is met with silence.” 

In addition to what some perceive  as the awkwardness of online learning, many in-person members of the community have witnessed some complications during the planning process. One particular issue arose on Aug. 31, the first day of classes, when several classrooms in Leo Hall did not have plexiglass shields installed or enough sanitation wipes.

Ira Gerhardt is the chair of the Council for Faculty Affairs and a professor of mathematics. In an email to The Quadrangle, Gerhardt explained what he knew about this situation and how it was handled.

“I heard from many on-campus faculty during the first couple days of the term regarding unsafe teaching conditions such as classrooms with no sanitizing wipes and Plexiglass partitions on the floor leaning against the wall,” Gerhardt wrote. “Facilities and the Provost’s office responded quickly to these concerns and most were rectified within a day.”

Arshia Anwer, a professor in the communications department, noted that the college could have been more inclusive towards professors when making preparations for the fall semester.

“I think Manhattan College could have handled the way it rolled out the decisions better,” she wrote in an email. “While there was a task force of faculty that were involved in the decision-making process during early summer, the majority of faculty members felt they were kept out of the loop about what was going on and their voices weren’t being heard.”

Anwer attributes part of the college’s method of releasing information to the quickly changing regulations imposed by New York state and the federal government. 

“I understand the administration at Manhattan College was dealing with shifting goalposts with laws and directives from the State of New York coming every few days, and kudos to Provost Schreiner for trying to be transparent and holding a number of town halls, but it still was stressful, and students, staff and faculty felt disenfranchised with the way decisions were made,” Anwer wrote.

Despite facility related issues like the late installation of plexiglass, Gerhardt credits students for being responsible and protecting each other on campus, leading to a low number in positive cases. 

“My understanding is that so far when students have been identified as having too many people crammed into their dorm rooms, that there has been a unified response from both the RA’s and the other students in the dorm,” Gerhardt wrote. “ … that kind of self-policing is fantastic, and a true testament to the Jasper spirit.”

In addition to focusing on their students, both Gerhardt and Laudien noted how many professors on campus have children of their own who are now learning from home. In a follow-up Google Meet interview with Gerhardt, his two young children could be heard in the background.

“This is my existence,” Gerhardt said as he held his young daughter up to the camera. He further explained that parenting and teaching simultaneously during a pandemic has been stressful and unpredictable.

“Like many faculty, I found the sudden shift to remote teaching difficult particularly as I was also spending the days assisting my older child with his own remote learning while organizing homeschooling for my younger one,” Gerhardt said. 

He continued to explain why he decided not to return to the normalcy of on-campus instruction when Manhattan College offered him the opportunity to.

“In that way by the end of the spring term I was thinking longingly of the days of teaching in-person,” he said. “However, the logistics of returning during the COVID-19 crisis always seemed daunting, particularly the prospect of keeping everyone safe in dorms and classrooms with sub-optimal ventilation and a continual need to interact closely.”

All of the professors interviewed illustrated that they had their students’ best interests as their top priority. Moujalli Hourani, a civil engineering professor who is working remotely for the semester, said that he will not allow the complications caused by this virus to impact the quality of his teaching. Though he had to adjust to new technology, he continues to urge his students to do their best in his classes.

“It requires adjustment from everybody,” he said. “But it is the responsibility of the faculty to make sure that the student, no matter if it is remote or in-person, must receive the best education that Manhattan College can provide.” 

Other faculty members seem to agree. Gerhardt expressed that communication is the most effective tool in making this semester as productive as possible.

“Students should plan to be even more proactive in their learning than [they] were before the pandemic,” Gerhardt wrote. “If there are circumstances that are making remote learning more difficult–technology problems, for example–rather than just assuming that it can’t be resolved, reach out to the instructor as they may be able to offer a solution or to put you in touch with someone else who can.”

When asked what her advice for students would be during this time,  Anwer advised students to take advantage of the many resources offered by the college, whether students are on-campus or remote.

“Please use any and all resources available to you at Manhattan College, including the Writing Center/Center for Academic Success, the Counseling Center, individual faculty members and mentors you’ve made relationships with, or friends and family that can be supportive during this time,” Anwer wrote.