‘There’s been nothing to challenge us like this crisis,’ Faculty respond to COVID-19 pandemic

By Kallie Cox, News Editor

The coronavirus pandemic has forced SIU’s faculty to move all courses online and to take a non-traditional approach to education. 

Faculty were given one extra week of spring break to figure out how to make the switch to online and classes are scheduled to resume March 23. 

Dave Johnson, president of the SIU faculty association and an associate professor of classics said people should remember that faculty are people too.

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“On the one hand we’re worried and stressed out like everybody else,” Johnson said. “Faculty are real people, a lot of us have kids who are home from school, a lot of us have elderly relatives that we’re worried about.”

Johnson said he has been in contact with a number of faculty who are also working creatively to do the best they can to transfer courses to a new mode of instruction and he thinks people are making a good faith effort to do all they can to make student’s experiences as good as possible under the circumstances.

“I think it’s a time when we’re all kind of scrambling and universities around the country are scrambling to figure out what are the best policies to deal with an unprecedented situation,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important that we keep the lines of communication open and that we be flexible and that we listen to one another and that we realize that it’s going to take some time to figure out the best way to handle this situation.”

Johnson said the university made the right decision when they extended spring break and closed campus. 

“We have to put health and safety first. That needs to be the fundamental criteria that we use for making what in many cases, may be very difficult decisions,” Johnson said. 

The thing Johnson said he has found most helpful so far is reaching out to colleagues who are teaching similar classes and engaging with Facebook groups and discussions popping up where faculty nationwide are sharing information on what to do. He said his colleagues on campus have been receiving useful help from SIU’s center for teaching excellence.

“I think there is a real chance that if we do this right, if we listen to one another, if we pull together as a community, that despite the stress and inconvenience and in some cases the negative consequences to students course of study over the short term that despite all that, we can emerge as a stronger community from this crisis,” Johnson said.

Jonathan Bean, chair of SIU’s history department, said the situation at SIU is unprecedented.

“This is a great unknown. I’ve taught here 25 years and there’s been nothing to challenge us like this crisis,” Bean said. “Perhaps only the terror attacks on 9/11 had this kind of effect on this campus. That kind of a shock effect.”

Bean said SIU is well along its way in terms of its online capacity and faculty’s ability to teach via the internet. 

Bean said the center for teaching excellence at SIU has been an excellent resource for faculty and has helped faculty with moving their courses to an online format. 

Bean said the situation has affected events put on by the history department and other units across campus. 

“We have a history fair that was to meet next weekend with hundreds of students and their parents coming from all over the region, that’s gone completely online as well and we had a history awards banquet and of course that’s cancelled even though it was an off campus event to be held at Giant City lodge,” Bean said.

Bean said the shut-down certainly affects the classrooms but it’s going to be affecting the way SIU recruits. 

“This week I’m making phone calls to students who’ve been admitted to SIU and we need to realize that their high school classes have likely been suspended and we’re calling at a time that they’ve been admitted to SIU, we really want them to come here we think they’d like to be a Saluki and they’ll have all sorts of questions about how SIU is dealing with the current situation,” Bean said. “We have to be honest that we don’t have all the answers and just stay tuned.”

Bean said the administration has done a good job keeping faculty up to date and they need to continue to do that.

Joseph Sramek, Associate Professor and director of undergraduate studies with the Department of History has been teaching at SIU for 13 years.

Sramek said the university has done a good job of helping faculty navigate the crisis.

 “They have daily workshops that we can go to on Zoom,” Sramek said. “I’ve been playing with it about eight or nine times so far it’s pretty straight forward. I’ve gotten a couple groups of my students to get on every time I’ve done it. The biggest thing I’m trying to do is provide a sense of calm to my students because I think students are more worried because this is such a disruption.”

Sramek said he is totally in support of a pass/fail grading system this semester and that faculty and administration need to be empathetic and flexible during this time.

“I worry that some students will disappear, that they just will have too much going on,” Sramek said. “Not everybody has stable internet connections so I need to know more about what the university is planning to do and we haven’t been hearing much to be honest with you, about what they are planning to do for students that don’t have reliable internet or are having to share that internet with family members I just don’t know what contingencies are being thought of for that.”

Sramek said the university has to get through this together.

“I hope there is a greater empathy and understanding,” Sramek said. “I intend to at least have that myself. I can’t dictate that to my colleagues and my other professors but I just hope that is what we are going to do.”

Sramek said the onset of the pandemic and the shut-down has left the campus community in shock.

“I think the biggest concern is to make sure nobody at the university on campus gets sick,” Sramek said. “ Jackson county has a case now. It is here.”

Sramek said the only time he has seen something similar to this was during 9/11 when he was teaching as a graduate assistant in New York during the attack. 

“Everybody sort of came together sort of as a solidarity which I think we are going to see on campus,” Sramek said. “I think we are already seeing it. At least the professors that everyday I am on this Zoom conference call at noon for example and there is just this like willingness at least of the people that are on that to pull together and to figure this out and actually do good by our students so I hope that continues.”

Michael Sullivan, a Professor in the Department of Mathematics since 1996, said the biggest problem he is facing with the transition to online is how he will proctor exams.

“For a large lecture class I don’t see a realistic way to do exams online yet,” Sullivan said. “Maybe we will figure it out, I am thinking some professors will just have to give students incompletes and schedule the exams in the summer but who knows.”

Sullivan said the administration needs to consider extending the semester to hold labs and exams in-person.

The Daily Egyptian asked the university what it planned to do about classes that could not be moved to an online format, such as labs and certification courses.

 Meera Komarraju, SIU’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the university will continue to work with professors and instructors to find creative and novel ways of instructing content that can be delivered via online and alternate modes.

“We are working with instructors to explore all potential options for administering a final exam/final project/ end of semester assignment via an online/alternate mode,” Komarraju said.

Komarraju said the drop deadline for classes has been extended a week.

“We are working very hard to ensure we support our instructors in providing the best educational experience for our students,” Komarraju said. “We appreciate the teamwork as well as everyone’s patience and hard work in managing this unprecedented and rapidly evolving situation.”

News Editor Kallie Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KallieECox. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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