I am a first-year student living on-campus for my second semester here at Oberlin. It is a new and exciting experience for me to just be in college and attend classes, but navigating that during a pandemic adds an extra element of stress. Most of the lectures that I have been in were online, with the exception of my first-year seminar last semester and my philosophy class this semester, and my lab classes which have been hybrid. Although it is not entirely enjoyable to traverse to classes in the time of mask-wearing and physical distancing, I don’t know Oberlin life in any other way, so it has not been a disappointing college learning experience. Let me walk you through what it is like to go to classes while staying safe from COVID-19, from my perspective, and the perspective of a double-degree student.
I start each day with a class over Zoom, and while the online format is not ideal, it is nice to be able to roll out of bed and be ready for class instantly, especially since I have classes that start around 9 am every day. To ensure I am on time for class, I try to click the zoom link a couple of minutes before class is scheduled to start. I sit through my 50 minute or 1 hour and 15-minute classes, trying to prevent myself from getting distracted (it’s super easy to do something else during the lecture but I try my best to actively listen!). Online classes typically consist of the professor sharing a PowerPoint slide on their screen and lecturing, and they often incorporate a group-work element by placing groups of students in breakout rooms to do problems or discuss ideas or readings. Students are encouraged, but typically not required, to turn on their video so the professor can see their reactions to concepts or levels of engagement. While remote classes are not outstanding, the professors do their best to explain concepts fully and make the class as interactive as possible. This semester I have been getting a lot of computer fatigue from going to Zoom lectures and doing online school work, but professors try to be accommodating and try to give us little breaks from classes.
For my laboratory classes in introductory chemistry and biology, some days are in-person and others are online. For chemistry, this means that every other week I go in-person to work in the lab, and the other weeks I go into a classroom to analyze my results. Some labs are also all online, with a Zoom room set up for professor instruction then small group work to complete the lab through online simulations or watching videos of experiments. In-person labs are quite the spectacle. There are two rooms, each with about 10 students, separated by six feet and plexiglass dividers. It feels very sterile and isolated since we work alone (with the help of TAs and lab instructors as necessary). We also have to wear protective goggles, which are a real treat to wear with the mask, as they get very foggy from water particles that come from the mouth, through the mask, up to the goggles. I find myself wiping off the inside of my goggles sometimes every 20 minutes. For biology, which I took last semester, most labs were online and some were in-person. The in-person labs were separated into two rooms, with the professor hooked up to the projector in our room on Zoom to speak to us. We worked in groups of six for biology, with two group members that were studying remotely, so we had to Zoom them and show them what we were doing. I can only imagine how exciting that was for them, watching us dissect rats over the internet.
My in-person class last semester was in the King building, and this semester is in Peters Hall. Each building has entrance-only doors, exit-only doors, one-way-up stairs, and one-way-down stairs, so it is difficult to get to your classroom (although people often do not follow the signs, which is usually fine because the buildings are not very crowded so people still stay distant). The classrooms that I have been in all have chair desks, spread more or less six feet apart from each other. There are disinfecting wipes near the door, supposed to be used before and after class to wipe down the desks, and a plexiglass divider separating the professor from the students. Students file in before classes start and leave in a semi-orderly fashion at the end of class. All students and professors must wear masks in class to prevent the spread of virus particles, but this also hinders discussions as it is harder to hear people through masks and you can’t read their lips to aid in your understanding of what they are saying. Despite the troubles of not being able to hear what your neighbors are saying as well as you would be able to closer together or on Zoom, is still fun to be in-person and see people I have only ever seen before through my screen (since it’s easy to forget that people on Zoom exist outside of my computer). I prefer in-person classes over remote ones because it is easier for me to focus and stay engaged when I am in the same room as my professor.
Jake, who was in my first-year seminar last semester, is a double-degree cello student, and dealing with conservatory and college classes along with practicing daily means his schedule is packed. I interviewed him last semester about his experiences with classes and lessons. He took several conservatory classes and private lessons which were all remote, and our first-year seminar, chamber music, and large ensemble which were in-person.
Most of Jake’s remote classes were asynchronous, which he enjoyed because you could work on your own terms at your own time. However, there wasn’t any class culture or really any sense of the personalities of his peers which makes it more difficult for Jake to learn and get excited about classes. Jake also took private lessons with a professor, which were either on Zoom or in a low-latency room with the professor on the other side of the wall. There was a television, microphone, and speaker in each room so the students and professors can watch and hear each other. These features attempt to make the experience like an in-person one, but there are challenges to being separated by a wall. Jake’s instructor noticed an issue with how Jake held his bow two months later than they would have if they had been in person. The separated experience was difficult, but an advantage was that he could record the lessons and watch them back later.
Jake’s chamber music class met four times a week to work on musical pieces, rehearsing for an hour or two at a time. The performers had to sit six feet apart and had to reserve the practice rooms in Bibbins Hall ahead of time and let them rest for an hour after using before others could use the room. The chamber music ensemble had less than 10 people. His large ensemble class was only allowed to have 10-30 people because of the pandemic, but usually up to 100 people could participate. The ensemble met in Finney Chapel, Warner Concert Hall, the basement bar of the Oberlin Hotel, and Central 25 in the Central Unit of the Conservatory. There were plexiglass shields on stage and players of wind instruments had to have 12 feet of distance because they were not masked and shot particles much further than other instrument players. Jake said that the large ensemble was odd with precautions, the oddest part being how it sounded. They played a repertoire meant to be played with 100 people with 30, leading to a thinner sound, and the distance made it harder to hear the other players on stage. Jake had to play a lot with his eyes instead of his ears, which is generally not advised, but the distance and shields made it difficult to hear everyone, so he had to play with his eyes on the conductor. Jake’s studio class met once a week with all the students of his cello professor. They played for each other and offered feedback, and their professor showed up in person for it.
Overall, Oberlin has done a pretty good job of providing a safe learning environment while still managing to give a quality liberal arts education. Times are uncertain now, but the professors and students are making the best of it!
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