Oberlin Faculty Respond to Unprecedented Challenges of COVID-19

April 6, 2020

Amanda Nagy

Picture of computer screen image.
More than a dozen members of the campus community representing faculty, staff, and students collaborated on the development of COVID-19 courses. The planning committee, pictured here, met regularly from remote locations using Zoom.

Oberlin College is seizing a historic moment in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and drawing on its strength in transcending the traditional boundaries of a residential liberal arts college. Boldly taking action that goes beyond shutting its doors and moving courses online, Oberlin is offering a host of robust and relevant learning opportunities for both its current students and the admitted Class of 2024.

Throughout the month of April, high school students who would normally be visiting campus to learn more about admissions and financial aid, academics, and student life will experience their Oberlin visit virtually over the coming weeks through live Q&A sessions, virtual hangouts and class visits, and webinars hosted by faculty, student, or staff panelists that cover a range of topics. Admitted students will also have the opportunity to engage with faculty across multiple disciplines in a special eight-week remote course, Uncovering COVID-19: Critical Liberal Arts Perspectives, which offers a holistic understanding of the complex global phenomenon.

More than a dozen courses will help students examine the broad social impact and the personal ramifications of COVID-19. Many of these courses help students express the disorientation and strangeness of their own lived experience. 

“The pandemic touches every aspect of our lives,” observes David Kamitsuka, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, “and our faculty are responding to the challenge by offering a remarkable range of courses on COVID-19 and pandemics generally. From art to chemistry to politics, faculty are applying their disciplinary training to help our students understand and appreciate the impact and significance of the pandemic. The creation of these courses is a prime example of our faculty’s creativity and dedication to student learning.”

Professor of Psychology Cindy Frantz will explore humans’ psychological need for belonging and connection, the importance of social contact, and the consequences of isolation in her class, Staying Connected in an Age of Isolation.

“I actually feel called to teach this course,” says Frantz. “Connection is absolutely essential for human beings, and I have every confidence that we will find ways to meet that need. This is a fascinating, teachable moment to watch it happen in real time, and to explore it systematically through the lens of psychological science.”

Professor of Mathematics Jeff Witmer approaches the topics of infectious diseases, transmission, and herd immunity in his statistics course, Intro to Epidemiology: Getting to Know the Effects of a Coronavirus.

“The course draws upon my knowledge of statistics, which is one part of epidemiology, but there is a lot I didn't know three weeks ago that I've taught myself,” Witmer says. “Fortunately, statisticians around the country have been sharing ideas, including one of my former students, Christl Donnelly ’88,” a professor of statistical epidemiology at Imperial College London and one of the world's leading experts in infectious disease epidemiology. 

Donnelly was the lead author of the first scientific paper that investigated the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. Witmer says Donnelly was instrumental in directing him to important resources, and she has agreed to do a live Q&A session with his class despite the five-hour time difference between Oberlin and London. 

Laura Baudot, associate dean of the College of the Arts and Sciences, says, “Oberlin faculty are not just reframing their courses for online delivery, they are drawing from their disciplinary training to shed light on this complex global phenomenon. In many cases, faculty are adding these modules to an already full time teaching load. A dedication to student learning and well-being in a time of unprecedented social isolation animates them to go above and beyond.”

Other COVID-19 course offerings include: Continuity through Disruption, Arts Practice Beyond the Institution, team-taught by studio art department; Finding Well-being and Ways Forward Through Adversity (biology); Seminar: Viral Diseases (biology); Drug Development and the Coronavirus (chemistry); Storytelling Across Media (cinema studies); Disability and Queer Community Health in Times of Pandemic (comparative American studies); Sign o' The Times: Music, Crisis, and Generational Response (comparative American studies); Choreographing Catastrophe (dance); The Politics of COVID-19 (politics); Travel Writing in Times of Crisis (rhetoric and composition); Covering Crisis: Storytelling Across Media (rhetoric and composition); Fiber Arts: The Artist Responds to Times of Trouble and Social Upheaval (theater); Emergency Preparedness for Performing Arts Organizations (theater); and Playwriting and Theater-Making in Times of Crisis (theater).

Uncovering COVID-19: Critical Liberal Arts Perspectives was designed specially for admitted students in the Class of 2024 to engage with questions about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This credit-bearing academic course is free of charge for all admitted students. Classes will take place via Zoom on eight consecutive Tuesdays beginning April 7. Each class session will include a faculty lecture followed by small-group discussion led by a current student peer advisor. The peer advisor will also field questions about life and learning at Oberlin.

Oberlin faculty members in biology, mathematics, politics, comparative American studies, cinema studies, economics, psychology, and rhetoric and composition will provide a variety of perspectives on the pandemic, demonstrating the interdisciplinary approach necessary for fully comprehending the current crisis. The course thus also doubles as an introduction to the nature of liberal arts learning. Student leaders, including PALs, OWLS, and Writing Associates, will lead discussion sections following the lectures. The goal of these discussions is both to help students deepen their understanding of the topic in conversation with their peers, and for the PALs to share their knowledge of the student experience at Oberlin.

In collaboration with Arts and Sciences, the Career Development Center is offering the 200 students participating in the Career Communities program the opportunity to design their own independent project based on one of the special COVID-19 second module courses. This will serve as an alternative plan and safety net if summer internships get canceled as a result of the current pandemic.

“Members of the Career Communities program worked very hard this academic year to hone their skills and secure summer internships, says Dana Hamdan, associate dean of student life and executive director of the Career Development Center. "While there is no substitute for the rich experience our students would receive as interns, especially with Oberlin alumni and parents, we believe the independent projects will give them an opportunity to engage productively with the challenges we are facing today.”

Oberlin’s student newspaper, The Oberlin Review, is working with current students enrolled in COVID-19 themed module courses—as well as the admitted students’ course—to create a multimedia digital hub that represents the different ways that students are grappling with the pandemic.

“When confronted with an all-encompassing problem like COVID-19, I think it's important to be able to ask questions on the same scale, and I am grateful to the faculty offering those courses for providing the space for that kind of thinking to take place,” says fourth-year Nathan Carpenter, editor-in-chief of the Review. “I’m looking forward to seeing what kinds of student-created projects we are able to publish as a result.

“In many ways, having the opportunity to work on the course for admitted students has reminded me of the best parts of why I chose to come to Oberlin in the first place. It means a lot to see the genuine investment from faculty in helping all of us to better understand what's happening in our lives right now, from the perspectives of their different academic disciplines. It's also been incredible to see the excitement on the part of admitted students—they want to engage with these big questions in a way that strikes me as very Oberlin.”

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