JONATHAN L. WHARTON
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My column on outdoor class gained more interest than I expected. It was a simple but apparently radical approach since readers and students were for and against it, especially on social media. But the column also caught CNN’s interest as I was asked to speak about it on Out Front with Erin Burnett.
My intention was to consider an overlooked approach to delivering education besides online teaching and holding class in windowless rooms during a pandemic. I missed teaching in person and I had online class fatigue. Conducting classes through recorded lectures, live online discussions, on campus or a mix of all the above can get overwhelming. And so many of my colleagues opted to have online classes since the vast majority of courses are not on campus this semester at Southern Connecticut State University. In fact, administrators are lobbying faculty to have more in-person classes next semester.
This semester I decided to try on campus and online as well as the “hybrid” option of using both approaches. Even my office hours are in person and online. These learning formats have become a juggling act as I also tried a “hyflex” approach by dividing a class into sections and having in-class and online sessions recorded for students learning remotely.
As one can imagine, these formats require patience and creativity. My colleagues and I went through online training to understand Zoom, Webex, Blackboard and Teams platforms. Graduate school doesn’t quite train you for these programs and formats but I was willing, able and curious. Twenty years as an educator and I don’t want to be that stodgy professor that I fear I am becoming.
But this pandemic era reminded me of my early teaching days when I taught classes outdoors including at my previous college employer, Stevens Institute of Technology, and I tried to do so at SCSU. Thankfully, administrators read about my interest in holding outdoor class and several faculty members voiced their support. While tents were not arranged like nearby institutions, SCSU did set up several outdoor classroom areas around campus. I thought the space under an outdoor part of Earl Hall was a clever idea and I have been using the outdoor class area by Engleman Hall.
Since my classes are over 20 students, we have been assigned to a huge windowless lecture hall and a large theater to meet social distancing requirements. Lecturing in such vast spaces gave me flashbacks to my alma mater, Rutgers University, where I taught nearly a hundred students at a time. Even worse, teaching through a facemask was nearly impossible and exhausting.
No surprise that when I asked students about having class outdoors, many were on board with it so we could have fresh air, even if we still wear masks. Besides, we lucked out weather-wise since sunny Tuesdays have been plentiful so far and we will be fully online by mid-November when the weather will be significantly colder.
I held some classes in front of Lyman Performing Arts Center since there’s a large landscaped roundabout island and it is conveniently across from my office where I store camping chairs. Several students also brought their chairs. My afternoon class seemed to like it, but some students mentioned having a desk would be helpful for in-class assignments. I reserved a designated outdoor class, where SCSU provided desks and chairs.
But my night class and I initially tried the Lyman island area. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago we were caught in the middle of a stolen car chase involving city police. The Lyman area tends to be noisy with rush-hour traffic. So off the Lyman island we went, and I reserved an outdoor class area. But another class was using the outdoor class space so I happily told the instructor to continue using it, as his class was really into it. Plus with 7 o’clock evening sunsets and our class ending a half hour later, Mother Nature limited effective outdoor classes. So back to the large lecture hall we went.
My classes had different concerns about the outdoor option with afternoon students more agreeable about it. But my evening class found that without any outdoor boards to write on, and insects and spiders often around us, that it was too much. A car chase and a class using an assigned area caused disruption. But I have to live and learn along with my students. Like so many of us, I am trying to be flexible, and teaching during this pandemic requires some innovation.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science and urban affairs and the School of Graduate Professional Studies Interim Associate Dean at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent guest on WNPR’s Wheelhouse radio show.
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