After a summer of preparation, faculty and staff launch online classes

Abby Main, Staff Reporter

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Whitman to halt in-person classes last spring, professors scrambled to transition. This semester, their online classes will benefit from a summer of preparation.

Mary Raschko, Associate Professor of English, spent most of her summer organizing courses for the First Year Seminars and adapting her class to an online format. 

“I figured the chances were low that we’d be in person in a way that would allow all the traditional methods of teaching, so I imagined the class as always having some kind of virtual component. That meant that I needed to re-imagine the way that I taught the material,” she said.

As the Director of the First Year Seminars program, she devoted time to ensuring that classes would be accessible to students in a variety of situations. For example, students living in areas far from Pacific Standard Time were grouped into classes with professors who focused on asynchronous learning strategies.

This fall, Raschko’s History of the Book course will take on a different shape than is traditional. Realizing that students wouldn’t be able to handle old texts in the way that the class usually requires, Raschko has re-imagined how to use sources in the class. 

“I’m not restricted to what Whitman owns,” Raschko said. “I can have students working with the richest resources of all of the biggest libraries in the world, and we can think of this instead as an opportunity to work with really extraordinary books.”

Additionally, Raschko and the Archivist and Head of Digital Services at Penrose Library, Ben Murphy, have worked to make Whitman’s archives accessible over Zoom.

“The setup we have right now is a tripod with an iPhone over the old books and then two different zoom screens so that [the class] can look at original objects,” Raschko explained.

Kirsten Nicolaysen, Associate Professor of Geology, found similarly creative solutions to the challenges posed by online learning. Nicolaysen spent time during her summer vacation visiting locations in Wyoming and Montana to collect samples for students. 

 “As soon as it looked like we might need to adopt a hybrid teaching model, I immediately thought ‘I’ve got to get my hands on more rocks so that I can send each student a care package for the semester,’” she said.

At the Stillwater Complex in Montana, which Nicolaysen referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of igneous intrusions,” she received special permission and collected “about a hundred pounds or more” of rock samples.

In addition to sending her students kits with rock samples and microscope slides, Nicolaysen configured a low-tech microscope for each student. Rather than learn the principles of optics through microscopes in a lab, the class will apply those same skills to manipulate light using an LED panel, light-diffracting film and a magnifying glass.

Nicolaysen also summarized a common thought from professors and students, noting that she was surprised at how much time it takes to teach (and learn) online. This sentiment was echoed by Mitch Clearfield, Senior Lecturer of Philosophy and General Studies, and Charly Bloomquist, Senior Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art. Bloomquist is currently posting recordings for his photography classes to YouTube.

“I have an hour and fifty minutes of recording that I have to edit down into something small enough that I can post it to YouTube. That’s a huge challenge for me,” Bloomquist said.

Raschko hopes students are mindful that professors, too, are learning a new system.

“[Professors] are putting a lot of effort in,” she said, “but we’re going to make some mistakes and we’re going to learn how this goes better throughout the semester. I hope classes are starting at a high degree of quality; I expect that for a lot of classes the quality will be quite a bit better in mid-October. Our best-laid plans are guesses, and so we might need to change the shape of some throughout the semester.”

To describe the preparations that teachers have made, Nicolaysen referenced the metaphor of a duck. 

“The smooth sailing that you see during class is the result of a lot of furiously fast paddling in the background,” she said.