DePaul professors react to remote teaching mandate


Bianca Cseke | The DePaulia

DePaul University Lincoln Park campus.

As students have started to wrap their minds around a remote Spring Quarter, professors are scrambling to meet their students’ needs.

“We are being asked to figure out how to teach our classes remotely,” said Judith McCray, a communications professor. “The college and the department and the social technology division are supposed to be available to offer us all kinds of assistance — we just haven’t been told yet what that is.”

Several professors expressed concern about a lack of preparedness with their new required medium of teaching entering Spring Quarter.

On its coronavirus FAQ page, the university said that all professors must be able to do the following “at minimum:” activate courses, email students and upload documents or assignments to the course site. They suggest that professors learn how to create discussions, give quizzes and “conduct synchronous classes online,” the website said.

Webinars on tools and techniques are also available on the website. No online training for professors appears to be mandated at this time.

“I’m going to manage, but because I’ve been down that road,” said Richard Farkas, a political science professor. “I think there are faculty who are going to need, for lack of a better term, a bit of tutoring and hand-holding. 

“The university’s response is, ‘Well, we’ve got these tutorials online,’” he added. “You have to understand that there are some of us in that generation where we’re a little less familiar with how to engage our senses in that kind of learning.”

Some voiced fears that there may not be much practicality in doing college remotely. 

“I think one of the major differences is in the online classes, at least in my experience, you have to have the things completely planned out for the entire quarter,” Farkas said. “In other words, the whole structure and framework has to be built in advance of the class starting, in my own experience.

“I don’t think you can do it on the fly week after week after week,” he added.

For small classes, facilitating discussion is an inevitable challenge. Farkas said that his biggest problem is that all three of his classes are very small, one of which is a discussion-based capstone seminar.

“Students don’t build ideas off one another nearly as much as they do when they’re put face-to-face,” he said.  “It’s very easy for a professor, especially an experienced professor, to pick up on an idea in a face-to-face class, and then that triggers other kinds of directions for the discussion. You can’t do that when you have to pre-prepare the ideas.”

A level of student investment will be of utmost importance for remote teaching to be effective. Some professors don’t think it will be a problem.

“I have very responsible and flexible students, and they will be up for whatever challenges going forward,” said Mark Fisher, a professor in the School of Music. “They’re very adaptable and they kind of seem game for anything.”

For others — particularly those whose classes often depend on face-to-face interaction — it may be tougher.

“My biggest concern is how to keep the course engaging,” McCray said. “I tend to do workshops for students — working in teams, sharing each others’ writing and reading it,”

Extra effort will likely be required on students’ end.

“The key to being successful as a student in an online class is discipline, discipline, discipline,” Farkas said.

 Other professors worry that their subject matter may be all but impossible to transfer online.

Music students and theater students – whose curriculums rely on performance — will likely be among those most affected. 

“I have absolutely no answer,” Fisher said of his plans to teach his music students. “I haven’t really thought about how I’m going to go about doing it. I’m not sure if the School of Music — in my particular case, I think we got some specifications or at least suggestions as to some portals to work with, but I’m not sure yet.”

Some of those suggestions included private lessons over Zoom or Skype, he said. 

In an email obtained by The DePaulia, the Theatre School internally announced that all live performances and in-person classes would be canceled in light of the school’s decision to move fully online.

“We understand that these measures may be upsetting, disruptive and create confusion, but we feel strongly that given the current crisis they provide the most appropriate safety for our community,” the email reads. “We are in a moment where everyone who works in the field of live entertainment is being asked to shift our plans in the name of collective well-being  — sports venues, Broadway houses, even Disneyland are all closed. It is normal to grieve the plans and visions that you had for your theatre-making and your studies. It is also important to lean into our collective imagination and sense of creativity. We will not be doing what we planned to do, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t learn or make extraordinary things in the coming months.”

Despite the concerns professors may hold, few questioned the university’s decision to move to remote learning.

“I know that the committee at the university was – I’m sure – being very responsible and considering all their options,” Farkas said. “It’s clear they’ve clearly taken an option that’s more conservative and safe than lots of other places because we don’t know how long the problems are going to persist.”

For now, their eyes are on what’s right in front of them: this quarter’s finals.

“My general philosophy is there’s really no reason to panic until I’m in it,” McCray said. “Then, I might be like, ‘Oh, this is really hard to do.’ I’m just trying to save energy to get through this quarter, you know, getting those grades in, then I’ll look at my syllabus and we’ll continue to see how this unfolds.”