The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.
Though 91% of University of Michigan courses are being taught in-person this semester, some students are still learning in alternative formats — including online or outdoors — due to concerns over teaching in small classrooms as the more contagious delta variant continues to spread.
LSA freshman Sam Gomez, who is taking an outdoors class this semester, was among those most looking forward to getting as normal of a college experience as possible in the age of COVID-19.
“I was very optimistic — when you searched for in-person classes, most classes would pop up,” Gomez said. “I was really excited that I’d be able to walk the campus and be able to experience it more or less in the way that a student would on a normal year.”
To Gomez’s surprise, “in-person” for English 223 did not mean learning in Mason Hall, the class’s location on the LSA course guide. After first meeting in the confined space of a classroom, lecturer Molly Lynch decided to move the English class outside for both creativity and safety reasons, she told The Daily.
“For the most part, people would like to be outside in the nice weather, especially in a creative writing class,” Lynch said. “But the COVID safety aspect of it was my main motivation, because I don’t know how well ventilated each classroom is.”
Over the past two weeks, Lynch has made use of spaces available throughout Central Campus, teaching her courses across from Hill Auditorium, outside the North University Building and even in the University Museum of Modern Art.
“There’s plenty of opportunity for outdoor classrooms,” Lynch said. “Our campus has a lot of spaces where that can be done and done in a way in which teachers just kind of use what appears to be available.”
Learning in these unconventional locations has helped Gomez grow accustomed to campus while tapping into his creative side — something that is much more difficult in a windowless Mason Hall classroom, he said.
“I feel like I’m a lot more in touch with things,” Gomez said. “I know that for some situations, being outside can make a classroom environment more difficult, but in a creative class such as this one, it feels like you’re in your element a bit more.”
The only downside, Gomez said, is the occasional interruption, whether it be the bell tower’s quarter-hour chime or a friend unknowingly disrupting the class.
Though Gomez and his classmates are tackling school in a brand-new setting, others have returned to the all-too-familiar Zoom calls for hybrid and virtual classes this semester.
Despite having the option to teach in person, Anna Edmonds, lecturer of philosophy, opted for virtual lectures with in-person discussions due to space limitations on campus.
“Given that it seemed like a pretty high possibility that we would end up with a much worse lecture time in possibly not a very good space, I elected to stay online,” Edmonds said.
Edmonds said the return to virtual instruction is not a setback but instead offers a variety of ways to keep students engaged during lectures. Edmonds said the chat function has been especially helpful for facilitating participation during lectures.
“I really love being able to glance over at the chat and see the kind of comments and questions people are asking there,” Edmonds said. “It’s a pretty low bar for entry into class participation … I already know that the person who’s written in it has something to say, so there’s no sort of danger of scary cold-calling.”
Students have so far enjoyed the freedom that comes with recorded lectures, Edmonds said.
“It seemed fairly plausible that having the recorded lectures to be able to go back and watch, as well as taking exams in a setting where you were by yourself and not elbow-to-elbow in the auditorium, were helpful,” Edmonds said.
Edmonds and Lynch emphasized the importance of continuing to prioritize students’ mental health.
“I acknowledge the kind of awkwardness, difficulty and challenges that we may potentially be facing,” Lynch said. “I put a huge amount of emphasis in my teaching on student mental health — it’s very prominent in my syllabi, so students are aware of the services that are available to them.”
Engineering junior Anna Kilts said virtual classes definitely have their advantages when it comes to freedom and time management.
“It’s really nice to take my class wherever,” Kilts said. “I don’t actually have to go anywhere, so my Tuesdays are very relaxing.”
On other days when she has hybrid classes, Kilts said she loses this luxury of working wherever is convenient.
“The only difficulty with hybrid (classes) is scheduling,” Kilts said. “My discussion section is ten minutes after my lecture, so I have to do the online lecture somewhere on campus to get to my classroom time.”
Still, Kilts said she hopes students stay safe and follow the University COVID-19 protocols set in place so that next semester is more similar to a pre-pandemic college experience.
“I just hope that, as a whole, the student body continues to be safe and smart with the decisions that they’re making,” Kilts said. “Obviously, being in person is really exciting, but we’re only going to be able to continue to have in-person classes and in-person opportunities as long as people are making smart decisions.”
Daily Staff Reporter Evan DeLorenzo can be reached at email@example.com.