Photo courtesy of Dana Hamdan
Editor’s note: Editor-in-Chief Nathan Carpenter is the course manager of the Uncovering COVID-19 class, and was uninvolved with the reporting and editing of this story.
Three weeks after students were sent home and the College transitioned to remote learning, Oberlin administrators continue to respond to the academic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. A variety of new programs and classes have been created to address complications caused by remote learning, including new second-module classes for current students, a course for accepted prospective students, and new opportunities for third- and fourth-years enrolled in the Career Communities program.
Faculty introduced 15 new courses focused on studying global pandemics across different disciplines. Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka proposed the idea at a General Faculty meeting in mid-March. According to Laura Baudot, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Educational Plans and Policies Committee, new classes were needed because some classes could not be moved online such as screen printing, certain dance classes, and many lab classes. Additionally, some students sent home early from study away programs needed extra classes to replace the credit they would have received while abroad.
“We also wanted to have courses that speak to the present moment and the challenge that’s gripping all of us,” Baudot said. “So that was the basic idea: that we should help students navigate this really difficult time by providing the kind of critical distance that an academic course provides. Faculty were immediately responsive to the dean’s call. Some had already been thinking along these lines [and] wanted to offer courses that help students grapple with the magnitude of our current moment.”
These new classes, which started last week, have been developed in many different departments; they range from a Chemistry class about the development of medical drugs, to a Rhetoric and Composition class about journalistic coverage of crises, to a Theater class about playwriting during crisis.
“A pandemic is a comprehensive challenge and there is no better way to understand it than through a multidisciplinary liberal arts lens,” Kamitsuka wrote in an email to the Review. “I so admire our faculty for seizing this profound human moment for the education of our students.”
Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies Cindy Frantz is teaching a class called Staying Connected in an Age of Isolation about the psychological need for social contact while practicing social distancing.
“The two most important things [I hope students take from my class] are how fundamental and important that need to belong is for human beings, and number two, how flexible and creative we are at building connections,” Frantz said. “That’s the part that makes it feel so timely right now: that we are seeing right in front of us all of these creative things people are doing to stay connected. I want to give students a lens through which to think about that, to recognize how significant and valuable it is.”
In conjunction with these second-module courses, the Career Development Center is offering students in the Career Communities program the option to conduct their own independent research related to a COVID-19 class. These students will receive financial stipends and their work will be published in collaboration with The Oberlin Review and the Office of Communications. Normally, the Career Communities program culminates in a summer internship, but because of the pandemic, some summer programs are still up in the air and others have been canceled.
“We haven’t decided whether to suspend the program; we’re waiting on more information from public health officials and Oberlin College,” said Dana Hamdan, executive director of the Career Development Center and associate dean of students. “Students have put a lot of time and effort into the course. We want them to have the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned, and to showcase to prospective employers how Obies respond in moments of crisis.”
In addition, the College has created an eight-week Zoom course for students accepted into the class of 2024, called Uncovering COVID-19. Each week, a different faculty member will lecture about the pandemic from their perspective in various academic fields. More than 500 students had registered to take the class, which will begin on Tuesday, April 7.
“We want them to get a sense of the relevance of liberal arts approaches to major global challenges,” Baudot said. “It looks at COVID from these different disciplinary vantage points, so that simultaneously helps students develop a more holistic understanding of the pandemic, but also introduces them to the liberal arts approach generally.”
In addition to preparing incoming students for an Oberlin education, Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Manuel Carballo hopes the class will help encourage students to commit to Oberlin. After campus visits and the All Roads Lead to Oberlin program had to be canceled because of the virus, Admissions started looking into other ways to showcase Oberlin to students who are still deciding which college to attend.
“There was a lot of brainstorming around all of the things we could be doing to be able to represent Oberlin well to students who won’t be able to come on campus,” said Carballo. “We [already] have usually as many as three classes a day that students can Zoom in on and get a chance to see what that experience is like.”
In addition, Admissions has already done a virtual academic fair where prospective students could talk to professors over Zoom, as well as several virtual hangouts so that prospective students can interact with each other. Other liberal arts colleges are similarly offering students a chance to sit in on Zoom classes.
“We need to stand out among liberal arts colleges and say, ‘Hey, we’re different,’” Hamdan said. “I think the Uncovering COVID-19 course does exactly that.”
Additionally, the course gives prospective students the opportunity to connect with current Oberlin students. After each lecture, participants will go into smaller Zoom sessions and discuss that week’s content with other prospective students, facilitated by a current student. Approximately 30 peer leaders from the Peer Advising Leader program, the Sophomore Opportunity and Academic Resources program, Oberlin Workshop and Learning Sessions, the Writing Center, and the Career Development Center will facilitate the discussions.
“They will take the same class with them and they will lead discussion groups after each lecture to unpack the content of the lecture,” Hamdan said. “This starts the conversation early about what it means to be an Obie. It’s been amazing to see our current students step up and put their education into action.”
Baudot also highlighted the importance of student leaders in the program.
“We want them to meet each other and start developing a sense of community … so that when they come to Oberlin, they already feel like they have a peer network.” Baudot said. “We want them to experience the resilience of Oberlin’s community. I mean, this has come together so quickly and people have been so responsive to the need to provide some kind of real experience for admitted students despite the lack of any on-campus visits.”
Because about 50 percent of the students who come to campus for All Roads decide to attend Oberlin, according to Carballo, not being able to hold the event is concerning for Admissions. But Carballo noted that this will not be something that only Oberlin struggles with.
“This is a kind of tough time for everybody, but it’s not just us,” Carballo said. “It’s not that Ohio is closed for business but the rest of the U.S. is open. That would really put us at a disadvantage. The fact that students just simply can’t travel makes it all the same [for other institutions].”
For current Oberlin students, remote learning started last week over Zoom. Many faculty are still finalizing their syllabi for their COVID-19 second-module courses after putting them together quickly to meet the need for classes.
“I’m really proud and impressed of our institution,” Frantz said. “We’re just stepping up to do the job that needs to be done and I find that really inspiring.”
The Oberlin Review will begin publishing original research by Oberlin students and faculty from the second-module COVID-19 classes on our website later this semester.