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Being There: For Some Courses, In-class Instruction Is Essential This Fall

By David Simpson

In this age of Zoom and Blackboard and worldwide contagion, it's easy to forget that not every university course easily translates to the online arena. In fact, many don't.

Lab courses, for instance. Field courses. Many health sciences and arts offerings. The list goes on.

The Center for Faculty Development spoke to a few Old Dominion University teachers about why they need to hold face-to-face classes in the fall, and what changes they're making to try to keep coronavirus from enrolling as well.

To Lytton John Musselman, online Field Botany is an oxymoron.

"Can't be Field Botany without a field," he said. Or without a forest or a beach.

Almost all the courses he teaches are field courses. "That means students are outside, with me teaching them nature in the language in which it was written," said Musselman, who is the Mary Payne Hogan Distinguished Professor of Botany.

"Students see, touch, smell, taste and hear plants, often for the first time. I could use PowerPoint to show the differences among our species of pine, comparing cones, leaves and bark. But to walk from a longleaf pine stand into a neighboring pond pine stand involves reading the landscape.

"Pond pine habitats are lower and wetter with denser vegetation. Just a few feet difference in elevation and fire history makes the difference, a feature that is best learned when experienced."

So, in the fall, the course will be the same as always, with the exception of masks, he said. Students will have to drive themselves to the sites, because the department's vehicles don't allow passengers to keep 6 feet apart.

On the upside: "Social distancing is not a problem in a forest," he said.

Singing in the Jazz Choir has to be a thrill. All those swinging rhythms and buzzy harmonies.

But rehearse remotely? Doesn't work.

"You cannot teach via distance, as the very nature of an ensemble requires practicing as part of a group," said John Toomey, professor of music.

"Learning parts on their own is step one, and homework. The real involvement is real-time experience with the whole group. The Internet does not afford live capabilities for groups to practice in time and hear each other."

His solution for the fall: The 12 Jazz Choir students will meet in a rehearsal hall that holds 200-plus.

"Students will be very well distanced and sing into a microphone so that the whole group can hear well, even though they are distanced," Toomey said.

In Introduction to Sculpture, John Roth's art students have to be in the studio to share tools and use a woodworking machine, a welder and other equipment.

"Obviously, students would not be expected to have these in their home," said Roth, an associate professor in the department of art.

So this fall he'll employ masks and social distancing, and make other adjustments: a PA system to make sure students can hear his instruction through the mask; assigned time slots for independent outside-class studio use; the elimination of one assignment; longer due dates; sanitization of shared tools and equipment.

As if that weren't enough, he'll take similar precautions with his combined section of Advanced Sculpture and Sculpture Studio, which he's also teaching this fall.

Likewise, Megan Thompson's Pilates Equipment Lab I requires students to share. The ODU Dance Program owns contemporary versions of specialized devices designed by Joseph H. Pilates in the early 1900s.

"His method works by toning muscles as well as balancing muscular force at the joint level," said Thompson, an associate professor of dance. This leads to other benefits for the body.

The equipment is big and expensive, probably not something a student would own or have room for. Besides that, Thompson needs to see her students in person so that she can give nuanced feedback about their form and alignment.

So for fall, she'll deliver the course using both face-to-face and online instruction.

"The students will be instructed face to face in groups of six and also be provided with pre-recorded lectures and mat classes to be reviewed at home," Thompson said. "We have moved the Pilates equipment into a larger studio to allow for social distancing. Each student will be assigned a piece of equipment at the beginning of the semester that will be theirs to use in every face-to-face class."

And so it goes for ODU faculty determined to educate their students and keep them as safe as possible. COVID-19 has challenged teaching practices, but it has also shown our instructors' resourcefulness and resolve.

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