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Professing in a Pandemic

by Claudia Dreifus |May 21, 2020
professor and students at a table

Professor Dreifus and her students in the classroom before the COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: Andrew Revkin

When, in early March, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger sent an email to the instructional staff asking us to hold off on classes and to not to come to campus, I felt a mixture of dread, concern and—to be frank—annoyance.

In my Sustainability Management class, Writing About Global Science for the International Media, we were about to have our signature event, Editors and Reporters Night.

Once a year, I invite a dozen of the country’s leading science journalists to talk about what they do and how they got to do it. Afterwards my students and the guest speakers retire to V and T on Amsterdam Avenue for an evening of fatty carbohydrates and networking. In my experience, this has always been the moment when the class comes together and becomes a unified entity.

But then came more emails from Low Library. We were not to return to campus at all; students living in dorms were to evacuate asap; the faculty was to take immediate Zoom training.

Hello, new reality.

To me, the instant task was to make sure that my students received the best instruction, despite the circumstances.

In the class, where we teach science and sustainability graduate students how to do journalism, so much of what happens depends on personal interactions to inspire people to try new things. I wondered how that was going to happen in the digital environment of Zoom.

Moreover, the students had suffered a significant disruption in their lives. They were suddenly tossed into a diaspora that spanned the globe: Hong Kong, Singapore, California, Iowa and New Jersey.

On the plus side, the students had half a semester of getting to know each other. They were already on their way with their final term projects—which involved researching and writing a feature length news or magazine article on a science and/or sustainability topic.

As a first step, Jasmine Shaadi Vojdani, the curriculum and grading assistant and I tried to talk to each of the students wherever they were: we created more office hours and we tried to assure that we would make sure they completed the class in an optimal fashion. In conferences, we helped them redefine their term projects so that they could work on topics that could reasonably be done in lockdown.

The do-able took precedence over the interesting or the grandiose.

Next, we did what all good journalists do: make lemonade from situational lemons. “You guys are in the middle of the biggest science story of our lifetime,” I told them. “Let’s use it.”

The students now located in Singapore and Hong Kong changed their original term projects to pieces about the differences between New York and the city states in a time of pandemic.

One student who worked in the food service industry wrote about his workplace.

Another, who was in quarantine because a colleague had exposed him to the virus, wrote about what he did all day.

Maya, who moved back her childhood home on Roosevelt Island off Manhattan, opted to write about how Roosevelt Island had changed since Cornell had built an engineering campus there. This was something she could do while sheltering in place. She could talk with neighbors, walk around the island.

Sometimes, the lessons I taught earlier had to be tossed out the window. At the beginning of the semester, Linnea had asked if she could do her term project on refugees she’d worked with last summer on the Greek island of Lesbos.

“It’s important story, but not for this class,” I said at the time. “You’ll be writing from memory. I want you to pick something fresh, report it from here and allow your notes drive your story’s structure. That’s what reporters usually do.”

However, in a COVID-plagued world where people couldn’t safely go into the field, writing from memory was suddenly a very good choice. Linnea’s final term project was focused on the question of, “how do you shelter at home, when you don’t have a home?”

To supplement their research, students were encouraged to do telephone and Skype interviews with experts and supplemental sources.

One bonus from the pandemic we soon discovered: it’s easier to reach sources these days. Everyone’s at home and they’re answering their telephones. There are all kinds of new reporting opportunities because of that. Plus, people have time, lots of it. They are often glad when you call.

In fact, for her piece, Madeleine was able to obtain an exclusive interview with Bernard Rosenfeld, the doctor who runs one of the last abortion clinics in all of Texas. That was a big scoop for her.

To keep class cohesion, we met at the usual time via Zoom and had weekly round-robins on progress and reporting problems. In many ways, the round-robins previously held in the basement at Lewisohn weren’t all that different from the ones that were held digitally. I was surprised at this. Of course, this seminar was a small group—by design, less than a dozen. I still fear that a shy or ambivalent student could get lost in a larger Zoom class.

And professors might be lost, too. Like actors, we need the feedback of the physical presence of our audience to gauge what we do and say. I need to see faces, body language; I need to feel the collective energy in the room. On Zoom, that’s gone.

More positively, the situation definitely forced us to get creative. As a kind of bonus to make up for the loss of Editors Night, I invited Donald McNeil Jr., John Schwartz and Naomi Oreskes to do live Zoom interviews with the class. Why not talk directly with people in the field who’d been covering the pandemic?

We then opened the sessions to all of the School for Professional Studies and to the public. Professor Steve Cohen and his very capable SPS crew helped us with the technical logistics.

Three thousand viewers subsequently signed onto YouTube to hear me and our Sustainability Management students interview Donald McNeil Jr., the dogged New York Times correspondent who’s covered pandemics for the past 20 years.

Jasmine and I are planning a similar series during the summer edition of the course.

So what did we learn from the crisis?

My big takeaway is that in academia, as in journalism, it’s important to stay open, to listen, to use whatever a situation brings to you. Pandemic or not, it’s always important to stay in touch with your students and make it clear that you are there for them. I gave out my home phone number.

I wanted them to call.

Claudia Dreifus is an instructor in the Sustainability Management masters program at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. She is also an adjunct professor of International Affairs and Media at the School of International and Public Affairs.

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