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UNC professors step up for students as the semester shifts to online

DTH Photo Illustration. Professors are working to provide assistance to students during the current transition.

The day after the University transitioned to online classes, assistant professor Melanie Studer  dedicated her class as an open space for students to talk about their feelings.

They went into breakout rooms and then reconvened to vent their frustrations. 

Studer, who teaches in the department of health policy and management in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, is just one of the many UNC professors and faculty who have gone the extra mile for their students throughout the past week. Professors have been communicating with students and adjusting their syllabi to help students breathe during the transition to fully remote instruction and new living situations. 

Studer said the pandemic has affected the way faculty and staff in the public health school approach online learning, guided by flexibility, adaptability and kindness. She has adjusted her teaching by swapping out exams for other types of assessments.

“She literally gave me her phone number," said Anusha Dubey, a student in two of Studer’s classes and Studer’s faculty advisee. “I called her in early August right before the housing cancellation deadline was due — before everything changed — and just vented to her about my frustrations with having to come back to UNC or not.” 

Dubey said Studer dedicated her Thursday class as an open space for students to talk about their feelings. She said they went into breakout rooms and then reconvened to vent frustrations. 

Professor Brandon Bayne, an associate professor in religious studies, revised his syllabus when students were sent home in March — a post that went viral on social media

“I told our dean directly in a conversation that I was still going to plan the class as an online class because one way or another we’d end up online,” Bayne said. “My idea behind it was to design both courses online and then think of face-to-face as an added value.” 

He said he bought a 12-by-12 feet canopy to meet students outside near campus locations relevant to the material. But the University told him the class would be moved fully remote five days before they began, due to a lack of classroom space. Remotely, Bayne used Google Forms and Zoom polls to communicate logistics and gauge their situations and feelings.

“I agreed with UNC putting a pause on classes,” Bayne said. “I wish they would’ve done it last week when they moved everything online. We could’ve used it as we all struggled to adjust to that.”

Jason Metcalfe, a professor in the mathematics department, said he was hit hard by the news and stories he read on the community forum at the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity's website. He paused all deadlines for a week before the University paused all undergraduate classes, and spent Sunday and Monday revising his class schedule. 

“I moved the schedule around a little bit, but mostly I think it was just acknowledging how hard the situation would be for students,” Metcalfe said. “I mean, when I read about testing sites being set up in the dorms — if I imagine a testing site outside my house, that would scare me, so I don’t really blame them.” 

Metcalfe said he has been holding synchronous classes to provide structure to his students and feedback in real time.

“I’ve just been focusing on the things I can control, and so I do feel like it’s still my responsibility to provide the best possible classes I can, given the restrictions that we have,” Metcalfe said. 

Bayne said the biggest thing people can do right now is to continue to have enriching online learning communities, while acknowledging the bigger issues occurring in the world and each other’s lives.

“For an instructor, I think a key thing is not to feel like I’m the one to fix all those things — because I’m not trained in terms of social work or psychology or medicine, whatever the range of things they might bring,” Bayne said. “But to be that first point of contact for them or be a point of contact to help them identify resources and connect to the people who can help them.”

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