When classes resumed in the spring 2020 semester and Stony Brook University professors returned from their own mini sabbaticals, they no longer faced classrooms full of students staring back at them. Instead they faced computer screens with cameras, and collections of photographs, icons, first initials and, with a little luck, several human faces populating kaleidoscopes of boxes on the sterile Zoom interface.
Like many of their students, professors from almost all disciplines were forced to resume their classes from home. The situation would remain in place for the rest of that semester and beyond, and compel instructors — from tenured full professors to part-time adjunct lecturers — to adapt their teaching styles as well as their curricula to embrace the new reality of remote teaching and learning. In the chaos of that March, professors turned to the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) to help them make the transition as smooth as possible.
“It was crazy,” Rose Tirotta-Esposito, associate director for teaching excellence at CELT, said. “Part of it was everyone getting everything they needed to be functional at home, and part of it was faculty saying … ‘What are we going to do now? Can I have your help?’”
In response to the changing needs of the faculty, in-person workshops were replaced with online versions — supplemented with additional, generic workshops to address any concerns about the move to online teaching, Tirotta-Esposito said. Overall, the feedback CELT received from professors and other professional attendees of its workshops has been positive, but the center did encounter some difficulties with the new technology early on.
“We just got Zoom about three seconds before this all happened, so there were a lot of questions — some faculty never used Blackboard, some never used any of these tools before this happened,” Tirotta-Esposito said. “Most of the staff didn’t have office phones at home. We were trying to connect via Zoom — and if a faculty member had trouble connecting, we had some challenges before we were able to help them with their class.”
For the fall 2020 semester, Stony Brook introduced hybrid online/in-person classes and continued the slow return to normal operations by holding some in-person classes this past spring — until finally, it was announced that classes would be back in person when in the 2021-2022 academic year. Despite early difficulties, Tirotta-Esposito said many faculty have recognized some benefits of online classes and discovered new ways to teach familiar material.
Whether teaching from a home art studio, an apartment, an office or a nearly empty auditorium, Stony Brook University’s 1,000-plus faculty members continue to adapt and thrive in the still-evolving learning environment brought on by COVID-19.
Here’s a look at a few of them.
Matthew Reuter: Algorithms, Homemade Cookies and Lego
Matthew Reuter, a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics and the Institute for Advanced Computational Science, hasn’t taught on campus for more than one year. Instead, he has been teaching both his small graduate class and his 250-person applied math classes remotely — from his desk in the living room of the white-walled apartment on Long Island he calls home.
Although the fluorescent fixture mounted above him is off, the space is bathed in natural light from the windows beyond his desk. Black and gray pots sit atop the white cabinets in the kitchenette behind him. Lego Architect models of One World Trade, the Sydney Opera House and other notable buildings stand tall on a short table to his right. Reuter – with his buzzed black hair and dark, heather gray Stony Brook hoodie – dominates the Zoom window, illuminated in contrast to his surroundings by the lack of color around him.
But these things — the pots and pans, the Lego — aren’t for decoration. They’re just a few of the tools Reuter utilizes in his lessons.
In AMS 103: Applied Mathematics in Modern Technology — a course that according to the Undergraduate Bulletin, explores the question, How does it work?, and in the process, knocks off two of the university’s core requirements known as SBCs — Reuter discusses algorithms and how they relate to real life. “One of the best forms for an algorithm in real life is a recipe,” he says, because it is a well-known, real-world example requiring a person to complete steps to do something.
“That lecture has been sort of fun in the era of COVID,” says Reuter. “Now, the bad news is, I can’t actually give the samples to students — I don’t know how to send cookies through Zoom — but on the other hand, this lecture hall has an oven. And so, rather than having to carry all of my kitchen onto campus, we’re actually just in my kitchen.”
In his AMS 261: Applied Calculus III class, Reuter trades recipes for Lego when teaching the concept of triple integrals — a tool used in calculus to help find the solutions to multi-variable problems by breaking them down into smaller parts. Before COVID, Reuter would bring the 2,000-piece, 3.3-foot-tall model of the Saturn V rocket he keeps in his office to class, carrying it across campus from the Institute for Advanced Computational Science to the Earth and Space Sciences building. But when Stony Brook locked down almost a year and a half ago and he went home, the rocket stayed behind — so he uses some of his other models instead.
“He cracks jokes and witty comebacks … but you also get a really good sense of how well he knows the material.”
Michael Pellegrini, a senior with a double major in applied mathematics and statistics and economics who took AMS 103 in the spring 2020 semester
“There’s a Sydney skyline that has a very small Sydney Opera House,” he says, pointing off screen. “I’ve got a postcard-size, dedicated Sydney Opera House. Then, in the other room over to the side, there’s a 3,000-piece massive Sydney Opera House. And you can then say, ‘Well, what do you want? What’s the level of detail that you need?’”
Some of Reuter’s hands-on examples unfortunately didn’t translate to online classes as when he’s teaching the concept of coordinate systems and takes a sudden jump onto the first row of lecture hall desks. He also had to deal with the issue of finding the best camera angles to make sure students understood what he’s trying to get across — but that, he says, was just a “fun problem” to solve.
“You look for little crazy things to do that just sort of bring a smile to people’s faces,” Reuter says. “Remind them that we’re all still human and we can still have fun.”
Reuter glances away for a moment and a conspiratorial look flashes across his face. He smiles before reaching off camera — speaking as he does — to grab his red parrot hat with orange, blue, green and yellow tail feathers, which he promptly puts on his head.
“I had an impulse buy at the grocery store,” he says, adding that it was “in memoriam” for spring break 2021, which was replaced by an informal week-long staycation. “When I open class the week after, that Monday when I teach, I have my parrot because I’m just as sad that we’re not having it as everyone else,” he said at the time. “And it has absolutely no bearing on anything other than that I’m teaching with a parrot on my head.”
Despite his attempts to keep everything intact from his pre-pandemic classes, Reuter, who has a doctorate in theoretical and computational chemistry from Northwestern University, had to make some changes. Each class, he says, was structured differently, with different learning objectives and although it might not have been the most convenient approach, those goals were what motivated him when moving everything online.
“The most convenient for me is, I’m just going to find a whole bunch of lecture videos from three years ago, you can view them and take the quiz from time to time and I’ll respond to email when I get to it,” he says. “I mean, that would be great because look at all the time I now have to do other things. But it turns out, that’s a really crappy teaching strategy.”
Instead, Reuter maintained the weekly meetings of his larger AMS 103 class. But for his other two classes — AMS 261: Applied Mathematics and Statistics and AMS 510: Analytic Methods for Applied Mathematics and Statistics — he finalized a pre-pandemic plan to switch to a so-called “flipped classroom.” This instructional model features in-person or Zoom recitations and asynchronous online lectures. Overall, he says, the experience has been positive — his use of Blackboard was about the same as before and he noticed more interaction from students in the remote meetings than he’d seen when things were still in person.
“I loved watching the lectures on my own time and at my own pace. …I was given plenty of time to learn the material.”
– Andrew Hu, who took AMS 261 in the spring 2020 semester
“This allows me to spend more time actually addressing their questions, and getting to interact with them more, so I’m really liking it,” Reuter says.
One of the biggest advantages of the flipped model, he says, was how it takes away some of the worry and stress students face by giving them the opportunity to attend lectures on their own time. Reuter did not anticipate — at least in a way he could verbalize 16 months ago— how much of his time would be devoted to helping manage student stress. COVID exacerbated students’ anxiety, so Reuter did what he could to help — like when it came to exams.
“Students — and I think this is reasonable — get freaked out when it comes time for these remote, proctored quizzes, exams, assessments, whatever the case may be,” he says. “Because what happens if something goes wrong? There’s not a person in the room to help — and we’ve all heard the horror story of the professor who doesn’t respond to emails. So they’re like, ‘what do I do?’ and the panic starts to set in.”
During his exams, Reuter made sure his students knew that while he may not have been in the room with them, he was at his computer ready to help with any issues that might arise. For other things, Reuter relied on redundancy — emailing and posting the same thing on Blackboard, for example — to make sure his students received important information. He was also inspired by a colleague in the College of Engineering to set up a Google calendar with Zoom links so it was even easier for his students to access class updates and other information.
“The more easily accessible you can make that information and communicate with them, the easier things go,” Reuter says.
Reuter has been back on campus twice since last year, for two meetings. Before he left — “bolted like a thief in the night,” he says — he grabbed his lecture notes and some books he knew he’d want. Then he stopped at Donatina Neapolitan Pizza Café in Patchogue.
“Knowing it was the last day before spring break anyway, I had already planned on splurging on some really good pizza,” he says. “As I was walking to my car, I ordered the pizza.”
And when he settled in at home and was eating his pizza, he remembers thinking, “‘Well, I guess I’m going to be home for the foreseeable future.’ And a year later, here we are.”
Lorena Salcedo-Watson: Art, Empathy and YouTube Demos
Lorena Salcedo-Watson sits comfortably in her bright high-ceilinged home studio on Long Island. Potted plants rest on metal wire shelves in the back of the white room, basking in the sunlight filtering through the sheer curtains that frame a pair of glass-paneled French doors. A long wooden table, smothered with drawings and some of the tools of Salcedo-Watson’s trade — art and lithography supplies, blocks of wood waiting to be used — and a large printing press stretched across the space behind her. Salcedo-Watson stands out from it all thanks to her black, long-sleeve blouse.
She smiles and brushes silvery-black hair away from her face, and leans forward in the cramped Zoom window.
Salcedo-Watson is the director of undergraduate studies in the art department and teaches drawing, lithography, experimental printmaking and intaglio, or engraving — all of which work exclusively with physical mediums. Her artwork has been featured in more than 14 galleries throughout the country — including The Bendheim Gallery in Greenwich, CT, the Alfred Van Loen Gallery in Huntington, NY and Waterfall Arts in Belfast, ME. These days, she has fully transitioned back to in-person classes, but in the chaos of spring 2020, Salcedo-Watson joined faculty across the university in meeting the challenges of moving classes online.
“When we closed down in the spring of 2020, we were just getting going. I was teaching a beginning printmaking class and a lithography class — all equipment dependent,” Salcedo-Watson says, referring to ARS 274 and ARS 375, respectively. “We had our first critique, and then shut down.”
But before the semester’s abrupt move online, Salcedo-Watson says, she’d already planned on assigning a take-home woodblock-printing project to one of her classes. Hours after she gave her printmaking students the necessary demonstration to complete their projects, news broke that the university was shutting down.
In the aftermath of the sudden announcement, Salcedo-Watson pulled her lithography class together and decided to take the class in an unplanned direction. “Everybody was like ‘what?’ So I pulled in my litho class and I gave them that same woodblock demo,” she says. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, but I need you to learn this’ and I finished off my classes saying, ‘Okay, we’re not doing lithography.’ Which is completely nuts and abstract.”
“She is very quick when responding via email, which was definitely helpful during these times. You learn a lot in her classes, not only about art but about life too.”
– Melissa Mazza, who took ARS 274 and ARS 375 online, and graduated with a B.S. in studio art with a minor in art history and criticism
Salcedo-Watson reaches off-camera and pulls a stone engraving of a moth into the Zoom window. Lithography, she says, is “basically like super drawing,” and involves pressing a smooth, acid- and gum arabic-treated stone bearing an image drawn with oil, fat or wax onto a blank sheet of paper. It is the basis for the most common form of printing technology in use since the 1960s. In order to transition her lithography class into a woodblock printing class, Salcedo-Watson began producing her own YouTube demos, something she’d never done before, to share with her students.
“I was making like my own little cooking show,” she says, describing her approach to the creation of her demonstrations. “It was a lot of work. It was nuts.”
After classes resumed following the extended spring break, Salcedo-Watson and her students faced new challenges. Although she sent out lists of necessary supplies, there was no guarantee her students would be able to find everything they needed, or that they would be able to attend class the way they had. Salcedo-Watson confronted these challenges head on, encouraging her students to use whatever supplies they could get their hands on and doing her best to meet with them whenever they were available.
“Some of them couldn’t get their supplies,” she says. “So I’m like, ‘You know what? Get a ballpoint pen and piece of computer paper.’ I had students go back to Japan and China, so I was meeting with them at, you know, really, really, really late or really early. That’s what we had to do.”
Salcedo-Watson — who has four college-age children of her own — says the hardest thing to deal with in 2020 was witnessing how her students were affected by COVID-19.
“They were becoming themselves, [growing] into their adult lives and next thing you know, they’re back in their bunk bed with their 14-year-old sibling,” she says. “It was heartbreaking.”
In order to help students mentally get away from the reality of being back home and foster relationships in her virtual classroom, Salcedo-Watson opened her Zoom classroom early just so they could talk to each other without her there. She was also available to talk to her students — many of whom were angry, frustrated or just sad about the situation, she says — to help them get through everything that was happening.
After the semester ended, Salcedo-Watson took a two-week crash course in online teaching from CELT, filling a notebook with information — “trying to be a good student,” she says. When her classes resumed in the fall, she modeled them on what she’d learned over the summer. Her goal was to create an environment where her students could interact and inspire one another and feel that their professor cared about their work and their wellbeing. She turned to VoiceThread to set up a platform her students could use to communicate. With everything still so new, Salcedo-Watson says efficient organization was key.
“The teaching of the studio class was tricky,” she says. “I would draw with them, I’d set up introductions — everything online, folders within folders. It was something that you take for granted, but it’s got to be available, you know.”
The most difficult part of getting her classes organized was the amount of time it took. “I never slept,” Salcedo-Watson says. Between the time it took to set up interactive assignments and to grade and provide feedback on them, she was often awake as late as 4 a.m. “My eyes are still red from that, they haven’t cleared,” she jokes.
Last fall, ARS 491: Experimental Printmaking was able to meet in person, but COVID-19 restrictions forced the cancellation of the regular in-person exhibition of student work — so Salcedo-Watson and the art department moved the exhibition online. While the class faced challenges operating within New York State guidelines for in-person classes, Salcedo-Watson is proud of her students’ work and effort.
“It was tricky because we were packed in, you know, disinfecting everything and keeping our distance,” she says. “Every now and then somebody would be in contact with someone who was sick and it set off a panic. But the exhibitions were really good, so that’s something we’re going to keep. Students will have in-person exhibitions when we can, but it will also be virtual.”
When some of her classes returned to campus in the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, Salcedo-Watson was pleased with how her students reintegrated into campus life. While caps on class sizes were still in place, she was grateful to teach and get to know her students in-person again — even if she had to stay six feet away.
“They’re so hungry for interaction,” she says. “They are so engaged with each other — they’re thoughtful, they’re kind, they’re joyful at being back in person.”
“Professor showed us her mettle and grit, and this inspired her students to keep going.”
– Kiana Lom-Landolfi, who took ARS 274 online and graduated with a B.S. in studio art with a minor in creative writing
Salcedo-Watson took her classes to the Zuccaire Gallery in the Staller Center for the Arts to see the exhibitions that were still there and online, so someone besides professors could see them up close. She calls these excursions to Stony Brook’s art galleries “mini field trips” and, while the exhibitions weren’t at the same pre-pandemic level they once were, she says they still provided her students with a “full art experience.”
With everything that’s happened during the past year, Salcedo-Watson’s focus remains on empathy, helping and guiding her students through one of the most difficult situations they’ve had to face. Her greatest responsibility, she says, is ensuring every one of her students is safe.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about communicating and being empathetic and being together,” she says. “I feel a lot more protective of my students — more than ever — because this has been a very painful, confusing time. Trying to be the authority, be a mentor — it’s a bigger responsibility than ever. You have to make sure everybody’s safe before you do what you’re there to do.”
Patrice Nganang: Maximizing Time with Technology
Patrice Nganang sits in his New Jersey home, wearing the same brown sports jacket and darker brown shirt he donned for his faculty photo — featured on the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature section of the College of Arts and Sciences website. Behind him a glass display case reflects light from somewhere beyond the Zoom window. Books too far away to recognize their titles line the shelves of a white bookcase. The bottom half of a framed painting hangs behind his right shoulder, and the leaves of a plant peek out from the display case on his left.
Nganang is a tenured associate professor of literary and cultural theory and African studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, who speaks four languages and earned his doctorate in comparative literature at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches classes on Black pop culture, African literature, theories of violence and European philosophy, among other, semester-dependent subjects. The Cameroonian-born novelist and poet is the author of 15 books and more than 30 articles, published in the United States, Germany and France.
During the spring 2020 and 2021 semesters, Nganang taught one undergraduate class, AFS320: Black Pop Culture and Terrain — “a study of black popular culture in 20th century America through close readings of text, music, and film,” according to the undergraduate bulletin — along with several graduate courses.
As the university moved classes online, Nganang was ahead of the curve, having moved away from printed materials for his classes around 15 years ago in an effort to help the environment.
“The real issue was that it was abrupt,” he says. “I had around 150 students and we did not know what was happening. I’ve never seen something so poorly managed like COVID — not specifically our university, but the country itself.”
For Nganang, the move to online classes “wasn’t a big deal.” As a writer, he’s comfortable using his laptop every day and believes the transition was overall a good thing for the university. The students, he says, are focused and participation is close to 100 percent now that he can call out to anybody at any time.
“Classes online are better than they are face to face,” he says. “Just to have saved environmental [resources], for me it was the best day possible and I can’t complain. The only thing is I hope something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Nganang says he is fortunate to have been prepared for the move online before it was necessary. His already focused use of Blackboard, the virtual learning program in use throughout the State University of New York system, made it easy for Nganang to continue communicating with his students and ensure an easy transition to a remote classroom. Even if the university had not adopted Zoom — “which is not great,” he says — Nganang thinks there would not have been issues transitioning online.
“Blackboard has so many functionalities that I’ve been using all along — group working, midterms, papers, all those things,” Nganang says. “Even if one had had only what our university could do, one would have solved [problems] easily.”
Despite his indifference towards the Zoom platform, Nganang says, for him and the humanities department, it has been a great experience. While he is looking forward to the return of in-person classes, he thinks Zoom is here to stay.
“I’m happy it’s not going away,” he says, “because it broadened the capacity of things we can do. I can sit here now, and [also be] in a class in Helsinki or in, I don’t know — Calcutta. Before, I would have to pay to fly there — it was such a waste of time.”
Maximizing one’s time and interacting with people is the most important thing for everyone, Nganang says, and this new technology makes it even easier.
“So many things you took a week off for, you can solve them in an hour,” he says. “A meeting with 70 people, 200 people — it is on Zoom and it is solved. After COVID, I’m sure that experience will not die.”
While the new use of technology has been an overall positive experience for Nganang, some things are still easier to do in person, in the classroom. Showing films has proved challenging because of anti-piracy overlays that prevent them from being broadcast over Zoom. But Nganang is confident this issue will be solved, given enough time.
“There are some films, some clips you cannot show,” he says. “I’ve had to change some things on my syllabus because legally, I won’t be able to screen [them] in my class — but I’m sure in one year, three years, those kinds of things will be changed.”
Despite these drawbacks, Zoom has allowed him to consider the inclusion of various archives into his classes — especially the archives of colonial powers, a major area of Nganang’s research. Now that many archives in the United States, England, Germany, France and Belgium, among other countries, have been digitized, he says he is looking forward to integrating archival work into future courses.
“I’m looking forward to composing new classes that will tap into that potential,” he says, adding that he’s come back to what he was doing a decade or so ago — “working with archives, photos,” he says, “and we had exhibitions, and these things are easily done on Zoom because you can share the screen. You don’t have to rent a huge hall for people to see.”
One thing Nganang says he wasn’t looking forward to was the return to campus. “I have two offices, I miss neither,” he says. The move to remote learning allowed him to spend his time much more effectively. What once were meetings are now emails or Zoom calls or texts over Whatsapp — a voice, video and text-messaging platform. And he says he does not regret having to go remote for those things to happen.
“Because I commute, I wasn’t in my office that often anyway,” he says. “I never use my phone in my office, even emails we only send for official use. So there is an evolution of all that which makes it really interesting to look at — having standing offices, because I only even used to go in there for two or three hours.”
Nganang adjusts himself in his chair and looks past the Zoom window for a moment. A thoughtful expression and slight smile pass over his serene face. While so many have lost loved ones, including Nganang, he says that “across the board” he remains optimistic for the country and the world as it rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The sun is coming back,” he says. “Any crisis also opens up new windows and those are potentials and possibilities. And if we focus on those, we will realize that we’ll not close the COVID chapter totally, because we’ll pick up so many pieces and keep them, and those pieces actually make me happy.”