Opinion

Challenge and Promise in the Age of COVID-19: A Faculty Member’s Perspective

Professor Ben Cater. Photo from pointloma.edu

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about how this semester presents unique opportunities for PLNU faculty to embrace their mission. In the face of monumental challenges to our calling to teach, shape and send students into the world for Jesus Christ, hope springs eternal. Frustrations and fears may inspire questions that lack clear or immediate answers, but they also display dedication to our highest institutional ideals. 

Over the past six months, one question on the minds of many has been, will students enroll this fall? Teaching requires students, but in April, 20% of high school seniors reported they were considering not enrolling in a four-year university as a result of COVID-19. So far, distance education hasn’t deterred students from enrolling at PLNU and many have been accepting, if not excited, about this semester. I am grateful for this and see it as an answer to prayer, but questions remain. Will students continue signing up for remote education despite economic hardships? When students return for classroom instruction, whenever that is, will they distance themselves and wear masks as visible signs of an invisible faith that teaches self-sacrificial love?

Answers to these questions lie in the future, but in the meantime, I have witnessed faculty affirm their commitments to teaching in our brave new world. We are juggling our teaching loads, as well as our partners’ and children’s schedules. We have labored mightily to edit or fully revamp our courses for digital and asynchronous delivery. Many instructors are proficient with Zoom, but some are still learning. We have increased our availability for office hours to instruct, counsel, and occasionally pray. Not a few undergraduates have noticed our efforts. To one instructor, a junior student wrote: “You are doing an incredible job. This university is blessed to have you as a teacher.” 

And yet, we are collectively facing challenges that leave many of us praying for strength to remain faithful. Teaching through a hologram is frustrating because speaking to 30 talking heads on individual digital feeds isn’t equivalent to teaching 30 people in a shared physical classroom that allows students to read one another’s body language, immerse themselves in the organic rhythms of personal conversation or share thoughts they’d rather keep in the classroom than broadcast across cyberspace. Learning remotely can be overwhelming too, so we have wrestled with paring back our syllabi, distinguishing core from non-essential knowledge. 

Shaping students has also been complicated by the fact that students can literally mute a person or idea that challenges their preconceived notions of reality. They can physically avoid people who they once saw in class, chapel, the cafeteria or dorms and be left alone without the molding influence of co-curricular activities. Rather than mitigate social inequities, remote learning has possibly aggravated them, as many students are reportedly working more hours to make up for lost wages in the spring, and some lack quiet spaces to study at home. Instead of reacting to culture, how might we shape students by and for the Gospel? 

Faculty have responded with many answers ranging from more emphasis on peer learning and group projects to requiring office hours. Some have proposed meeting in public spaces with masks and social distancing, while others have encouraged students to remain connected to local churches, which if not meeting for Sunday worship, are sponsoring small groups. One student has organized virtual coffee breaks to remain connected with her classmates, while one professor has written personal hand-written notes to each of his advisees and followed up with a phone call. I have encouraged students to paddle out with me since spending quality time is critical to mentoring students before sending them on their way. So far, I have met a few for bible study and prayer. 

As they graduate, what knowledge will they take with them? What skills and faith? Will they understand their calling in Jesus Christ and be liberated and empowered to answer it, both now and the rest of their lives? I don’t know, but let’s continue to serve the work, pray for wisdom and look toward the hope we proclaim. 

https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/4254080/SimpsonScarborough%20National%20Student%20Survey%20.pdf (the study for the statistic at the beginning talking about 20% of students)

Written By: Ben Cater, PLNU professor

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