Faculty Focus


New Role for Academics: Guardians of Lives

Woman in superhero cape stands facing sunset

During a recent physical, my doctor informed me that my blood pressure was off the charts.  She asked if I was experiencing stress.  I thought, “What academic—who cares about the well-being of their students during the COVID-19 pandemic—isn’t experiencing stress?”  What came out of my mouth was, “No, nothing out of the ordinary.” 

As my 49-year career in academia draws to an end, I find myself reflecting on the role this pandemic is playing in my academic life.  While I remain focused on providing students with an outstanding education, COVID-19 requires that I assume a new role—guardian of my students’ lives.

The university I call home is nestled along the banks of the Red Cedar River in Northern Wisconsin.  In an effort to shield students from the pandemic, our campus transformed its look, observing strict COVID-19 guidelines for social distancing.  My public speaking classroom, one that pre-pandemic, comfortably seated 26 students, now has a maximum seating capacity of 16. 

In the week preceding the start of the fall semester, my course enrollment held steady at 16.  Twenty-four hours before class began, that number rose to 17.  Knowing I lacked a safe space for the 17th student, I frantically searched for a larger room.  My colleague emailed me to say she had identified an available classroom with a maximum seating capacity of 19.  With hours to go before the start of class, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

The UW-Madison, flagship campus of the UW System, experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases early in the semester. Students were abruptly notified that face-to-face classes would go online for two weeks.   I knew I had to prepare my students if the same were to happen on my campus. 

Technology and I have never enjoyed a comfortable working relationship.  Personnel at the technology HELP desk know me on a first name basis.  In preparation for a worst-case scenario, I turned to our campus technology experts who painstakingly walked me through the steps I needed to follow to use Collaborate Ultra, a real time video conferencing tool on Canvas.  If I could learn how to use that tool, COVID-19 infected students would be able to join class in the safety of their homes.  The question was, “Could I learn?”

One hour before class, my new Collaborate Ultra knowledge was put to the test.  I received an email from a student, explaining she had a terrible migraine, and would be unable to attend class.  I responded, “I think you are in luck.  If all goes well, you should be able to join class on Canvas.” I then supplied her with the step-by-step instructions I had just learned. 

I walked to my classroom with 10 minutes to spare before class was scheduled to begin, turned on my computer, accessed Canvas, opened Collaborate Ultra, tapped on Fundamentals of Speech, turned on the microphone and video, and asked, “Are you there?”  She was! 

With 16 masked students in front of me, and one unmasked student on the computer screen, we began. At the end of class, I explained that our next session would be held on Zoom.  I wanted students to be familiar with Zoom should a spike in COVID-19 cases necessitate online instruction only. 

But wait.  Remember me—the technophobe? I had participated in numerous Zoom meetings as a guest—but never as host.  I didn’t sleep well the night before class, plagued by dreams of everything that could possibly go wrong.

When our Zoom class began, 16 students joined without a glitch, although one student had no sound.  Another student, who had not clicked on the invitation I had sent two days earlier, failed to join.  One week later, when our second Zoom class convened, all 17 students (and their professor) maneuvered the process seamlessly. 

As a trial, I assigned eight students to give their introduction speech on Zoom.  The remaining nine students presented in class—wearing masks.  While students expressed a preference for the unmasked, less intimidating Zoom experience, I explained Zoom would only be used if face-to-face classes were no longer an option.

Remember the student with the migraine?  She tested positive for COVID-19, but never missed a class—thanks to Zoom, Collaborate Ultra, and the dedicated technicians who taught me well.

Three weeks into the semester, two more students tested positive.  Yesterday, with two weeks remaining before Thanksgiving, a fourth student tested positive.

Wisconsin is one of our nation’s hot spots for COVID-19.  Our Chancellor announced yesterday that hospitals in our region are at 100% capacity. Unwilling to put the safety of students at risk, he announced that all classes will go online.

While I continue to worry about the well-being of my students, I know they are well-prepared to complete our course in the safety of their homes.  

Now, about my blood pressure…

Mary Hoeft is a Wisconsin Teaching Scholar, Fulbright-Hays Scholar, Wisconsin Idea Fellow, author of “Why University Students Don’t Read: What Professors Can Do To Increase Compliance,” The Betrayal of Officer Ryan Hoeft:  A Conspiracy of Silence, and her soon to be released co-authored book, From A Single Pebble:  Barron County Restorative Justice Programs.