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A faculty member demonstrates classroom technology that will be used when students return to class.

If Carol Mayo Jenkins has learned anything from her six decades on stage and screen—including the TV series Fame—it’s how to adapt to changing conditions. When the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, announced just before spring break that classes were moving online because of the pandemic, Jenkins said, “We had one week to figure out how we might teach acting classes online.”

A colleague sent her a tutorial from the head of acting at Juilliard. “She was marvelous!” said Jenkins, an artist-in-residence in the School of Theatre. “She led us through the basic Zoom setup and then showed us how students could work in a two-person scene by hiding self-view, so they see their partner on the full screen and don’t have to watch themselves act. That’s a big help!” Read more about how Jenkins taught acting online.

two students acting on Zoom in Lecturer David Alley's class
Students acting on Zoom in Lecturer David Alley’s class

Across UT, faculty members at all levels of technical savvy stepped up to support their students, figuring out solutions to teach their courses over Zoom and making adjustments on the fly while ensuring that students kept moving forward. Jenkins’s story is just one example of faculty stepping up over the past four months. Below are more stories of faculty showing compassion, creativity, and flexibility to ensure student success.

Moving a design studio online

In the College of Architecture and Design, teaching in the design studio requires collaboration, creativity, face-to-face interaction, and the ability to design and provide feedback on the spot.

Associate Dean for Technology David Matthews, along with IT team members, Don Swanner and Jeff Wilkinson, helped the faculty with the challenge of recreating this purely human, nuanced, and interactive teaching method online.

“We must take advantage of our existing relationships with our students, forged in our vibrant studio setting, as the first step,” said Matthews. “Continuing successful relationships between faculty and students and enabling student-to-student relationships are key in implementing online instruction in this situation.”

Matthews led a comprehensive approach to ensuring that both studio and lecture faculty throughout the college were prepared to succeed in teaching classes online. Read more about the college’s online strategies.

Simulating a virtual newsroom

In the College of Communication and Information’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media Lecturer Gerald Witt remotely taught 15 students in a digital news reporting class. “I was told by a few students that the transition to online teaching in my class was the best they experienced,” he said. “Some of that is built into the class, because I teach students how to write stories and shoot photos and videos for online journalism and social media platforms. That means the students are submitting all their work online.

“I structure the class like a professional newsroom, and they all have beats. As we went into spring break, I figured class wouldn’t be coming back to campus. I prepped students on my expectations and answered questions they had about the switch. I also made sure they had a plan for the rest of the semester.” Read more about Witt’s approach to teaching news reporting.

Engineering virtual capstone projects

In the Tickle College of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, seniors look forward to sharing their design projects with community partners and one another through live presentations. This year’s seniors quickly organized themselves to present their projects virtually.

“Nothing will replace the events that were missed or the final pats on the back from mentors and clients,” said Senior Lecturer Jenny Retherford. “But students did a great job of pivoting to share their results virtually. While it was a challenge, the win here extends to the fact that these projects did not fall away once students couldn’t meet in their groups.

“I think in the long run being able to show that they managed to graduate despite a global pandemic wreaking havoc on society will actually make them better engineers, because in the real world there are many times when you are forced to adapt and problem-solve quickly.” Read more about the capstone projects.

Members of the Sustainabrew senior design team working on their project before COVID-19. From left to right: Caroline Stephens, Emma Parks (rear), Kadee Klimowicz (front), Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s Chris Wetteland, and Sean Lee
Members of the Sustainabrew senior design team working on their project before COVID-19. From left to right: Caroline Stephens, Emma Parks (rear), Kadee Klimowicz (front), Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s Chris Wetteland, and Sean Lee

Establishing new channels of communication

In the Department of Nuclear Engineering, Associate Professor Jamie Coble maintained a sense of connection and community by opening channels for her classes in Slack, a popular app for team communication. “The Slack workspace for our class has given us a space to extend academic conversations outside the Zoom classroom and has also given everyone opportunities to share pet photos, memes, and general check-ins,” Coble said.

“Opening new channels of communication has helped me get to know my students and others in the department in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise; it’s a welcome bit of connectedness in a time of isolation.” Read more about Coble’s strategies for teaching remotely.

Bringing constitutional law to life

Lecturer Hemant Sharma in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Political Science created online textbook chapters with videos and real-time current event updates for students in his constitutional law class. The topics are broken into modules, such as Fourth Amendment—Search and Seizure, First Amendment—Freedom of Speech, First Amendment—Free Exercise of Religion, and so on. “Each module had a voice-over PowerPoint posted on Canvas [the university’s online learning management system] and a link connecting it to an online textbook chapter that I created with videos and real-time updates for current events,” said Sharma. “That was a big help—nothing earth-shattering from a pedagogical perspective.

“The most interesting part probably was the assignment for each module,” said Sharma. “The students formed online groups, communicating via email and Zoom groups that I moderated, and had to write a legal prompt for a hypothetical court case dealing with their topic and make it connect to current events. What was interesting is that the students came up with prompts that, within a couple of weeks, actually mirrored real-world lawsuits related to speech, assembly, and religious exercise.” Read more about Sharma’s class.

Reaching seniors with music  

Hillary Herndon, an associate professor in the School of Music, was aware that her students were feeling isolated. “Music is a performance art; it’s not meant to be done by yourself in a room,” she said. “To be able to interact with an audience, even if it’s thousands of miles away—that opportunity is very important for all musicians.”

While listening to her Aunt Dottie recount a Zoom conversation that she and other residents at a senior living community in Long Island, New York, had shared with a dog, Herndon hatched an idea. The result: five students performed for residents of the community as their final exam. Read more about Herndon’s students and their performances.

Zach Miller plays viola in a virtual recital
Zach Miller plays viola in a virtual recital.

Reflecting on leadership and management

In the College of Social Work, Assistant Professor of Practice Sukey Steckel taught two sections of a leadership course required for students in the Master of Social Work program.

“As this was a course focused on leadership and management, I took the opportunity to ask students to reflect on what aspects of leadership and management they had witnessed during the pandemic in their field placements, places of employment, group project work with their peers, or the college or university,” said Steckel. “This reflection opportunity enabled students to immediately apply what they had learned over the course of the semester to what they were seeing around them in real time during an evolving crisis situation.” Read excerpts from the students’ reflections.

Fighting evictions

Professor of Law Wendy Bach teaches the Advocacy Clinic, in which law students represent low-income clients under the close supervision of professors.

“Our cases are the textbook,” said Bach. “Students learn to interview the clients and negotiate with judges and other lawyers. But when the courts shut down, our textbook disappeared. So did the sense of urgency about what they were learning.

“We wanted to recapture that sense of urgency, particularly at a moment when everyone was feeling so lost. With businesses closing and people losing their jobs, we knew that evictions were going to be a big problem,” said Bach. In collaboration with a class at the University of Memphis, Bach’s students surveyed courts across the state about eviction cases and developed materials for those fighting illegal evictions. Read more about the project.

Highlighting pets and gardens

Three initiatives in the UT Institute of Agriculture focused on the comfort people find in animals and gardening. Bethanie Poe, coordinator of Middle Tennessee HABIT (Human and Animal Bond in Tennessee) in the College of Veterinary Medicine, arranged for virtual visits by HABIT volunteer teams and dogs to visit residents at the Nashville Family Safety Center, one of the largest family justice centers in the country. James Newburn, interim director of UT Gardens, found innovative ways to respond to the surge in interest in gardening during the lockdown. And Associate Professor and Director of Veterinary Public Health Marcy Souza of the College of Veterinary Medicine has provided information on the pandemic and its effects on animals to people across Tennessee. Read more about UTIA’s transformative work.