Binghamton is a sleepy place at 3 a.m. Diren Valayden is usually among the people who get z’s around this time. But every now and then the assistant professor of human development is awake, in front of his computer screen at home and plugged into a lecture in India, where it is early afternoon.
âThe conferences have gone virtual and are taking place all over the world,â says Valayden. âWith the jet lag in the world, you might be at a conference in the middle of the night. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the full range of interactions that we had. Many research ideas come from conferences and in-person networking.
This is one of the many adjustments that professors at the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) have made since the emergence of COVID-19. Research and teaching have been turned upside down, requiring a positive attitude, flexibility, and creative solutions to get the job done. In March 2020, when the University announced a suspension of in-person classes and a transition to fully distance learning, the change was brutal. Still, Valayden didn’t find it technically difficult. âI’m an immigrant, so I’ve used Skype for a long time to communicate with my family and friends,â says Valayden. “I used to use video technology to interact with people, but not to teach.”
Not the same without a live audience
The hardest part, for Valayden, was missing the thrill of performing on the figurative stage and feeding on the energy of the students in his Synthesis course on Human Development and his courses on Theorizing of Social Change and human rights. âWhen you are physically present there is eye contact and you know whether people are paying attention or not,â says Valayden. “On the screen, it’s hard to know what’s landing and gauge the response to what you’re delivering.” Valayden’s colleague in human development, Ren Rojas, agrees. Rojas says the end of the spring 2020 semester was not difficult as he was teaching a master’s level course that moved into student-led workshops. The struggle was real though when he tried to teach a postgraduate course in the fall using a hybrid model with some students in class and others simultaneously online. Rojas found that being a good teacher in person and online was mutually exclusive. So in mid-October, he decided that it would be best to go remotely – focusing on one modality – for everyone. âI’m the kind of instructor who moves a lot,â says the assistant professor. âI had to be careful in the COVID-19 conditions not to move near the students, but I had the entire front of the seminar room to myself. It gives me energy. But, I walked in and out of the camera shot, so the students at home couldn’t see me or hear my voice so clearly.
Keep students connected
As the mode of teaching changed, the content also had to be adjusted. Instead of group presentations, Valayden asked students to do more individual work and took advantage of online discussion forums to increase interaction. Rojas used Zoom tools like polls and boardrooms to keep students in his oppression, dignity, and social change course engaged with the material and with each other.
âWe had just come out of a summer of mass mobilization and street protests,â Rojas said. “The election was held in the middle of the semester, and I knew most of my students were following it, so I constantly took inspiration from what was happening in the country to make sure the engagement remained high.”
Just being able to attend classes was not something to be taken for granted. The socio-economic gaps between students became more evident during the pandemic. Many students who used the University’s computers and internet did not have these resources at home and struggled to have the same experiences as students with easy access to laptops, Wi-Fi, and webcams.
âThe pandemic has had a differential impact in terms of e-learning,â explains Valayden. âPeople have always had different levels of access to digital tools, and now we are seeing new forms of inequality that might not be easily captured by a more traditional way of looking at it. When we design courses, [we should] think about access to online learning.
Sometimes your garden has what you need
As with other areas of life, the pandemic has not been all negative. Sometimes you give up on Plan A only to find that a Plan B can satisfy you. Rojas was disappointed not to be able to travel to continue his research on coordinated labor markets in post-collapse Argentina; this was the basis of his thesis at New York University, which he completed in 2017. Obtaining material for a book manuscript would have required lengthy face-to-face interviews and Zoom is not a viable solution. – the richness of the interaction with the person is lost – this project is therefore on hold.
In his place, he worked with secondary sources to produce articles on the impact of neoliberal changes and market reforms on labor and social movements in Latin America. He also studies the determinants of far-right attitudes in local American populations.
âIt’s such a fascinating time in America,â says Rojas. âThere are so many social changes and so many political developments. My thought is that I would turn this difficult circumstance into an opportunity. [The pandemic] is not a total loss. I managed to continue my research in my main research vein and open up another area as well.