Kristi Weyand
Arts and Entertainment Editor

Nothing says ‘the college experience’ like sitting in front of your computer and staring at black squares representing your peers. The shift to distance learning in Spring 2020 left much to be desired for both students and professors. However, the summer break gave professors an opportunity to explore how to make their Zoom classes more creative and engaging. Some professors used this to their and students’ advantage, creating a class environment that lessened the stress of distance learning. A few professors in the English Department took distinctive steps to make their classes more fun or better reflect a non-distanced learning experience. 

Fall 2020 was Adjunct Professor of English Douglas Manuel II’s first semester teaching at Whittier College, but he still made sure the students of his African American Literary Tradition class felt comfortable and familiar with their peers. Instead of the usual ice breakers reserved for the first class, Professor Manuel would start each class meeting with a different get-to-know-you question as a way to take attendance. Questions were as simple as “What’s your favorite song?” and as deep as “What are your plans for the future?” While it ate away at class time, it reminded students that their peers are more than just faces on a screen. “[The questions were] a perfect way to create community. I didn’t mind how much time they took because those questions led to more open discussions,” said third-year Yasmin Mendoza. “I did not know half [of] the class before the course, but I feel like now I know everyone there at least a little bit. I definitely liked attending those zooms more than others.” 

While Professor of English Dr. Jonathan Burton routinely updates his classes and tries to ensure that they are fun and engaging for students, keeping students on track for seven William Shakespeare plays in seven weeks is no easy task. “Professor Burton made our Shakespeare class more interesting to a modern-day reader with creative assignments that highlighted important themes in the plays that are still relevant today,” said third-year Milah Afonin. “With diverse assignments, the class felt more engaged with the material than simply reading it and writing papers.” One such assignment was when the students performed lines from Twelfth Night in a way that reflected the lines’ humor, which Afonin says helped remind students that some of Shakespeare’s plays are indeed comedies. 

Visiting Assistant Professor of English Joe Donnelly threw his Creative Writing class a “Talent Show Party Extravaganza” on the last day of class instruction as a way to help combat the stress of this semester. His students were off-put by the spontaneity of this, but ended up enjoying it and finding it as a way to relax after the long semester. The talents ranged from reading original poetry to making coffee. “[The talent show] was the most fun that I’d had all semester in any class, even if most of us were muted,” said third-year Laila Kazerooni. “Everyone was so encouraging and that positivity was something I feel we all needed especially at the end [of the module].”

Of course, English Professors were not the only ones taking measures to make sure this semester went as smoothly as possible. At the Senate Feedback Committee meeting, students highlighted the professors that stood out in making their classes feel accessible and engaging during distance learning and the module system. One student said that, while Professor of Political Science Dr. Mike McBride was not the most tech savvy, he made sure that the class was involved and engaged and provided clear and timely feedback. Another found that Associate Professor of Business Administration Dr. Daniel Duran’s general conversations at the beginning of class rather than starting with heavy assignments lessened stress. A student credited Professor of Philosophy Dr. Paul Kjellberg with providing needed support to students in the Whittier Scholars Program, which was much needed considering the leadership shuffle in the department after Professor of Education & Child Development Dr. Kay Sanders stepped down.

After fourteen weeks of the module system, students overwhelmingly reported that they thought this semester was harder than usual. One thing students most frequently emphasized as a rare positive this module was professors’ accessibility and ease of communication. With the upcoming three modules in Spring 2021, hopefully professors will continue to find ways to engage students and foster creativity and fun in this virtual environment.

Feature image: Courtesy of Pixabay

Kristi Weyand is a third-year double-majoring in English and Political Science with a perhaps-too-hopeful plan to pursue a career in journalism. Her time as the Arts & Entertainment Editor has led to her interest in the intersection of entertainment and ideas generally seen as political, inspiring her way-too-many thinkpieces. When she is not writing, she can be found procrastinating by baking, watching bad movies, over-listening to the same music, and crying over succulents she just can’t seem to keep alive.
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