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“It’s Okay if You Stop and Think”: COVID in the Classroom, Part Two

As part of the Carletonian’s documentation of COVID-19 at Carleton, Greta Hardy-Mittell ’23 has been interviewing professors who adapted their Spring Term 2020 courses to connect to the current pandemic. Last week, she heard from Philosophy professor Daniel Groll; this week, she spoke with Gisel Flores-Montoya, assistant professor of Psychology, and History professor Susannah Ottaway ’89.

Flores-Montoya, whose interests lie in neuroscience and immunology, is currently teaching Health Psychology (PSYC 260) and its corresponding lab. She modified the beginning of the course to integrate relevant topics such as the psychology of pandemics and the immune system’s response to stress. Ottaway, an early European and British historian, teaches her department’s two-credit public history practicum, Historians for Hire (HIST 200). With help from Elizabeth Budd ’19, the Educational Associate for the Public Arts and Humanities, Ottaway has transformed her course into an endeavor to archive the COVID-19 pandemic. Both classes include Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) projects which are making real impacts in Carleton, Northfield, and global communities.

Greta Hardy-Mittell: What are you doing this term to talk about COVID-19 in the classroom, and how did you change your courses to include it?

Gisel Flores-Montoya: My class is mainly about how the behaviors we conduct on a regular basis might help us avoid acquiring a communicable disease, such as COVID-19. It is very relevant to what is happening these days. The difficulty is that there hasn’t been a lot of research about pandemics from a psychological perspective.

We covered the psychological impact that the virus could have, such as depression or anxiety, and also why people might or might not follow the rules to prevent the pandemic’s spread. Again, there’s not a lot of research in recent publications on that.

One part that the students did a really good job with was that they created two videos describing how stress can impact our immune system and make us more vulnerable to acquiring a disease. I let them decide whether they were going to focus it on COVID-19 or not—actually just one team wanted to have that perspective on it. But it’s relevant, because as long as you’re explaining the interaction between the stress pathways in your immune system and how it can weaken your immune system, then there’s an immediate connection. You can say, “Okay. If I don’t manage my stress well, I might not be as able to fight the disease if I were to acquire the virus.” 

So they did two videos: one describing the response of the immune system to chronic stress, and one about practical stress management techniques. That was for an ACE project, so we’re sending these videos to community partners in Northfield, including Greenvale Park Community School. They’re going to decide if they work for distribution or not—it’s not an obligation. But we wanted to do something. We thought that this would be a non-intrusive way that we can help, and hopefully give tips for people to manage the situation a bit better.

In the laboratory, we’re doing what is called a self-directed behavior change project, where we use research literature to learn how to change our habits to be healthier. Students are selecting particular habits such as exercise or sleep, and in a very structured way, they are changing their behavior. It is useful for them to learn how a health psychologist can do an intervention for someone else, but right now, it’s also hopefully helping them cope with the situation.

Those are the major areas where I’ve integrated COVID-19. At the beginning of the class we had more of a focus on it than now. I think a lot of students are exhausted, and I didn’t want to overburden them with the topic.

Susannah Ottaway: Gisel, if you’re interested in having your students’ videos be part of our archive of the COVID-19 pandemic, they sound like they’d be really relevant.

GFM: That would be great! If the students are up for it I’d be happy to share them with you.

SO: One of the things I’m trying to do in Historians for Hire is to capture civic engagement and public scholarship work that’s going on. Historians for Hire is normally a class where we work closely with community partners and do historical work for a variety of mostly non-profit and education institutions in the area. I was initially going to cancel the class, actually. As soon as I found out that we were going to be online even part of the time in the spring, I thought that there was going to be no way I could do these partnerships. They all involve extensive interactions with the community, and we were told that that was absolutely not going to be allowed, so my initial thought was that I was just going to cancel it.

But I’m on an educator listserv for the National Council of Public History, and reading through it, I found out that there’s a really big project that was started at Arizona State University as soon as the pandemic began, which was to capture an archive of this moment for future historians. The person who started that archive—Mark Tebeau, a public and digital historian at ASU—sent out this open call for anyone who wanted to participate. It just seemed like a great way to transition a public history practicum course. 

Public historians do a lot of work for museums, a lot of work for archives, and a lot of helping institutions tell the story of their past. So we’re collecting materials from this moment with an eye towards what will be most useful for historians, say ten, twenty, fifty years from now. It’s coming at the work we usually do from almost the opposite angle. Instead of working with an institution to preserve what they already have, we’re trying to preserve what we have now for institutions and individuals in the future.

The class started out with the intention mostly of collecting materials for this big archive They’ve now collected tens of thousands of items. They’ve got partnerships in Peru, in Australia—it’s just this massive archive. My students are still contributing to that archive, and I’ve got quite a few students who have contributed a lot of material, which is great. 

But I also wanted to help Serena Zabin, who’s our Broom Fellow for Public Scholarship. She had launched a project on journaling during the pandemic for the same kinds of purposes, and the journaling project needed a place to be archived. So at the same time as we were working for the big archive at ASU, we created something more local, so that we could archive the journals that are being created by local people and Carleton students. 

And it turns out that a good subsection of the students who signed up for Historians for Hire this term were super interested in specifically capturing the experience of Carleton students right now. So I’ve got a subset of students in the class who are focused on the theme of displacement. They’ve been doing a lot of interviews with their peers, and there’s a student on campus who’s been capturing the imagery around campus, too. For that group, I think it’s been productive for them to be really in touch with one another, and to look at this experience as not just something they’ve been going through, but something that they can help other people talk through and process. A lot of their interviews have led to really moving stories that they’ve been able to capture.

GFM: It sounds really interesting.

SO: Yeah, it’s been a really interesting process. One of the great things about the students I’ve got in the class is that a lot of them are junior History majors who have already had our colloquium course, so they’ve had a lot of sophisticated reading on the nature of archives. So that’s been a fascinating part of the course that I wasn’t even anticipating: they’re bringing to the project a lot of great questions and observations. They’re capturing that in their blog posts, which is where they’re reflecting on what they’re doing, and in their weekly journal entries. That part of the class has been unanticipated, but it has been a big plus.

GH: Both of your classes sound like they’ve been ways for students to process this experience. Like Gisel was saying about changing health habits, or with the interviews that Susannah’s students are doing with other Carleton students, it sounds like it’s a way to work through emotions and to make positive changes.

GFM: I agree. Especially in the first meetings when we were discussing these subjects, they were really interested in sharing their experiences and relating it to the class material. It felt like it was a way for them to release their ideas. Probably they discuss these things with their friends outside of class, but at least it gives them context and the language, the tools to talk about these things when you’re doing a reading that is highly related to what you’re experiencing. 

SO: I would say the same thing. One of the things that struck me right off the bat was that different students were taking it in different directions. The group of students who were looking at displacement—they are processing a lot of difficult things. It’s been very emotionally meaningful for them to connect with their fellow students, but draining. They’re hearing a lot of stories that are pretty challenging, and they have to both distance themselves as interviewers and empathize with the person they’re talking to, which is one of the biggest challenges of doing oral history anyway. I love the fact that they’re doing that, because as an educator, that’s exactly what you want to see happening. But there’s also a very clear emotional cost to that work that I’m much more aware of—not that I’ve been unaware of it in other contexts, but this is a much more challenging context overall.

But on the flip side of that, there’s a whole other section of students who are deliberately looking for positive things right now, and that’s been just awesome. They’re finding fabulous lawn sides and chalk drawings and having short interviews that are deliberately getting to questions like, “How have you bonded freshly with your pets?” [laughs] 

And that’s also a great way of coping with the pandemic that has a different kind of emotional valence from the students who are head-on focusing on displacement and trauma. I think they’re both incredibly valuable, especially having those different approaches in the same course. 

GH: I can definitely relate to that as a student journalist—I took a break for a big part of this term, because I just didn’t want to write about this. I did one article before the term even started, and that just wiped me out. And I was thinking about doing a project for a class that was related to it, and I just had to decide not to. Because your class is so focused on the pandemic right now, for those students who are diving head-on into the really difficult aspects of it, how have you helped them find ways to strike that balance?

SO: For me, it’s been important to have the weekly journal entries due. That’s where I can see when the students are saying, “I’m really emotionally exhausted,” and I can then reach out to them individually and suggest some other project component.

One of the things that we lose sight of a little bit in this project is that actually, I care about their education, not just what they’re collecting for our partners. So there have been a couple of times when I’ve had to say to students: “It’s okay if you stop and think. Your thinking is a part of the course, it’s not just the number of items you collect.” 

GFM: I agree with what you were mentioning, Susannah: what they’re experiencing, even though it might be emotionally taxing, it’s how in the real world we would be experiencing this as a job. For example as a journalist, or as a psychologist, especially when you are living in a catastrophe of this magnitude, there is going to be a strain on ourselves, not just on the people that we are working with. So developing the skills to work under these circumstances is key, and that’s a great educational experience itself: finding ways in which the students are engaging, given the circumstances.

GH: Shifting toward your process and your work during this, what was it like redesigning your courses, both to make them online and to incorporate the current events?

SO: My image of what I was going to be able to accomplish in the course personally has had to be pared back quite a bit. I was going to develop my own archival collection alongside the students, but everything has just taken so long. I’ve been reaching out to my community partners, but the community partners are really stressed, too. I’m glad I did the course—my students are doing amazing work—but the amount of effort that goes into revamping a course for an online experience is more than I imagined. Everything takes longer than you expect. 

For this, we’re working on a WordPress blog, our local archive on Omeka, and then the big national archive, which also has a Slack channel, where I want to keep up with what other educators are doing. It’s just so diffuse as an experience; everything is sort of happening on my laptop, but everything is also at the same time happening in about five different venues on five different platforms.

That contrasts so strongly with my usual experience with the course, which is about building relations with community partners. A piece of this experience has been really recognizing how much I miss those relationships. To me, that’s the most rewarding thing about what we usually do in this class. I think we’re doing at least equally valuable work this term, but it’s without the interpersonal rewards that are so fulfilling in a regular civic engagement course. 

GFM: I think I overestimated the amount of energy I was going to have by the middle of the term. I think the stress models that we’ve been talking about in class can explain nicely what we’re going through: at the beginning, you’re in the alarm phase, so you think, ‘I got this. We’re gonna do it.’ I had so much energy thinking about what the class was going to look like. And then after a month, I was thinking, ‘I don’t even know if this is feasible.’ I had such high expectations. And I think we’re doing well, but I wish we had more time to plan.

GH: In terms of your own life outside the “classroom,” how has the experience of shifting to remote been, with balancing work and home when they’re all in one place?

[Laughter]

GFM: Do you want to start, Susannah?

SO: Not particularly.

GFM: That’s probably the most challenging question of all.

SO: Exactly.

GFM: As I mentioned earlier, I overestimated the level of energy that I was going to have at this point. So I’m making sure I’m in nature, and that I spend some time walking, either in the morning or the afternoon. Every day I have to find a space just to do something that is very calm. That’s what’s been helping me.

SO: We’ve had circumstances in my family that make it challenging. It just means a lot more energy going into rebalancing home life than I anticipated. I kind of expected my daughter to come home from college, but I didn’t expect my brother-in-law to move in. So it has not been great for sleep, and as I’m sure Gisel could tell us, sleep is pretty important for stress. To be honest, there hasn’t been a lot of balance. I agree with the idea that it’s been important to just give myself a break and go for walks. I’ve really appreciated my dogs and my cats. As well as my husband! [Laughs] 

GH: Have either of you been continuing with your own research at all, or has it mostly been teaching?

SO: [Laughs] Mostly teaching. Actually, it’s been really interesting for me because there’s a master’s student in England who does a lot of the same research work that I’ve done whose archive has closed down. She reached out to me to see if I could share some of my archival materials, so that’s been a fantastic diversion. I’ve put aside my active research agenda for the term, but it’s been really refreshing to talk with her, and to feel like I’ve been able to advance her research in a time when otherwise she’d just be in a dead end.

GFM: I’ve had to switch my research focus for now. That’s another thing that’s been interesting to process. I started a laboratory Winter term—got it together, got all the instruments. I do research on mouse behavior; biological brain aspects changing as a result of exposure to toxins, and how the immune system is affected. We made a lot of progress and I’m very happy about that, but I had to close it because of the situation. So I shifted my focus to a review paper—that’s what I’m working on with the same student I was working with before. 

GH: Thinking towards the fall and the various different options, are there things you’ve learned from this term that you’d take with you if it does end up being online or partially online?

SO: Oh, my gosh. I feel like I’ve learned a lot that I will take with me. The expectations of what we can do online are just very different. I feel like the biggest takeaway that will inform whatever I end up doing in the fall will be that how I utilize time, in the classroom and outside of the classroom, needs to be different than it was this term. 

Having open communication with the students has been so essential. I think I need to process more how I can do better with that, but I definitely will put it up from middle priority to absolutely top priority. How do we organize our time, how do we communicate with each other, how do we build community—we don’t take those things for granted at Carleton ever, but the methods that we use to do those things are so different from online teaching that I really need to resituate myself in this world.GFM: I agree. I will have to do a lot of reevaluation of what I’ve done so far, to think about what has worked and what has not. I figured out strategies where you can have a mixture of work and activities where everyone can learn from each other. That’s important, and it’s really hard to do in an online environment. When one person is talking and there are forty people staring at a screen, sometimes it feels like you’re talking into the void. So finding ways to make everyone more comfortable with that experience is important, and then to focus on the content. Focus on ideas. At the end of the day, that’s what matters: that we’re learning together.

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