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College-based Friars Describe Remote Teaching Experience

A very unusual semester has ended.

Roughly two months before the academic year was to conclude, institutions of higher learning closed their classrooms and converted to virtual learning. Friars who teach at colleges and universities around the country shared their thoughts over recent weeks about how they and their students managed this semester when they were forced to switch from traditional to online and remote learning during the COVID-19 crisis.

Depending on their experience and subject matter, the situation was more challenging for some than others. Although it took some faculty members more time to find their comfort zones with remote teaching the transition for some was smoother.

Larry Anderson, OFM – Siena College, Loudonville, New York
This is an excerpt from Larry’s video reflection that is part of Siena’s series called “You Are Not Alone.” Larry — campus chaplain at Siena — recorded the video during Lent.

This is an attempt to create something a little bit normal in a very abnormal situation. (Since it was Lent when he recorded the video, he spoke about the Cross.) There is something about the Cross [and] the last words that Jesus spoke [from the Cross] that people connect to. It is something that we can connect to now – the sense of abandonment and the sense of being alone. Jesus was on the Cross feeling very much alone, his inner circle abandoning him in his time of suffering. We can connect with Jesus at this time, but we are not alone or abandoned. For all those who feel alone, know that Christ is with you. Now is a good time to reach out to someone you may not have connected within a long time, and let them know you’re thinking about them.

Michael Calabria, OFM – St. Bonaventure University, Allegany, New York
Michael, the director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, taught second and third-year Arabic this semester.

I had just emerged from my own self-imposed quarantine following my return from Iran and Turkey when the university suspended classroom instruction and moved to an online format, including the use of Zoom. I was initially excited by the possibilities but was then confronted by technological limitations and glitches. Even more challenging than the technology, however, was trying to adapt the pedagogy for my Arabic courses — in which I teach reading, writing, and speaking — to this new format. Communicating online even when you can see and hear the other person is much different than communicating face-to-face. That was an important lesson in and of itself. Technology, however sophisticated it may be or become, does not allow us to easily communicate in all the distinctive ways that make us human.

Dan Dwyer, OFM – Siena College, Loudonville, New York
Dan is a department chair and associate professor of history at Siena, where he has been part of the faculty since 1995.

I was teaching two courses this semester – Spanish Borderlands, and an honors section on the West and World War I. I taught online and utilized the Canvas platform to provide films and assignments. The switch to remote teaching wasn’t particularly difficult, in part because I and the students of the Spanish Borderlands class were fortunate to have spent a week on the road, visiting sights in Arizona and New Mexico before the campus shut down. Jack Clark Robinson, provincial minister of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province, was our host and guide. The students were delighted to see Jack again when he was able to join us in one of our Zoom classes. I suppose, like everyone else, the thing that concerns me most is the uncertainty of the situation.

Ken Himes, OFM – Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Ken is a professor of theological ethics in the department of theology at the Jesuit college that’s less than 10 miles from downtown Boston.

Things were especially busy [in early April] when I had one oral comprehensive exam at the master’s level and two doctoral dissertation defenses – all in addition to my regular teaching, which had gotten even more intense and time-consuming since I had a second group discussion with students in China. They couldn’t be online at the same time as the students in the U.S. because of the 12-hour time difference. It was an effort to stay on top of even minor requests.

Linh Hoang, OFM – Siena College, Loudonville, New York
Although it took some faculty members a little more time to find their comfort zone with remote teaching, the transition for Linh was smoother because he has been offering online courses at Siena since 2016, including an introductory religious studies course and a more advanced course on American Catholicism. He was the first in the college’s religious studies department to offer online courses.

I have heard from other faculty members how difficult it was to teach online, but everyone at Siena seemed to adapt. People realized that although it sounds easy, it takes a lot of work and time to create an online course – and some people don’t realize the distinction between online learning and remote delivery of course content.

With the change to remote learning, professors had to transfer their lectures and classroom presence to Zoom, Google Hangouts or some other communications platform to deliver their lessons. Sessions were synchronistic in nature, held at the same time as scheduled in-person classes, with students showing up by logging in – and with assignments and tests made available on the college’s learning management system.

But the difference in online teaching is that online courses are actually offered via the Internet. It is more time-intensive because a professor has to plan the entire semester of work – lectures, exams, discussions, and assignments. Online courses are then uploaded to a learning management system with clearly stated instructions. Students pace themselves through the course. There is no synchronization between the professor and students. However, professors monitor daily progress to make sure students are doing the assignments and advancing through the semester – and to make sure that links to videos, lectures, and other resources are live.

Dan Horan, OFM – Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Illinois
An author and theologian, Dan is an assistant professor of systematic theology and spirituality at CTU, where he has taught since 2016. A columnist for National Catholic Reporter, Dan had a full plate for the spring semester, teaching three courses.

Just as virtually all other schools and universities, Catholic Theological Union responded to the pandemic by moving the remainder of the spring semester to online classes. We converted on relatively short notice, but most of the faculty at CTU already had some experience with online and distance teaching – and we were really fortunate to have a great online learning infrastructure and resource staff. The transition was less disruptive for us than it had been for many other institutions. That said, it was still an adjustment and it wasn’t the same teaching the remainder of a class online that was designed to be taught in-person.

My sense is that students were grateful for the quick response, and they were understanding of the predictable hiccups and bumps as we progressed through the switch to online classes. CTU has moved its May term and summer institute online as well, so we are preparing to continue distance learning for the coming months. I am teaching a one-week, online summer course called “God Became Human, Not Because of Sin.”

One of the blessings of being a friar is the community we have and the ability to continue regular liturgies and daily prayer together, something that so many people do not have access to at the present moment. We are joined in prayer and solidarity with all who are suffering, particularly those who are experiencing the spiritual pain of physical distance from the sacraments and their faith communities.

I have still been running early in the morning, which helps keep me sane. I have also had to work with about a dozen universities and other institutions to reschedule speaking engagements that had originally been scheduled throughout the spring and early summer. In the meantime, we are all just praying and trying to stay safe and healthy in the midst of these difficult times.

Lou Iasiello, OFMPontifical College Josephinum, Columbus, Ohio
A retired admiral who served as the 23rd chief of chaplains of the U.S. Navy, Lou was the president of Washington Theological Union for 18 months before accepting a position as professor of humanities at Pontifical College.

“Something strange is happening, there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.” The Church treats us to these words from an ancient homily every Holy Saturday. This year when I prayed this ancient homily, these words hit home. Not only did the words reflect the silence and stillness we annually recall on Holy Saturday, but they also reflected a reality all of us could relate to in this strange and extraordinary era of COVID-19.

Now in my 10th year in seminary formation, it has been an extraordinary privilege to enter into the lives of diocesan seminarians and accompany them on their vocational journeys. As director of pastoral and apostolic formation, I am responsible for their theological field education and for providing them with the skill sets that will someday empower them to provide pastoral care and leadership to the people of God. As a professor in the school of theology, I have the privilege of offering our transitional deacons some of their final courses before graduation and ordination. As an unofficial class moderator for the deacon class, I am also their formation advisor and offer them monthly formation conferences.

In March, at the request of their bishops, deacons and seminarians were sent back to the 26 dioceses from which they originate – and a week later, we began online instruction using such tools as Zoom and Google Suite. Although everyone has adapted well to the challenges of the times, and all have embraced the new online education platforms, I am beginning to appreciate the value of real versus virtual presence – both in the classroom and in other aspects of seminary formation. Meeting, praying, and sharing with a person online is quite different than meeting with them in person.

Mark Reamer, OFM – Siena College, Loudonville, New York
This is an excerpt from Mark’s video reflection that is part of Siena’s “You Are Not Alone” series. Mark is vice president for mission at Siena and guardian of the St. Bernardine of Siena Friary.

This is a remarkable moment in the college’s history: the first time that all classes went virtual. It is a technological solution that even the seven founding friars of Siena, including Benjamin Kuhn, OFM, who was here when I was a student, could never have imagined.

I am proud of and admire the innovative spirit of our students, faculty, and staff for their flexibility in transitioning to new models of teaching enabled by technology and accelerated by necessity, [allowing us to be] faithful to our mission as a Franciscan, Catholic, liberal arts learning community.

“Please know that you are not alone. We are Siena Saints, a strong and faith-filled community. We are living in uncertain times, but just as Mary chose to trust and believe on the Annunciation, we are invited to say yes to the presence of God. We know who holds the future – our gracious God who invites us to trust and say yes.

Peter Schneible, OFM – St. Bonaventure University, Allegany, New York
Stationed at SBU for nearly 34 years, Peter is an associate professor of biology. He also serves as a health professions advisor.

One of my favorite movie quotes is from “Cool Hand Luke.” The character played by Paul Newman gets severely punished for routinely violating prison rules. The warden, in his thick southern drawl, says, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Communication is essential for teaching – the job of the teacher is to take the student from the knowledge level he or she has, to the level they should have by the end of the course.

Up until mid-March, the vast majority of my educational work was done on a desktop computer in my biology department office. In rapid succession, I had to learn how to teach online, then lost most access to my office because state rules limited the number of essential workers. The teacher quickly became a student. SBU’s tech services and library staff worked all day on a Saturday to teach us neophytes. Sometimes I was so lost that I did not know what questions to ask. Communicating a great deal of complicated knowledge is tricky. That is a lesson I should remember because it sounds like the situation of some of my students in biology class! I was dumbfounded when we were offered a Zoom meeting to learn how to work and teach in Zoom.

Although I wasn’t remotely close to being proficient in Zoom, I was able to set up Zoom meetings with my students. Given social distancing, it was one of the most effective ways of communicating with students – even if it took more time. I spent a day correcting a writing assignment – comments that I could’ve provided students far more quickly in person. Hopefully, I will remember in the future how precious communication is.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much sorrow – deaths, illness, social isolation. But there are always lessons to be learned. Many health care workers have worked long, dangerous hours to care for those who are sick. Public health care experts have tried to communicate their expertise to help us understand. Here in Western New York, many automobile parades have brought birthday and other greetings to the homebound. Many healthy people have willingly (or maybe not so willingly) sacrificed their freedom of assembly and movement to protect those who are more vulnerable.

I find all of these people inspiring me to be more Christ-like. In a fraternal gathering of the friars here on campus, one friar shared part of communication he received, saying that this was the “lentiest” Lent he had ever experienced. Indeed! We, teachers, have learned the value of communication even when – or maybe because – it is so difficult. Perhaps the prison-like situation enhanced that lesson.

Dennis Tamburello, OFM – Siena College, Loudonville, New York
Dennis is a professor of religious studies at Siena. After teaching a seminar on interfaith and ecumenical dialogue in the late 1990s, Dennis has participated in an interfaith initiative since 2002, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It has been a little strange because I have been out of the loop. I have been on sabbatical. I taught an online course in the fall, but this situation is somewhat different. I have learned that when teaching transitioned from the classroom to online, many of my colleagues were able to teach their classes at the regularly appointed times. But many others were unable because of several challenges – for example, their own children were also home from school learning remotely, so they had to teach at different times.

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

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