School of Communications closes year with semester debrief

Nearly 50 faculty and staff members gathered on Zoom on May 20 to look back at the 2020-21 academic year.

A screenshot of the School of Communications’ semester brief on May 20 that recapped the 2020-21 academic year.

With the academic year still fresh, nearly 50 members of the School of Communications faculty and staff gathered on May 20 to participate in the ElonComm semester debrief, discussing the challenges and successes of the past year and addressing what lessons were learned along the way.

Moderated by Associate Dean Tony Weaver, the hourlong conversation provided faculty and staff an opportunity to speak openly about their respective experiences during a year featuring online and hybrid classes, asynchronous learning and virtual advising sessions. Fittingly, the debrief was held on Zoom.

During the open forum, Weaver kicked off with a conversation about academic operations, asking faculty and instructors to first address the positives that came from the past year, before delving into the challenges.

Associate Professor Nicole Triche said she grew comfortable in a masked environment, noting “I was able to teach in a mask, no problem.” In future semesters, she envisions scenarios during cold and flu seasons when she’d resort back to the protective gear, and predicts students could do the same.

Admittedly, Lecturer Staci Saltz said she felt anxiety heading into the classroom during a pandemic. “But I felt much safer than I expected,” she said, referencing the strong safety protocols set by the university and the school. “I commend everyone who made that possible.”

“We’re all Zoom experts now,” added Associate Professor Ben Hannam, a comment he aptly made in the debrief’s chat. He also noted that he saw increased willingness from guest speakers to participate in classroom instruction because of everyone’s comfort level in remote settings.

Ross Wade, senior associate director of career services, echoed Hannam’s sentiments, noting a rise in alumni engagement and the graduates’ willingness to contribute in virtual panels and wisdom sessions. Career Services regularly hosted panels throughout the academic year, which often drew strong audience participation.

Another benefit of the year’s remote environment was the move to schedule online advising sessions and appointments – an advantage for both advisers and advisees.

“Some students expressed that they appreciated virtual career advising appointments,” wrote Alison Doherty, assistant director of career services, in the debrief chat. “They were more likely to show up on a rainy day, for example, versus trekking across campus. It was more accessible for all students.”

On the flip side, the faculty pointed out that spring fatigue – not uncommon during a regular year – hit harder in 2021. The fall semester’s excitement to be in person had waned by February, March and April.

“Usual spring burnout started as soon as Winter Term ended in my experience. ‘Spring-it is’ like Staci (Saltz) said, for sure,” Lecturer Hal Vincent recalled.

Several faculty noted that the hybrid teaching approach brought several challenges – and that instructors had to be vigilant to keep students engaged, while also being aware of potential academic integrity issues.

Assistant Professor William Moner noted that a student’s engagement level can fluctuate during an in-person course, but that peer pressure and the classroom setting usually draws them back in. That is not the case in a hybrid model, where remote students have more distractions.

With COVID protocols relaxing this month, several faculty noted that students will be excited to have a largely ordinary in-person experience in fall 2021. “I guess on the plus side, students who’ve been exposed to hybrid classes appreciate the in-class experience even more,” wrote Adjunct Instructor Susan Ladd.

The faculty and staff agreed that Zoom could certainly have a place in a post-pandemic setting, allowing students and faculty to engage quickly and conveniently.

The latter part of the meeting focused on the school’s efforts outside the classroom. This conversation touched on the faculty and staff’s service, committee work and professional development. Lastly, and most importantly, the discussion moved to the mental and physical wellbeing of students and educators, and how both groups can be best served in the coming semesters.