Acoustics professor brings humor and creativity to virtual sessions

Tessa M. Woodring
April 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When it comes to teaching from a distance, Daniel Russell, teaching professor and distance education coordinator in the Penn State College of Engineering Graduate Program in Acoustics, recognizes the need for positivity. During this unprecedented time, Russell set out on a mission to bring creativity and a few laughs to his students and colleagues. 

Since Penn State’s shift to all remote teaching, learning and working during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Russell has taken advantage of the “virtual backgrounds” feature in Zoom by pairing backgrounds he finds online with matching costumes. 

“After my third lecture from home, I discovered that Zoom had the option of using virtual backgrounds, and I immediately recognized that this might be a way that I could have some fun and bring some humor to my class,” Russell said. 

Russell found a cabinet in his basement that was filled with old dress-up clothes and Halloween costumes from when his children were younger and decided they would be perfect for his lecture openings and faculty and staff meetings. 

“I really want to do something that makes them smile and laugh — to provide a spot of joy and levity in the midst of this frustrating and discouraging social distancing separation,” Russell said. 

So far, Russell has dressed up as numerous characters with backgrounds to match, including Princess Leia and “Dan” Solo from "Star Wars" (Han Solo’s brother, according to Russell), Gandalf from "The Hobbit" and a ghost with a “floating head” at Hogwarts, from "Harry Potter."

“I started digging through the collection of dress up clothes looking for wigs and hats, and ideas for things I could wear, and then I went hunting online for background images to match the costumes I was finding,” Russell said.

Teaching courses online is not a new concept to Russell. According to Russell, about 75% of his students have been taking his courses entirely online every semester since he started teaching at Penn State in 2011. Russell and his colleagues in the Graduate Program in Acoustics have been using a multimedia classroom format to teach courses since 2007. In this format, there were some students physically present for the lectures and some students who would tune in via live broadcast from across the country. 

The shift to all-remote teaching also has had its challenges for Russell, he said.

“The big change for me has been the adjustment that I no longer have any direct physical interaction at all with students,” Russell said. “Even with the awareness that I have a large number of distant students watching a lecture broadcast from our classroom, it is very different to switch from teaching a class in a room with students physically present — who can provide verbal, visual and physical body language feedback — to teaching completely to a camera.”

Russell said his first week teaching remotely was especially challenging for him. 

“For the first several days after the ‘stay-at-home’ order came down, I was preparing to teach my class from my home, and I had a terrible time focusing on course-related schoolwork,” Russell said. “I was spending way too much time reading news reports, trying to read up about the coronavirus and how to stay safe and protect myself and my family.”

Russell noted that he decided to be honest with his students about his mental and emotional state and encouraged them to let him know if they were struggling with anything — course-related or life-related.

“The responses from students were extremely encouraging both to me and to the other students in the class,” Russell said. “When faculty show that they care about their students, it goes a long way — and when faculty reveal that they too are struggling with making the adjustment to these unprecedented circumstances, it helps show that we are human.”

Russell plans to continue to use humor as a stress reliever for not only his colleagues and students, but for himself as well. 

“Finding ways to bring humor to my class has been a rather uplifting and fun way to get ready and look forward to teaching,” Russell said. “I’m having a great time trying to come up with creative and new ideas for the next several class sessions. I hope that my students remember this class — and my ‘performance’ — as a bright spot of humor in an otherwise stressful and trying time.”

Russell has been posting screenshots of his Zoom sessions that feature his costumes and backgrounds on Twitter (@drussellpsu), and he plans to add new photos every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday through the end of the 2020 spring semester.


(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 20, 2020