Strengthening connections in a physically distanced world

Francisco Tutella
May 27, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The coronavirus pandemic may leave faculty, students and colleagues physically distanced, but Jennifer Baka sees the situation as a means for reconnecting.

“The pandemic has given us a chance to reconnect with students in new ways and to help them through a time of transition,” said Baka, assistant professor of geography and associate of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. “That’s been a priority.”

She has been navigating the pandemic at home with her husband, Stefan Lewellen, assistant professor of finance, and their 2-year-old son, Theo.

“We’re both committed to our students,” she said. “We wanted to make sure the transition to remote learning was as seamless as possible and focused on continued communication and making ourselves available for any student questions.”

Although they found balancing two teaching schedules while caring for a 2-year-old a challenge, they came up with creative ways to make it work. Even if it meant her family became part of her lectures.

“My cat, Mr. Nickels, has made guest appearances,” Baka said. “Theo has made guest appearances, too. He likes coming to look at Zoom sometimes to see how we’re teaching the ‘big children’ on the computer. He’s gotten a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ because he’s cute. Of course, I’m biased.”

Baka's cat, Mr. Nickels

Baka's cat, Mr. Nickels, has made guest appearances in her classes.

IMAGE: Stefan Lewellen, Jennifer Baka

Baka began each remote class by checking on her students and asking if they were encountering any challenges. She also recognized that not everyone has a laptop or internet service at home, or would be comfortable discussing these issues during class. The goal was to stay sensitive to student issues and accessible, she said.

She also noticed an opportunity in remote learning for better blending resident and online programs.

“I have had some students in class who were reticent to speak up in the resident version, and their attendance was spotty,” she said. “But remotely they attended every lecture and, since we can use chat, also talked. We’ve opened up the modes by which we can communicate. I’ve found that some of those students were really more engaged. It’s been an eye-opening opportunity.”

She credited her colleagues for helping to enhance her students’ remote learning experience. Trevor Birkenholtz, associate professor of geography; Brian King, associate head of resident graduate programs; and Sara Cavallo, a recent doctoral graduate and graduate instructional consultant at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, all gave guest lectures in Baka’s political ecology class.

“We didn’t necessarily have all those lectures planned in the regular semester,” Baka said. “They’re all leading experts on their specific topics. It was an added bonus for the students.”

Baka hopes the experience has helped to break down barriers between professors and students.

“Students get to see that we do the same things that they do when they’re at home,” she said. “Maybe something good that comes out of this is that students will feel easier contacting us.”

 

Last Updated May 27, 2020