Faculty bring 'We Are' spirit and community into virtual classrooms

June 04, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. ­— Penn State is well-known for its world class academics, iconic landmarks and network of campuses across the commonwealth. Yet, Penn Staters also often proudly tout something that is both visible yet invisible to the human eye: the Penn State community.

This community can be felt in the stands of Beaver Stadium on game day and in the classrooms where the University’s commitment to academic excellence plays out every day. And during the remote instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis, many Penn Staters across the world have found that their community is still as powerful as it ever was – and in some ways, maybe even stronger.

In a blog post on Digging Deeper about the importance of the Penn State community, President Eric Barron writes that the University’s “We Are” spirit and sense of community shines the brightest during challenging times.

“I’m very grateful for the extraordinary efforts of Penn Staters everywhere for continuing our important work of teaching, research and service,” Barron wrote. “Penn State’s community has never been anchored to a particular place — it’s in the heart of every Nittany Lion.”

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty across the University have worked hard this past semester to maintain Penn State’s "We Are" spirit within their virtual classrooms. Some faculty members – like Chris Staley and Heather McCune Brune of the College of Arts and Architecture, or Matthew McAllister and Curt Chandler of the Bellisario College of Communications – found new ways to offer a virtual hand during these uncertain times.

From hand to keyboard

Chris Staley at the Jaffa Gate

Distinguished Professor of Art Chris Staley stands at the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. He recently spent two weeks as a visiting artist at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, teaching ceramics.

IMAGE: Penn State

Chris Staley, Distinguished Professor of Art, and Heather McCune Bruhn, assistant teaching professor of art history, have been grappling with the shift of their hands-on art education transitioning to the Zoom platform.

Staley was teaching a class in which the material surrounds touching and shaping clay, and he explained that most students don't have access to clay or clay equipment at home.

For Staley, the alteration raised many questions.

"I had to ask myself, 'how can I make this a viable and meaningful experience?'" Staley said. "How do you touch people's souls? When you're shaping the clay, you're shaping what you like and what you want to express. It was a challenge to try and create a new dynamic while making the class as meaningful as possible. Zoom, our new digital form of communication, is just another type of clay."

Staley got even more creative with his course, such as prompting his students to arrange objects at home into unique vase forms inspired by the Readymades created by Marcel Duchamp.

In another class session, students put notebooks on their heads and created 30-second drawings. He explained that his goal was to do something new in every class, so people didn't want to miss it.

Staley continued with his demonstrations, discussions, and, most importantly, he kept asking students what they were thinking and how they were feeling.

“I often remind myself what a privilege it is to be a teacher and what an amazing opportunity teachers have to help change someone’s life for the better."

— Chris Staley, distinguished professor of art 

“How many situations are there where there's a group of young adults waiting to hear from you? This opportunity should not be squandered," Staley said. "It's a privilege to walk into a room and be heard, and it was important for me to ask them questions to explore our connections and create a safe, warm community online."

Much like Staley, McCune Bruhn works hard to create community in her classroom; however, her methods rely on taste. Among her students, McCune Bruhn is famous for snacks and sometimes meals. 

For her larger classes, McCune Bruhn is known to bring in bags of candy for Halloween and Valentine’s Day, and for her smaller classes, she often brings in homemade cookies. McCune Bruhn sometimes takes time to make dinners and soups for art history graduate students as they work on their dissertations. 

Since the transition to remote learning, McCune Bruhn knew that some of her students could not leave State College. She took time to carefully deliver soup, cookies and some other meals to students still in the area.

"Feeding people is my way of nurturing people," McCune Bruhn said. "I know that people may not be in the best mental state as of late due to worldwide quarantines, so I just want them to know that someone cares."

In addition to providing meals, McCune Bruhn focused on reducing stress for all of her students by adding fun extra credit opportunities, like an end of the year selfie that challenged students to pose like famous artworks with household items. 

She kept the mood light with silly hats such as a rubber chicken hat, squid hat, flower hat and taco hat.  

For Heather McCune Bruhn, it was all about reducing stress for her students in any way possible.

IMAGE: Penn State

Above all else, McCune Bruhn said that she is proud to be a Penn Stater, and that she feels a strong sense of love and protection for students across the University.

"I didn't know this spring could be as beautiful as it was," McCune Bruhn said. "I saw this whole [University] community come together and be supportive of each other. When I go anywhere, Penn State has a reputation for excellence. What's going on now is our way of upholding that status."

Communications, connections and community

For Bellisario faculty members Matthew McAllister, professor and chair of graduate programs, and Curt Chandler, assistant teaching professor, being off campus from their peers and students was a significant change of pace.

Their move to the online format focused heavily on reassurance and transparency. Both McAllister and Chandler took the time to craft careful, meaningful messages to their students in an attempt to ease concerns.

In his resident courses, Chandler had been preparing students in four different storytelling classes during the spring semester to go out and gather information, conduct interviews and to produce multimedia stories. 

"A big part of the college experience is the basic learning process: by going out and doing stories," Chandler said. "This isn't the kind of story that students were expecting to tell."

Over the four classes he was teaching, he found that students were still able to produce and edit "amazing" video stories, undeterred by the potential limitations of being home.

"The key thing is to not obsess over what you can't do. Do something new. When your expectations aren't met, you can still gain something positive, so don't focus on what went wrong. Focus on what you can learn so you can move forward."

— Curt Chandler, assistant teaching professor of communications

Although the classes were on Zoom, students still enjoyed some of Chandler's well-known charm in the physical classroom: his humor.

For one of his courses, Chandler uses a system called Top Hat to record student quiz responses via the internet. Students log in to their accounts via phones or laptops, and during the last class of each semester, they get a chance to answer a simple question: "what is Chandler holding up?"

Often, the answers seem silly, and those that attend class get an easy point. This time, Chandler went one step further to get a giggle: after removing his sweater and standing up, Chandler revealed his rainbow, Unicorn onesie.

Curt Chandler, assistant teaching professor, is well-known for his humor and tries to make class entertaining when possible.

IMAGE: Penn State

"It gave me a chance to be goofy," Chandler said. "I tried to make the courses as interactive as I could, like having open chats. The relationships that students make during their college experience last a lifetime."

McAllister found it especially important to check-in on his students for both their educational success and mental well-being. He explained that he was very aware of the impact his presence could make, so he made sure to smile more on video and be enthusiastic to keep students engaged with their education. Additionally, if he hadn't heard from a student, he reached out to see how they were doing to lend a hand.

"The current discourse is uncertain, which can be scary," McAllister said. "We live in a fortunate era where we can take full advantage of electronic means of making community. Community didn't solely exist in geographic spaces before COVID-19. Now, we can expand community well beyond where we live. Community is simply a network of human connections based upon communication."

"We Are" stories

The "We Are" spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State's commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a "We Are" moment — and we want to hear your "We Are" stories.

Visit news.psu.edu/WeAre to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by COVID-19. We are!

Last Updated June 11, 2020