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Jessie Miller: Undergraduate education in a global pandemic

jessie miller

Jessie Miller is a senior double majoring in astrophysics and physics and is a College of Natural Science Dean’s Research Scholar. She hails from Lockport, New York.

“Good morning everyone. The slides are posted on D2L; please download them and follow along with today’s lecture on probability distributions. I want to remind everyone that homework two is due on Monday. We will be having a pop quiz today.”

Under normal circumstances, I would hear this instruction while sitting in a classroom surrounded by my peers. We would probably groan at the mention of a pop quiz, but we wouldn’t think too much of it. After all, in a normal setting we would have had ample time to study, process, and understand the material. Our professor would have taught us statistics by writing on a chalkboard, leading us through a problem, and asking us what we understood and what we did not. If we had questions about the material or homework, we could easily attend office hours and work through them. But these are not normal circumstances.

Instead, I hear this sentence through my laptop speaker while sitting in a pantry that I’ve turned into a make-shift office, because the house I’m renting with three other people doesn’t have enough space to create a true home office. When the pandemic started and the university switched to online learning, I had the choice to cram an office space in with my bedroom or convert the pantry. I chose the pantry. Afterall, if I can’t socialize with my friends, safely go out to a restaurant, or work out of the campus library, I’m going to need a space where I can go to destress; that will have to be my bedroom.

I don’t groan when I hear we will be having a pop quiz. Instead, I start to panic. I know I don’t understand the material well enough to perform adequately on a quiz. I attend every lecture, I take notes, I read the text, I complete the homework, and I try to ask questions when I don’t understand something. Despite all of this, my brain does not allow me to process new material; I’m under too much stress, and let me tell you why.

I am immunocompromised, and so is my partner. Every time I leave the house, I’m scared of contracting COVID-19, so I only leave to get groceries. My parents are both older and have pre-existing conditions, and my siblings are either the parents of toddlers or are trying to have kids, so I can’t visit my family without feeling like I’m jeopardizing their health. The isolation has worsened my anxiety and talking about my fears with my therapist does not help as much as it used to. As a senior, it’s time for me to decide between pursuing graduate school or trying my luck in the job market, which feels non-existent these days. Luckily, my goal has always been to attend graduate school, but will that even be possible given the current state of things? Left and right, universities are announcing they won’t be accepting Ph.D. applicants for the Fall 2021 cycle. Unfortunately, my experience is a common one. Not only that, but it is an election year and our civil rights are under attack. Our black and brown citizens are vilified and attacked, and our leaders only offer empty condolences. This is terrifying.

To make matters worse, it feels like my undergraduate instructors do not care about the well-being of their students. I know that our professors are trying their best, but this system is not working. So, what can be done to improve our current situation? 

At the individual course level, instructors could implement breaks into their courses. A five-minute break, even in a 50-minute class, can make a huge difference in comfort levels and health, which in turn may allow students to focus more on material. Instructors could also ask how students are handling their situation, whether verbally at the start of each class period or through an anonymous survey once a week. This way, instructors could see how their students are doing and make any necessary adjustments to the way their course is operating. Additionally, professors should not expect students to complete the same amount of assignments as they would in a normal year; this is pandemic, and we all need extra time to process this trauma. 

At the university level, administration should give students the opportunity to adopt the pass/fail grading method just as they did last spring, and mandate that exams and quizzes be open book and open note. Additionally, the university should provide student employees with job security. If we continue courses online next semester, a modified academic schedule should be adopted to include days off each month. This would allow students to get tested for COVID-19, care for sick family, rest, catch up on assignments or readings we didn’t understand, and overall, this would support our mental health.

There are actions we can take to improve our current situation—we just have to be willing to adopt these changes.

Publish date: Oct. 6, 2020