A Liberal Arts College Responds to COVID-19
Life in the era of COVID-19, as in all times of crisis, amplifies our basic instincts. Do we become anxious or confident, selfish or generous, rigid or adaptable? The same applies to institutions. And right now, at this moment of national and global crisis, Bard College is demonstrating who we are: student-focused, innovative, entrepreneurial, and civically engaged. We regularly underscore to our students the importance of critical thinking, the capacity to improvise and adapt, and the need for resilience. Our teaching is informed by a commitment to promoting in students a sense of agency and a belief that they can contribute in their own ways to society and culture and thereby help shape the future. The very nature of our close and creative approach to education is informing our development of new and effective ways to teach and support our students and engage with our communities, even as we adapt to this crisis and its impact on higher education.
In the Classroom
Our student-centered approach to teaching, combined with small class sizes typical of residential liberal arts colleges, has been pivotal in facilitating a more healthy transition to online teaching. Students are not spending class time watching a pre-recorded lecture, as often happens with larger classes, but are engaging with their professors and each other in seminar-style discussions, and working together, synchronously or asynchronously. Many Bard students and faculty elected to keep meeting during spring break, using the extra time to seek comfort and camaraderie in this transformed learning space, and to continue working together outside of scheduled class times. One professor, responding to students eager to “stay after class,” opened a separate Friday afternoon reading group on David Copperfield. Another is offering two sections of his class, one at the regularly scheduled time and another several hours later so as to accommodate students in China.
We have discovered that Bard’s global footprint and innovative liberal arts curriculum have prepared us for this crisis in unexpected ways. We have pioneered the use of connected-learning approaches (for learning, we prefer the term “connected” to “online”) in virtual international exchanges that we call network classes. For the past five years, hundreds of students at seven liberal arts institutions across the globe participated in parallel courses and interacted synchronously and asynchronously as they studied themes such as global citizenship, freedom of expression, and migration. Digital approaches paired with “low-tech” assignments have created dynamic environments used extensively in Bard programs such as Experimental Humanities. As a result, faculty in the program have been able to quickly produce a handbook and other resources to help colleagues successfully make the transition to remote instruction while maintaining the student-centered liberal arts approach at the heart of Bard’s educational philosophy. (The handbook has now been translated into five languages.)
Many of the teaching methods we use so effectively in person translate extremely well to a connected learning environment. Writing prompts that are part of the signature approach of Bard’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, for example, enable multiple students to post their thoughts simultaneously in chat rooms, allowing others to respond and the professor to identify where best to engage further.
Creativity and adaptability are critical to teaching, particularly in the arts and humanities. While many colleges and universities have cancelled live performances this spring, our Theater and Performance Program mobilized students and visiting artists to use an inventive, modified version of Zoom to transform a production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest into a hybrid art form, somewhere between a theatrical performance and a live-action film, that has been conceived, rehearsed, and performed entirely online. A literature professor has offered a special one-credit class on Literature and Epidemics. Bard’s President Leon Botstein, often skeptical of the claims of technology to improve on traditional models of undergraduate education, is joining his colleagues in music to embrace the moment with regular classes, lessons, and new performance experiments with Bard’s more than 100 music conservatory students spread across the globe.
Our experience in COVID-19 has made it clear that there is no substitute for face-to-face learning, especially in the arts and experimental sciences. We also recognize that our capacity to transition swiftly and successfully to a connected learning environment is in part due to relationships forged previously in in-person classes on campus that occurred earlier in the term. It’s clear to us that COVID-19 will not result in a wholesale transition to online learning, but that liberal arts colleges such as Bard will be far better positioned to utilize the technology and platforms of connected learning than is commonly recognized. Our core strengths and traditions are compatible with and translate well to the online experience.
Bard’s move to connected learning this semester has included cocurricular and student life, which is so central to the residential liberal arts experience. The underlying view is that we need to continue to embrace the whole student on campus and off. Student Activities has responded with a steady stream of virtual events for our dispersed student body, be it with poetry readings, live performances, or fireside chats. Student clubs are still meeting and we are hosting online conferences, debates, and essay contests, often in collaboration with our international partners.
We have also remained engaging with our local community. The Bard Architecture and Design Program is using 3D printers to make medical equipment and the Theater and Performance Program's costume department is making masks for local hospitals. Students in Engaged Liberal Arts and Sciences, Bard’s version of service learning, are working with a variety of organizations to provide support to those struggling under the pressures of the coronavirus. The Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) has drawn on student, staff, and faculty volunteers across the institution to partner with more than 40 community partners to distribute food, create online lessons for local students, and create programming with and for Bard’s Lifetime Learning Institute. La Voz, which is sponsored by CCE and the only Spanish-language newspaper in the region, continues to publish and its editor, a Bard alumna, appears regularly as host of a local radio broadcast. Brothers at Bard, a mentoring program for men of color, is continuing its support of high school students in the neighboring city of Kingston and in New York City, and is even connecting with alumni through online meetings and a book group. Nearly 100 students, faculty, and staff have volunteered to help tutor students in the network of eight Bard High School Early Colleges (BHSECs) spread across the U.S.
Working with Partners Nationally and Globally
As we adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, we draw on experiences, partnerships and networks that we have developed over decades. Academic affairs officers, student affairs officers, and members of offices of civic engagement across Bard’s national and international networks of partners meet regularly to exchange ideas and insights on the transition to an online world and to offer each other support. There are great benefits in these exchanges. For example, faculty at our dual-degree partners—including the American University of Central Asia, Al-Quds University, and Bard College Berlin—teach blended learning classes, which mix in-person, in-class learning with online reading and discussion, to refugees in Jordan and Bangladesh and in-service teachers in Kyrgyzstan, and are eager to share with U.S.-based faculty through a series of webcasts. Similarly, BHSEC faculty, who have amazingly diverse experience and who share common teaching values with those in Annandale, have shared experiences during the transition online.
The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which runs the largest degree-granting prison education program in the country, has been extremely helpful in addressing the vexing issue of access because they are used to strict limits: their approach to innovative asynchronous assignments has been particularly helpful in assisting faculty to work with students who, because of personal circumstances or geographic locations, struggle with synchronous learning.
Written materials, sample assignments, and webcasts from across Bard’s networks have been posted on the Network Resources page sponsored by the Open Society University Network.
We recognize that virtual connections cannot, and should not, replace the in-person experience, and that much of our success in this transition is based on the teaching methods we have forged over the years. We also know that there will be additional challenges in the future, as the crisis continues and even as it resolves. But we remain optimistic in our capacity to work with students both within and outside of the classroom and to demonstrate that the liberal arts curriculum—more essential now than ever—can be successfully adapted. When the crisis ends, we will further adapt our connected approaches, like virtual international exchanges, and will make important contributions to the reestablishment of face-to-face learning, and, critically, the reestablishment of public life.
While COVID-19 poses many challenges to higher education, the Bard College community is leaning in to the challenge, not settling into a holding pattern. We do this in the knowledge that, by embracing what we are at our best, we will be able to maintain our commitment to our students’ learning and well-being. When we look back on this time, we will be able to say that we practiced what we preach, and we learned how to do what we do better.
Post Date: 04-13-2020