Social distancing and the voices of OU’s education

Jeff Thomas, Contributor

Five months into this thing, and six feet apart is getting further all the time. There’s a feeling of isolation when every smiling face at the supermarket is covered by a mask. There’s a special kind of sadness when the only contact with Grandma is leaving dinner on her porch. People aren’t used to living this way. It’s hard. Life has left us outside standing in the rain. Soaking wet, we’re looking for a window. Even if it’s just to spend a moment waving to whoever is on the other side of the glass.

For many, video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Google Meet have become that window. Simple to use, and available for a variety of devices, the platforms have exploded in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic. 

As social distancing has become a necessity, athletic training, therapy sessions, doctor appointments, and business are all taking place over these platforms. Education has been similarly affected. Classes are being redesigned for entirely online instruction or as hybrid courses featuring a combination of online and in person participation.

Given the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19, students and instructors are having to map the uncharted landscape of education without in person instruction. They’re having to confront questions like, what happens when the ephemeral nature of classroom discussions is replaced by the stenography of email and forum threads? What are the effects of the humor and levity of in person discourse being replaced by measured written responses? How are instructors and students supposed to build trust without interacting face to face? 

For those facing their first semester of entirely online instruction, these conditions are daunting. People are trying to find their way. Five of them have come forward to share their experiences and perspective on socially distanced education. 

First, a creative writing stalwart who is reluctant to accept the beep of email notifications as a substitute for the sound of student pens scratching paper. Then, a graduate student who landed on the other side of online learning as the face of an educational summer camp for kids. Next an artist fueling her education and artwork with the flames of whatever the pandemic throws her way. Then, a former tech executive discovering the intricacies of establishing productive student teacher relationships while teaching online for the first time. And finally, a first-generation college student determined to reach her goals for herself and for her family.

These are their stories.

Peter Markus

Oakland University Creative Writing Professor Peter Markus is old school. For him, a successful day on the job concludes once he’s walking out of South Foundation Hall covered in chalk dust. To Markus, the ritual of gathering in one place and working together means something. He believes in the magic of a classroom. 

“Like Dorothy discovers that there’s no place like home … there is no place like the actual classroom,” Markus said. “Nothing compares to the energy … The human body in proximity to other human bodies is a charged experience.”

With decades of experience teaching at the collegiate level and with K-12 students as part of the InsideOut literary arts project in Detroit, Markus knows where he needs to go with his courses and how to get there. He relishes taking students to some place new.

“I love working with young writers,” Markus said. “I look for lights going off in or behind the eyes of my students. I can see it when it happens … That process fills me up and makes me want to keep on doing it. My main objective is for students to come away from the class having written something they are pleased with, something they wouldn’t have otherwise written.”

His purpose as an instructor is reassured by the completion of his process. Now that his process has been disrupted by online learning, it’s hard to know where his fulfillment will come from.

“I do my best to be human, to connect by being true to who I am, to bring myself into the classroom dynamic,” Markus said. “This can still take place online but it’s the difference between having drinks at a bar versus talking on the phone.”

As a seasoned creative writing instructor, Markus finds himself playing multiple roles in the classroom. At times he is a studious practitioner of language arts, putting his students through the ringer with close readings of course material and strenuous writing prompts. And at other times he acts as sort of a therapist, sitting at the front of the classroom and patiently listening as students share their thoughts on intimate subjects like politics, morality, and sexuality. For Markus to be effective in this role he has to connect with his students. Social distancing puts a strain on his ability to do so.

“The actual classroom is a multidimensional space,” says Markus. “A computer screen is not. The classroom with humans in it has personality. It has a feel. There is no feel in Zoom.”

What optimism Markus has lies in his faith in our collective humanity.

“We’re all in this together,” Markus said. “Be open and considerate … this isn’t easy for any of us. No one goes into teaching to sit in front of a computer.”

Brooke Elizabeth 

Brooke Elizabeth is a graduate student at Oakland. Her plan is to take the leadership skills she developed in the Coast Guard into the non-profit sector.

“Getting out of the Coast Guard at 23 years old motivated my schooling,” Elizabeth said. “I knew I wanted to have a nonprofit one day, and I knew I wanted a PhD … I believed it would provide me with the skills and assist in the greater outcome of running my own nonprofit one day.”

Having already acquired her bachelor’s in creative wellness, she’s now working towards a master’s in public health and planning to pursue a PhD out of state. On campus, she is involved with student services as a professional and career coach.

As part of her master’s program, Elizabeth committed to working with the Baldwin Center to help run the non-profit’s summer camp for K-12 students. Once the pandemic set in, the camp switched from in person to virtual and all the work had to be done remotely. Elizabeth found herself managing interns and orchestrating educational services through email threads and Zoom meetings. She was able to thrive, despite unfamiliar circumstances.

“I expected it to be a lot harder than it was,” Elizabeth said. “I was nervous … I knew I’d be the face interacting with all these people. But I left [the experience] feeling good. I found a voice, I found a way to maneuver through. It was insightful and enlightening for it to not be as hard as I thought it would be. With everything going on, I was happy to be able to set [interns and students] up to succeed.”

With her lengthy experience in higher learning, Elizabeth is no stranger to online courses. She believes the biggest difficulty to be connecting with people. She’s found an easy trick for forming online relationships.

“Say their names,” Elizabeth said. “In emails, in Zoom meetings, say the other person’s name. It helps make it more personal.”

For Elizabeth, the pandemic hasn’t changed her course to her degree. However, she is concerned about how courses will unfold.

“I know my professors pretty well,” said Elizabeth. “They’re the bunch that likes to assign groups assignments. Without being able to work and present in person, it won’t be the same. I’m not sure how they’ll do things differently.”

Ultimately Elizabeth views online learning as an opportunity for students to improve their time management skills and become acclimated to the business world.

“You have to be on top of yourself and hold yourself accountable,” said Elizabeth. “Some people are going to have to buck up and get better at doing that. The world operates using texts, conference calls, video chats, and talking on the phone to communicate. A strength of online learning is that it’s an opportunity for students to improve their communication skills.”

Stella Rothe

As an artist, Stella Rothe searches for the beauty in life. She believes there’s always hope — that art is how people leave their mark on their place in time. Her determination in the face of the pandemic, is rooted in her artwork.

“I want to leave a handprint behind that says, ‘we were here and we persevered,’” Rothe said. “I believe that nothing can ever be truly lost if an artist comes around to rescue it.”

Rothe completed her creative writing degree at Oakland last spring. Moving forward, she’ll continue studying Spanish at OU while simultaneously working towards her creative writing master’s at Stetson University. For years, Rothe has expressed herself as a dancer and a writer. Her drive as an artist has motivated her education and vice versa.

“I’m addicted to school,” Rothe said. “I’ll always continue my education … The end goal is to write novels, but I can’t see myself writing without dancing. [I want to create] beauty whenever I can.”

The switch to remote in the middle of Oakland’s winter semester was Rothe’s first experience with online instruction. While she wasn’t thrilled at first, she persevered and continued with her program.

“There was a learning curve for sure,” Rothe said. “I’d never intended to take an online class, but once I got into it, it wasn’t so bad. Now I’m a lot more comfortable with [online courses].”

As part of her master’s program, Rothe had scheduled a residency in Mexico City. Due to the pandemic, the trip was cancelled and replaced with a two-week virtual course. Despite initial disappointment, this experience ended up being positive for Rothe.

“It would have been a two-week residency in Mexico City,” Rothe said. “There would have been artists workshops and traveling, but everything had to be shifted online. In the morning we did online creative writing workshops, in the afternoon there were artists talks, and in the evening there were question and answer panels with different artists. It ended up being really nice. I was sad when it was over.”

Rothe’s experience with the residency also revealed some challenging aspects of remote learning.

“There’s a lot of different pressures with online,” said Rothe. “It’s weird being on a web cam. I know it sounds superficial, but there is pressure to have good lighting or make sure my makeup looks good. For people there’s body dysmorphia … it feels like everyone is just staring at you.”

Rothe plans to continue her education regardless of social distancing and the pandemic. She views this as a time to grow and continue working on her creative writing.

“It’s about making the best of this,” Rothe said. “My anxiety is down and I’ve been writing non-stop. I’ve finished about 200 pages of the story I’m working on. In some ways it has been good for me. I hope other people are able to find good in this as well … if you need a break take one but try to continue to grow. Don’t let the pandemic drag you down.”

Sam Srauy

Sam Srauy, an Oakland University assistant professor of Communication, teaches students about mass media. In teaching media literacy, he designs his courses to encourage critical thinking in hopes of supplementing a healthy democracy. Srauy is often charged with leading his students through difficult topics of discussion. Controversial subjects like white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia in the context of our media are all examined in his courses.

As an instructor, Srauy focuses on creating a healthy classroom environment where students feel comfortable expressing their views on difficult ethical questions. When in the same room with students, he can lean into his humor and charisma to help students be open and honest during class. Adjusting his approach to achieve these goals through online instruction has been a challenge.

“I’m having a hell of a time getting to that point online,” Srauy said. “[Things like] forum posts are very superficial. Those responses aren’t the same as the in the moment gut responses you get in a classroom. People think about and police what they say, and it feels inauthentic. As a result, I don’t know if I’m reaching my students.”

Despite his wealth of experience working remotely in various tech and communication fields, Srauy had never taught students over the internet until last March. An online course this summer was an opportunity for him to learn more about remote instruction.

“I found that [students and teachers] have to try harder to establish a relationship,” Srauy said. “I was constantly sending emails to my students. I need a discourse; students have to feel safe in challenging me. I’m really working for trust.”

Despite the new challenges, Srauy does see an upside to online learning.

“Online there’s a record of everything,” Srauy said. “There’s Moodle, forums and email threads, and I post recordings of all our class sessions on Google Meet. That’s an excellent resource for students. I’ve noticed that during virtual meetings students can spend less time taking notes and more time engaged with discussion because they have that record to look up later.”

Srauy has transitioned all of his fall courses to online. His own preexisting health condition, his family situation, and his regard for the wellbeing of students were all factors in his decision to go fully online.

“I knew it would be different,” Srauy said. “And that’s scary, but it wasn’t a hard decision. I’m an asthmatic and my wife works in healthcare. We have two small children at home. I don’t want to get sick and spread this to anyone else. It’s the right thing to do for my family and for my students.”

Alexis Mattson 

“Growing up, I dreamed about being a Golden Grizzly. At high school college fairs, I would swarm the OU tables … I would leave the fair with every single handout and piece of memorabilia.”

Alexis Mattson bleeds black and gold. She believes in Oakland University. Looking towards the fall semester, she knows that she’s exactly where she wants to be.

“I feel wholly supported by our OU community,” said Mattson. “President Pescovitz has consistently reiterated that student health and safety is always the top priority. I know I can return to school feeling safe.”

Mattson is a Public Relations and Strategic Communications major — a senior looking forward to graduation. As a first-generation college student, getting that diploma matters to her. She’s determined to follow through regardless of the effects of the pandemic.

“My educational plans have most definitely been altered. I was planning on graduating in the fall, but [because of the virus] I was unable to find an internship,” Mattson said. “I have been looking forward to walking across the graduation stage and receiving my diploma. I am happily willing to wait … It means something to me. I want to see my parents’ faces when I grab that diploma.”

Mattson is no stranger to online learning. With her lifestyle and personality, she prefers remote learning.

“I work retail — my schedule is all over the place, so I like [how online allows me] to work independently,” Mattson said. “I can be extremely introverted at times … Online learning helps me communicate with others via forums … I don’t feel so intimidated. I am also a poor test taker. When we have online exams, I can review the content and relieve exam anxiety.”

For Mattson her studies have been a guiding light. As a person who is passionate about writing and loves to work with other people, public relations was the right fit.

“Writing has always been my safe haven,” said Mattson. “I have excelled in each of my writing and [public relations] courses. I don’t fall asleep in classes or dread having to do my homework.”

Mattson encourages struggling students to not be afraid to reach out during this difficult time.

“There are so many resources and opportunities OU provides to students. [There’s] CAS advising, Graham Health Center services and counseling, COVID-19 Response Magazine, and so much more. Ask for help.”