‘The kids are not okay’: Duke faculty reflect on COVID-19’s impact on classroom learning

Robert Bliwise, editor emeritus of Duke Magazine, led a faculty panel discussion Monday for his recently published book “The Pivot: One Pandemic, One University,” which chronicles Duke’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic from the perspective of students, faculty, staff and administrators. 

The panelists were faculty members who Bliwise followed over the course of the pandemic — Omid Safi, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Professor of English Thomas Ferraro, and Kristin Anne Goss, professor of public policy and political science. They reflected on the challenges and opportunities of teaching during the pandemic and the continued impact that the lockdown had on students.

“The kids are not okay. They’re just not,” Safi said. “Do I think we’ve done an admirable job? Yes. Do I think we have, under very difficult circumstances, a lot to be proud of? Absolutely.”

Ferraro talked about how the lack of a “dynamic class” environment during virtual learning prevented his students from fully engaging in seminar-style classes.

“COVID exacerbated trends that have been going on for quite a while,” Ferraro said, speaking about how Zoom altered his teaching methods. 

Goss discussed positive experiences in the classroom following the pandemic as students returned back to campus.

“When I came back to teaching in person, I felt just this joy … from students. Nobody complained,” Goss said. “I felt like they really appreciated what they’d been missing, or what they’d been missing made them really appreciate the in person experience even more.”

These positive experiences also came with lasting negative effects. Bliwise, who shared anecdotes from his conversations with faculty across the University, described observations from a math professor that “general learning skills, including study skills, self motivation, the ability to work in groups, managing priorities, handling uncertainty and dealing with frustration” have declined among incoming students.

Safi, who teaches a first-year seminar, shared that his students’ ability to engage in class had also declined. After enduring weeks of unresponsive classes on Zoom and questioning his own teaching ability, he confronted his students.

“‘Why are you so uninterested?’ They’re like ‘No, we love the class!’” he recalled. “‘Why aren’t you talking?’ And they’re like, ‘Because we haven’t talked for the last two years.’”

The panelists also spoke about the more positive changes the pandemic has had on their teaching. Goss changed her style of grading to reward effort and improvement and Ferraro conducts group office hours to foster connection between students.

For Bliwise, the past effects of the pandemic are an important chapter of Duke’s history.

“I think the question which we somewhat cut into in this conversation is whether these setbacks [and] pressures will be relieved as the pandemic seems to be receding, or they have some sort of enduring impact,” he said.

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Senou Kounouho
| Staff Reporter

Senou Kounouho is a Pratt first-year and a staff reporter of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.