Fall Semester 2020

Status of Classes Uncertain Heading into Fall Semester

By Jason Shebilske

Students in Professor Lucas Graves’ discussion-based course have gathered virtually over the second half of the semester.

When the announcement was made on March 11 that classes were shifting to online instruction, the University of Wisconsin was initially hoping to return to in-person classes as early as April 10. Then, in-person classes were canceled for the rest of the spring semester. Now, all summer courses have been moved online. Could the university eventually make a decision to move the beginning of fall instruction online?

The university has yet to discuss their plans for the fall semester, but with a mid-April report claiming that normal life may not return until at least 2022, it’s safe to wonder when in-person classes will be allowed to resume around the country.

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication is one department with unique classes that are greatly affected when the course isn’t able to meet in person.

Faculty associate Pat Hastings taught Long-Form Video this spring, and there were several obstacles she had to overcome while transitioning her class to online instruction.

“A lot of the techniques we use [are] really no longer possible,” Hastings said. “I had to rethink how to scale these projects down to make them doable but yet not lose the concepts.”

When the decision to suspend in-person classes was announced, Hastings and her students had to make several drastic changes to their final project, which involved filming an 8-10 minute documentary.

“For the long-form class, we had to change a lot,” Hastings said. “Most people changed their projects after already having their first one at least halfway done.”

Hastings is scheduled to teach Video Journalism in the fall, which teaches strategies for working in television journalism and allows students to develop their own newscast. Despite the challenges she faced from a lack of in-person classes this spring, Hastings isn’t too concerned about the possibility of online classes in the fall.

“I’m not worried if we are quarantined in the fall,” Hastings said. “The TV news class will be a challenge, but I think I have ways around that.”

Other professors in the journalism department, such as Professor Katy Culver, were prepared for the possibility of having to move classes online this spring.

“Before the UW called off face-to-face classes, I had a strong sense that that was going to be coming, so I started testing some different approaches in my class a week before so that we were kind of ready to go when it hit,” Culver said.

Culver’s class, Law of Mass Communication, relies on a unique mixture of lecturing and group discussions during class. As a result, Culver teaches her lectures synchronously and uses the university’s preferred video chatting platform, Blackboard Collaborate, to split the class into groups.

Junior Johnny Bildings is in Culver’s class, and he discussed the benefits of live lecturing even in a virtual setting.

“Katy Culver does a great job making sure we rely on Blackboard Collaborate to keep interacting with group members in real time, answer her lecture questions and keeping us engaged,” Bildings said. “Although it’s strange not seeing friendly faces, I would say the class structure and quality has been a pretty straightforward transition.”

Professor Kathryn McGarr used live lectures for one of her classes while she pre-recorded lectures for another. From a teaching standpoint, she discussed the shortfalls of being unable to connect with her students when lectures are pre-recorded.

“It’s just hard to know when students are getting it or when I’m going too fast or when I’m not explaining something well because they can’t stop me or give me a confused look, and I can’t stop the lecture and ask them for questions,” McGarr said.

In addition to having some uncertainty regarding students’ understanding of the course material, professors are also tasked with checking in on their students’ overall well-being. Professor Lucas Graves emphasized the importance of keeping track of their students during this period of uncertainty.

“Suddenly you’re really thinking about everyone’s well-being in a way that you might not be normally,” Graves said. “We’re always thinking about students’ well-being, but right now it’s front and center. It’s at the forefront of our minds. We’ve just tried to be really thoughtful about being aware of the challenges that different people are facing.”

Graves currently teaches a discussion-based course focused around how mass media affects political behavior. However, he’s tasked with teaching Mass Communication Practices in the fall, a six-credit course that all journalism students are required to take upon acceptance into the department.

“[Mass Communication Practices] is such an important class, it’s really the foundation for all of the work that students who are majoring in journalism and in strategic communication will do through the rest of their time in the J-School,” Graves said. “It depends so much on the work done in lab, and even on the collaboration and conversations that happen during lecture when everyone is seated together at the same table, and that’s very hard to recreate in an online environment.”

While students were able to build relationships with their professors and classmates in an in-person environment during the spring semester, part of the challenge of the fall semester potentially beginning online would be the inability to cultivate those types of relationships.

Even if the fall semester does begin with in-person courses, Graves stressed how there would still be a large amount of uncertainty at universities, both nationwide and around the world.

“Even if there are in-person classes in the fall, we’re not sure what the impact would be on enrollment,” Graves said. “Universities are a really large, complicated, interconnected engine, and this crisis hits almost every part of it, so there’s a lot of uncertainty right now, but I really hope that we’re teaching in-person in the fall and that we can begin the process of re-establishing normal routine. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think a lot of us are anxious to start to work on that.”

It’s unclear when normal life will resume or what exactly it will look like, but students and professors are both eager to begin that process.

2020 Seniors

2020 Seniors Faced with Uncertain Future Remain Positive

By Jason Shebilske

Trevor Suess had hoped to spend his summer working with children, but his plans are now uncertain due to COVID-19. (Courtesy: Meghan McCallum)

Senior year at the University of Wisconsin is usually filled with activities like making memories on the Memorial Union Terrace and sitting on Abraham Lincoln’s lap.

However, the announcement that in-person classes had been canceled for the remainder of the semester brought those plans to a halt. Instead, students were left scrambling to sort out their post-graduation employment plans while finishing their college experience in quarantine. Many employers are freezing their hiring process as they deal with the financial fallout that the suspension of everyday life has carried.

Pam Garcia-Rivera, Media, Information and Communication Career Advisor

with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, helps students with connections and advice as they work to find internships and jobs after graduation. That process has become more difficult due to COVID-19 since there are fewer professional development and networking events and fewer job opportunities in general.

Garcia-Rivera worked with SuccessWorks, a career advising service through the College of Letters and Science at UW-Madison, during the financial crisis in 2008. She was able to draw some comparisons between that period and what students are experiencing now.

“I remember then it got really quiet, students were very quiet. I think they sort of gave up, and I think that’s sort of what happens, is people get frustrated. It’s like, ‘well, there are no jobs out there, so I’m not going to look,’” Garcia-Rivera said. “I think students who continue to keep their eyes open, keep looking, try and stay positive, make connections, are going to be in a better place when things start to come back.”

In addition to having fewer opportunities to work with, Garcia-Rivera also said students have been reaching out less for career advice.

“I think students have been a little bit more quiet because there’s nothing really happening and maybe they can’t really think of what to reach out to me for,” Garcia-Rivera said.

UW senior Eric Anderson is double majoring in marketing and management/human resources and was far along in the process of applying for a pair of jobs in Chicago when the companies froze their hiring operations. Anderson’s original plan was to work for approximately four years after graduation prior to applying to graduate school. As a result of the uncertainty surrounding his employment, he now plans to study for his GMAT, the exam required for admission to many MBA programs, during the summer with the hope of attending graduate school one year after graduation.

“I’ve had this future plan for a while. Ever since my sophomore year, I’ve always wanted to have employment right out of college, work for three or four years, go to grad school, and now that that whole thing’s flipped upside down. It sucks,” Anderson said. “It’s caused me a bunch of distress about the future because what used to be really nice and predictable is now kind of flipped upside down.”

Amanda Scharenbrock is also a senior at UW-Madison majoring in genetics with a certificate in gender and women’s studies. She was planning on working in her research lab on campus for approximately two years before applying to graduate schools. She expressed optimism that she would still be able to work in the lab, although there’s some uncertainty regarding when she’ll be able to return.

“I know I’m going off of grant money, so I probably could get hired right away because it’s a little different,” Scharenbrock said. “Even if I did get hired on right away, I wouldn’t have anything due and I couldn’t go into [the] lab.”

Both Anderson and Scharenbrock expressed disappointment about having their in-person commencement postponed. Both said that they knew the measure was necessary, but they had been looking forward to the in-person event.

The university announced plans for an alternate in-person event at a later date, but it’s unclear what that event could look like. Although both Anderson and Scharenbrock were appreciative of the gesture, Anderson was disappointed that he wouldn’t get to have a moment of closure with some of the friends he had made during college.

“For me, the biggest thing that I feel like the pandemic really took away is not being able to have a formal goodbye with some of those people you don’t necessarily see on an everyday basis that you get close with,” Anderson said.

Kathleen Culver is a journalism professor at UW-Madison who is helping to plan a virtual tribute to the graduating seniors. She remembered words of encouragement from an alumnus who graduated approximately 25 years ago who said that he didn’t remember his commencement ceremony, but he did remember the connections he’d made during college and the memories that they had.

While the coronavirus has had immediate impacts for seniors in their second semester, other students late in their college experience have also been deeply impacted.

Trevor Suess is a junior at the University of Minnesota studying elementary education who was completing required in-person practicum hours during the spring semester. As a result of the suspension of in-person classes, he’s unsure whether he’ll require more years of schooling in order to complete his practicum hours.

“[The elementary education program] is currently talking with the governor of Minnesota to see if they can get in-class hours waived so that we don’t have to make up the in-class hours that we lost because of this,” Suess said. “I’m worried for the sake that working with kids is something that, it helps to have a lot of person-to-person experience, and that’s not happening right now.”

Suess was planning on staying in Minneapolis over the summer while working in a child-care program or interacting with children through the parks and recreation department. He still plans on remaining in Minneapolis over the summer, but he’s unsure whether he’ll be able to secure employment, especially in his field.

Elizabeth Somsen is in her first semester of her senior year at UW-Madison, studying genetics and genomics. She intended to intern with the National Institutes of Health in Maryland over the summer, but the internship program was canceled as a result of COVID-19. If fall classes were online, she said she’d likely delay her graduation plans as a result.

“If we were going to go all online for the fall semester, I would seriously think about dropping that semester and finishing in the spring,” Somsen said. “I’m missing out on the things that I would have learned, and I just don’t want that. I’d rather just be able to learn all of the things.”

Despite the uncertainty in the middle of her senior year, she recognized how important the safety measures were for protecting public health.

“I think that we all have to not lose the perspective of the situation which we had at the beginning, which is that this is a virus that kills people,” Somsen said.

Seniors in quarantine face disappointment and uncertainty, but many are remaining hopeful for their futures following commencement.