CMC faculty conquer challenges of the virtual classroom
Across the CMC curriculum, members of our faculty are meeting the challenge of these unprecedented and historic times, delivering exceptional coursework in a fully online modality for the spring semester. In our Academic Innovations series of faculty Q&As, professors share their curricular highlights, best practices, and how students are helping to shape virtual learning for a memorable, collaborative academic experience.
Creating community: Prof. Taw revamps IR course for Zoom learning
Jennifer Taw, associate professor of government, is teaching "Honors Introduction to International Relations" this spring.
How have you reimagined your “Introduction to International Relations” course to accommodate Zoom teaching and learning?
I have offered this course each spring since arriving at CMC in 2006 and have had a similar format since the beginning with just a few adjustments to testing protocols and writing assignments. Last spring, however, it became clear that the course did not work as well online as in person, so I decided to revamp it for a Zoom semester. I took the opportunity to completely revise the class in ways that I think are very exciting and that are responsive to issues and events affecting global and domestic politics today.Read more
Whereas the course used to begin with the systematic introduction of IR theories—from the mainstream paradigms to the more critical approaches, before segueing into applying those lenses to contemporary global political challenges—it is now built around a single topic: The Commons. By examining how countries navigate the many challenges of space, the seas, the Internet, and the Arctic, as well as basic shared resources such as water, air, and minerals, the course can show the connectedness of domains that are too often stove-piped (security, economics, and politics/diplomacy), as well as the utility of a broad range of theoretical perspectives.
This approach allows the reintroduction into IR discourse of entities often left out of mainstream theories, including indigenous populations, peripheral states, and civil society. This, in turn, allows the introduction of more contemporary and varied research and literature, bringing in more female academics' voices, as well as scholarship by Black, indigenous, and other diverse authors and researchers from all over the world. Students will still be exposed to the classical IR theorists, but now within this broader context.
How did you broaden or change your assignments?
To accommodate the COVID-19 semester, I made some big assignment changes. Students now post bi-weekly journal entries to a shared GoogleSheets document on Slack, in which they define terms introduced in the readings and discussions, identify the assumptions underpinning different theoretical perspectives, and ask follow-up questions.
By bringing this process out of the classroom and into this shared online space, we can save our time together for more in-depth discussions of the readings. This also gives me a way to gauge, steadily and over the course of the semester, what students are understanding and what is proving to be more challenging. I’m planning to keep these changes even when we’re meeting in person.
How are you using guest speakers in the course?
As in past semesters, several CMC IR faculty members come to the class in the second half of the semester as guest speakers, as will two of my current thesis students whose work is directly related to topics we're discussing in class. This offers our first-year students interested in IR the opportunity to hear our professors and seniors talk about their particular expertise or current research. This part of the course is always students' favorite.
What challenges are you and your students dealing with by being apart? How are you overcoming them together?
It’s hard to create those senses of community when we’re not in person—we can’t go sit on the Quad or talk before class; I can’t bring students to the house for a film or a meal; the students who don’t already know each other have a harder time connecting. And Zoom itself is tiring and weird; you never know who’s looking at what, you know you’re dozens or thousands of miles apart from each other, and people are in whole different time zones experiencing different days and places. Ironically, one imperfect way to overcome that is MORE Zoom, but making it one-on-one. Last semester, I invited students to schedule sessions just to shoot the breeze. For me, at least, it was awesome to talk with the students who signed up. They are just so smart and interesting.
Going viral: Prof. Chandrangsu examines this critical moment of the pandemic
Pete Chandrangsu, assistant professor of biology, is teaching “Microbiology” this spring.
Your "Microbiology" course feels particularly relevant for the spring semester given all that we’ve been through in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. What are you hoping to address or clarify about science—and how we interact with it—in the class?
We will definitely discuss all things viral—from how they replicate and cause disease to how they spread. We will also cover how our immune system prevents and battles infection, as well as the science behind vaccines. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is easy to forget that microbes are essential to life as we know it. For instance, the majority of the oxygen we breathe comes from microbes living in the ocean. If you like yogurt, wine, or kombucha, you have microbes to thank. Also, we are only beginning to understand the full contribution of microbial life to our planet. In my "Microbiology" course, we will explore the breadth of amazing bacteria, fungi, and viruses on our planet and the relationship, both good and bad, between microbes and humans.Read more
How are you reimagining your class given the moment we’re living in, especially as it relates to the vaccine rollout?
We are at a critical point in our fight to end the pandemic. There are safe and effective vaccines and simple safety protocols that can stem the spread of the virus, but vaccines and masks do not work if people do not use them. With the race to stem the global pandemic though the use of health and safety orders and the rollout of a vaccine, we are seeing science at the forefront. There is a lot of data being presented in rapid succession to the public in media. Thus, now more than ever, science communication and literacy among the general public are more important than ever.
How can one distinguish between fact and opinion? What does it all mean and how can it shape policy? As an informed scientist, I hope that with increased understanding, one can hope that everyone will follow the guidelines or take the vaccine. How can one argue with a 95% effective vaccine? The data is the data, right? Yet, there are still those who are unconvinced.
Effective science communication is more than the data. It requires an empathetic approach and must come from a place of understanding. It is difficult, if not impossible, for scientists and physicians to communicate and educate without understanding the cultural, social, and emotional factors that contribute to an individual’s decision-making. To help students build these skills, I am collaborating with Jessie Mills, assistant professor of theater at Pomona College, to develop workshops and collaborative activities focused on empathy and public health. The hope is that students can translate the knowledge and experience gained from my course to become effective leaders once they leave CMC.
What is the citizen science project that the class is undertaking? What are you most excited for students to experience and understand in the spring?
The transition to online learning has given me an opportunity to reimagine how and what I teach, especially in the lab setting. This project actually arose from discussions I had with students in my research lab at the beginning of the pandemic. The human microbiome consists of the trillions of microbial cells that live on our bodies and in our gut. From the day we are born, these microbes directly impact our health, development, and behavior. The community composition of our microbiota is influenced by the microbes found in our environment. The pandemic has changed the way that we interact with each other and our surroundings.
For instance, with safer-at-home mandates, we have seen an increased reliance on online vendors and delivery services to obtain everyday goods. Thankfully, COVID-19 is spread primarily by aerosols and not by contact with solid surfaces! The goal of this project is to examine the microbes associated with packages that travel through the mail. If the microbes can be moved from one location to another through the mail, this can dramatically influence the diversity of microbes we are exposed to and affect our health and wellbeing. In pilot experiments run in my research lab this fall, we received samples from as far away as Europe! Students in my course will have an authentic research experience and will be intimately involved in data collection and analysis. They will learn about the latest in DNA sequencing technology and gain experience with big data sets.
What has struck you the most about living and teaching in a pandemic? How has it influenced your thinking with students?
Living through a pandemic is challenging! Inclusivity and engagement are the two main themes that arise in conversations with my amazing colleagues. With the move to distance learning, students are often faced with challenges that may not be encountered on campus, such as family and work obligations, poor internet, and time zone differences. How can I ensure that I am supporting students on their journey? How can I create a supportive learning community? With in-person teaching, for example, I miss the few minutes before or after class where I can chat and connect with my students. In the online environment, I am much more intentional about creating community and developing relationships by increasing office hours, setting up Slack channels for students to post social events or issues that are relevant to them, or by simply showing up five minutes early to class to chat.
Given what we’ve dealt with on the virus front, are you optimistic for the year ahead?
I am absolutely optimistic about 2021, especially given recent advances in the COVID vaccine and testing. We have been able to get a safe and effective vaccine from development, through clinical trials, and to the public in under a year! After teaching online during this past semester, I was constantly amazed at our students’ response and approach to the change. I was impressed with how they were able to adapt and engage even under less than ideal circumstances. In my discussions with students, I have heard over and over again that while this is not the college experience they were hoping for, they still felt connected with CMC. What gives me the most optimism for the academic year is being part of a community of CMC faculty, staff, and students working together to thrive under the most challenging of conditions.
Poetic irony: Teaching philosophy of technology in an all-virtual format
Gabbrielle Johnson, assistant professor of philosophy, is teaching “Intro to Philosophy: Science, Technology, and Human Values” and “Psychology of Bias” this spring.
What are you most eager for students to experience and understand in both of your classes this spring?
I’m most eager for students to learn that philosophy’s not dead. What I’ve noticed over my years of teaching philosophy is that many people (understandably) do not know what philosophy is or what philosophers do. As a first-generation student myself, it wasn’t until my junior year that I learned philosophy was something people still did and made careers out of it, careers that went beyond sitting around musing over what dead white men had to say about things a hundred years ago. I believe students are surprised and excited to see philosophy courses on cutting-edge issues, like implicit bias and machine learning, and likewise I’m excited to share with them what philosophy can lend to our understanding of and engaging with current events.Read more
Most heartening, I had three STEM students write to me after courses last semester to share a similar sentiment about the value of my approach for them. Each stated that they had entered the course squarely in STEM majors and were initially skeptical of the application of humanities to their chosen fields of study; however, they were leaving the course with a whole new perspective that humanities are essential to a STEM education and grateful for their newfound appreciation of philosophy's application to their programs. Two of these students had even decided to do a philosophy sequence as a part of their majors in applied sciences. Having gone through a similar philosophical awakening in my own education, I was ecstatic.
Have you had to reimagine how you teach your classes in a virtual format? Can you discuss what sorts of adaptations you have implemented?
There’s a poetic irony that comes with teaching courses in the philosophy of technology at a time like this. It seems like to convey the degree to which technology now permeates every aspect of our lives, all I would need to do now is simply show up and have them look around at our all-encompassing virtual environment. Joking aside, I do see the pivot to virtual education as something of an opportunity in disguise. Not only are the students living the subject matter, but they’re in a useful position to test out certain ideas in real time. For example, last semester, in a lesson about how human values and commercial interests might shape seemingly objective gateways to information, I had students actually simulate a Google search engine. They were able to curate a list of responses they thought were ideal, and compare those with real-time results provided by Google. This allowed them to simultaneously compare and contrast how each person’s list differed across both the simulated and the actual online platforms, and how this might affect the narrative of (mis)information each person is exposed to.
In coming up with fun activities like these, I’m able to use our reliance on technology as a resource rather than an impediment. However, at the end of the day, there’s a deeper, self-evident lesson: no matter how enriching technology is for our day-to-day activities, it isn’t—and can’t be—a replacement for real, human interaction.
What are you hoping to address in your "Psychology of Bias" course this spring? What sorts of outcomes are you seeking?
Over the last 70 years, our concept of social bias has changed dramatically. It used to be that to say someone had a social bias meant they overtly affirmed some problematic stereotype about people from marginalized groups. Thus, the best measure of whether someone had a bias was simply to ask them directly. Over time, the direct approach to measuring bias began to show a decline in negative racial bias. However, although overt expressions of racist ideology were curbed, the pervasive and destructive effects of racism were still painfully evident. Thus, research methods had to be developed to reveal psychological sources of discriminatory behavior that are not obvious to the individuals who harbor them and that grow out of seemingly innocuous patterns of thought and inference. Recognizing this new species of social bias demonstrates how insidious social bias really is, and how it creeps up everywhere from seemingly objective human inference to data-driven computational processes in machine learning programs.
This class will explore the philosophical implications of these sorts of covert, hidden biases. We’ll question how they might hinder our ability to reason objectively about our social environments, whether we are morally responsible for their existence, how they might contribute to institutional or structural injustices, and what, if anything, we can do to mitigate their effects on individuals and society.
The class itself is strictly interdisciplinary. I’m a firm believer that philosophical work such as this must be grounded in, and ultimately shaped by, the actual empirical work with which it attempts to engage. By reading contemporary works in philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and computer science, students in this class will explore the topic from multiple angles.
How are you feeling about the year ahead of you? How has this living through the pandemic affected your research?
I’m optimistic. So much of this past year was shrouded in uncertainty. This year has only just begun, but we already so much to be hopeful about.
Regarding my own research, as I mentioned earlier, the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief how much our lives have come to depend on technology, and provided a healthy skepticism as to what extent that technology can supplant human social interaction. This has given me a lot to think about in my own research projects on social bias, values in scientific practice, and the philosophical impact of technology.
You are participating in the “Algorithmic Bias: The New Form of Discrimination” panel on Feb. 5 with CMCs Office of Alumni and Parent Engagement. Can you give us a brief preview of what you’ll be sharing?
The panel is hosted by CMC’s Financial Economics Institute and is in response to the College’s Presidential Initiative on Anti-Racism and the Black Experience in America.
At the intersection of topics in my work and courses I’ve discussed above, the panel aims to explore how racism and discrimination have taken a new form in the age of big data and artificial intelligence. I’ll be sharing a bit on my work about what social bias is, how our conception of it has changed over the last 70 years, and why we’re seeing it creep up in seemingly neutral technologies like machine learning. One key import I’d like to bring to the discussion is the danger that accompanies the misunderstanding that these technologies have ameliorated human bias. Not only do they harbor many of the human biases with which we’re familiar, but they do so under the guise of objectivity, making them even more menacing. Thus, my work of understanding how social bias can manifest in seemingly innocent patterns of social reasoning contributes vitally to our identifying, evaluating, and eventually mitigating the pernicious biases we see in these intelligent systems.
Prof. Sarzynski adapts to pandemic’s twists and turns as she teaches 'The Amazon'
Sarah Sarzynski, associate professor of history, is teaching "The Amazon" this spring.
What are you hoping to address in “The Amazon” course this spring? What sorts of outcomes are you seeking?
In the first half of the class, I urge students to question their assumptions about the Amazonian region and what has led them to hold such beliefs about the Amazon and Amazonian peoples. In the second half of the class, we attempt to understand Amazonia from the perspectives of indigenous Amazonians and practice allyship, educating ourselves about the historical structures, policies and ideologies that have threatened and continue to threaten indigenous lives and the environment. As allies, students draw connections between the past and the present, composing historical reports to advocate for prioritizing COVID-19 vaccines for indigenous Amazonians.Read more
Have you had to reimagine how you teach your classes in a virtual format? Can you discuss what sorts of adaptations you have implemented?
While the course themes and materials are similar, I have completely redesigned class sessions to encourage an active learning atmosphere online and redesigned assignments to prioritize project-based learning. I use class time entirely for discussion, peer-review exercises, and collaborations in small groups. I replaced (passive) lectures with short instructor videos that students watch before class.
Assignments ask students to develop communication skills beyond formal writing skills. For example, students analyze historical films and photographs in a videographic essay, or short analytical film created on WeVideo, an online video editing platform. Besides developing crucial writing skills such as coherent organization and creating and supporting an argument with source materials, students learn how to engage with a public audience by training in voice performance, sound, titling, transitions and storytelling. Our online reality has shown us how important it is to develop communication skills beyond the formal written essay. Through the videographic essay and multiple collaborative review sessions, students develop technical skills transferrable to other professional and academic settings.
What did you learn from teaching your fall courses that you are incorporating this spring?
Flexibility and accountability. This semester is going to be different from the fall as we continue life in a pandemic that has many twists and turns. Flexibility means that I regularly solicit feedback from students and adapt the course as needed to make sure all of our learning objectives are being met. Accountability is a key aspect of my pedagogical approach. I provide students with engaging materials, provocative questions, professional feedback and encourage a respectful space for discussions. I encourage students to take responsibility and “claim their education,” as Adrienne Rich declared in 1977. Claremont College students are incredibly smart, excited to learn, and open to challenging discussions. They also need community in the virtual classroom. We all do. I strive to empower students to do their best academically while also practicing compassion and developing deeper connections with each other.
What are you most eager for students to experience and understand this spring?
I am thrilled to bring filmmaker-scholar Marcos Colón to CMC’s Athenaeum on Earth Day, April 22, to present his documentary “Beyond Fordlândia.” Colón’s discussion with students will address past and present environmental destruction in Amazonia, such as large-scale agricultural production or agribusiness, and how such strategies for development are connected to structural racism. I hope that students think deeply about what many Amazonian indigenous peoples are saying about the pandemic and what the future holds. For example, in his book, “Ideas to Postpone the End of the World” (2020), indigenous leader Ailton Krenak rejects the idea of returning to normal. We must remember the lives lost, abandon the “rapid pace of life” and our anthropocentrism, and find a shared harmony with the earth.
How are you feeling about the year ahead of you? How has living through the pandemic affected your research and teaching approach?
The online isolation has brought me closer to my students and opened up new possibilities for meeting and getting to know a much broader community of scholars, filmmakers and activists working in Amazonia. I’ve participated in numerous conferences during the semester with indigenous leaders, Latin American politicians, environmental activists and scholars. By teaching this course, I’ve learned from my students and from Amazonian experts about contemporary issues that influence my current book project, which examines how gender and race played a primary role in structuring the colonization of the Colombian, Peruvian and Brazilian borderlands in the 1930s, leading to policies that sought to erase indigenous peoples from the region.
Policy Lab stays ahead of Washington changes with virtual partnerships
Zach Courser ’99 (left), visiting assistant professor of government, and Eric Helland, William F. Podlich Professor of Economics and George R. Roberts Fellow, are teaching Policy Lab this spring. Courser and Helland are also co-directors of the research program.
With Policy Lab starting this spring at a moment of change in national leadership, how do you anticipate the shift in political power influencing the class?
Starting our class just after the inauguration helps us to demonstrate how the agenda in Washington is shaped by elections, and how this creates new opportunities for policy change. The policy environment changes with each administration, as political priorities shift and policy professionals reshuffle positions around Washington. We have already reshaped our syllabus to reflect changes in the administration and Congress, choosing different readings and policy areas that better reflect the emerging direction of Washington politics.Read more
It’s also interesting for students to see the confirmation process for presidential appointees, and how persistent the network of policy professionals is in Washington. President Biden has hired several think tank staffers to work in his administration, many of whom had worked for President Obama. The work they did while out of government will help to shape the policy preferences of the new administration. Likewise, former Republican administration officials will be entering think tanks to develop new ideas for governance in anticipation of the next election.
Is there extra excitement because the class is happening at a time of tremendous policy activity and political change in Washington? What do you think the effect will be with students?
The 2020 election cycle kept politics foremost in our minds, and there is definitely excitement in Washington to shift gears from a long year of debates and rallies to actual policymaking. Policy proposals are an important part of campaigns, but the legislative process provides us more opportunities for teaching how policymaking works. We think that students eager to see change in Washington on key issues like immigration and healthcare will be very engaged in how these policies unfold over the next five months.
What projects or policy initiatives will you be focused on for spring?
Policy Lab has undertaken a year-long analysis of federal disrupted elections policy. Together with a partner at the American Enterprise Institute, we are working toward a policy report that will outline alternatives to creating a consistent and uniform law for protecting the integrity of federal elections during emergencies. Last semester, we did a 50-state analysis of election laws, and created a database of state emergency powers during disrupted elections. This semester, we will be using this database to analyze how these laws affected the management of elections during the pandemic, and make recommendations for how the federal government can support consistent and effective policy for maintaining the integrity of elections.
What are some ways that you are reimagining the class in a virtual environment? Does virtual learning and collaboration lend itself nicely to your team-taught practice?
In one sense, Policy Lab has always had a virtual component. Although we would normally do in-person classes and staff meetings, most of our meetings with clients have been virtual. Moreover, the students have always been very comfortable with working virtually.
Interestingly, this more virtual environment is pretty common at think tanks. In our experience, researchers at policy think tanks are often remote and teams working on projects have been using video conferencing like Zoom for years. The nature of policy work—which mostly takes place during staff meetings in which work is divided up, progress is reported, and comments offered—really lends itself to working remotely. RAND, where one of us is an adjunct economist, does almost all its work remotely, and in fact has offices in Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Santa Monica, and Cambridge. It’s pretty common to work on a team with people from all of the offices.
What is the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity in teaching Policy Lab at this moment given the convergence of major political shifts and the ongoing pandemic?
We all miss meeting together in our offices, which we affectionately call “The Clubhouse.” But we’re very happy with how well we’ve been able to adapt our program to distance learning. Much of our lab work is done in teams, with the weekly staff meetings giving us all a chance to coordinate and discuss our research. This has given us a team spirit that makes our class very rewarding and something we all look forward to each week.
Since our partners are usually in Washington, much of our interaction with them is done with video conferences. So, while we don’t have the opportunity to fly partners to Claremont to have them meet with students, we probably have better access to them than ever. The new standard of Zoom makes people in Washington more accessible, which has allowed us to meet with our partners and other policy professionals in a way we might not have been able to before.