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From Seminar to Semaphore

Jeanne Minahan McGinn, Ph.D, Curtis’s chair of liberal arts, reflects on teaching and learning during the pandemic.

Jeanne McGinnTea and coffee mugs in hand, devices a-whir, ten Curtis students click into Poetry Workshop from across three continents and a 15-hour time zone span.

These musicians are braving the stress of a global pandemic, grim news, social isolation, wobbly wi-fi, the challenges of computer-sharing with siblings and parents, and much uncertainty about the next festival, performance, and jam session with friends. Not to mention, it’s their turn to make dinner.

Despite the many angsts of Spring 2020, these students are laughing.

What doesn’t change in a pandemic? Lame professorial jokes: I’ve just told my audio-only conferencing class, “Okay, raise your hand if you can’t hear me.”

With the fortuitous January adaptation of Canvas, a learning management system platform used by over 300 colleges and universities, Curtis students can hear me and laugh (or groan) as we begin the work of carrying on.

Thanks to ingenuity, a sense of humor, and the resilience of faculty and students, the majority of liberal arts classes this spring have been able to transfer to other modalities. I have been in awe as I confer with colleagues and learn of the multiple strategies they have employed to keep teaching despite the profound challenge of transferring an entire curriculum to alternate modes of delivery (and the pedagogies these modes require).

At Curtis we endeavor to engage students with personalized instruction as well as with group conversations that require critical thinking and creative stretching.

No wonder faculty members have made use of e-mail, phone calls, conference calls, Zoom meetings, and recorded lectures as well as the posting of an array of art, music, literature, philosophy, film, and cultural reflections to continue to invite student analysis, critical response, and the crafting of the individual’s thought and voice.

Students, meanwhile, continue to write response papers, essays, and exams, and they offer the oral reports, creative work, research, music, and art they are making.

While we lament all that’s been lost—senior recitals and performances, Tea in the Graffman Common Room and, in this class, the kinetic jolt of poems spoken in person—we are employing the tools available to keep coursework engaging and meaningful. Our hand signals and verbal gestures may have morphed into mouse clicks, but the creative inquiry at the center of the Curtis mission continues.

Dr. McGinn is the Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. Chair of Liberal Arts at Curtis.