Remotely Making A Big Difference: Professors & COVID-19

By Brooke Russell

Until now, rigorous education has always been championed as a positive, crucial force for

students, as well as society. Degrees from top-tier institutions convey not only the mastery

of certain materials and information but also, the ability to persevere through an intensive

workload. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking financial, physical, and emotional havoc,

however, asking students to “just push through” no longer seems an adequate or

appropriate response. Nationwide, notable universities have mandated pass/no pass for

grading criteria, ultimately recognizing the inherent difficulties of present circumstances.

While the efforts of many professors in our local community at the University of California,

Santa Barbara, have helped students, the response of my environmental studies professor,

Jennifer Martin, particularly stood out.

As we abruptly transitioned to remote learning, I assumed that there would only be

negative outcomes and difficult learning curves associated with this new norm. While these

assumptions were not entirely baseless, I was not prepared for the over-the-top effort

made by Professor Martin to counteract some of the worst effects of the pandemic. For my

first week of the Environmental Studies seminar, Professor Martin emailed me with a

link to the textbook she had bought through Amazon. Using her teaching stipend, she paid

for every student’s book. Given that it was so early on in the course, it appeared to me that

Martin had made this decision independent of student input, ultimately anticipating

financial hardships for all. Later discussing this with her, she confirmed that she has always

taken accessibility into consideration: “When I assign books, I think to myself ‘I can’t assign

a book that costs more than $15 because students can’t afford it.’ People simply cannot

afford it. I want as many people to be able to learn as possible… It’s a lot to try and make the

right choices.”

Despite being able to appreciate my fellow students’ circumstances, I felt limited in my

ability to empathize with the unique obstacles educators are facing currently. It was only

after interviewing Professor Martin that I came to understand just how deeply everyone

was being impacted: “The challenge of remote education is that it’s really hard to listen to

what students are experiencing. You all are so overwhelmed by this experience… You don’t

have the bandwidth to be like ‘this reading was hard or good in this way.’ Those kinds of

informal exchanges happen all the time in real life, but oftentimes just don’t online.”

Professor Martin went into great detail about remote learning problems, ranging from

internet connection to students not even having laptops. She detailed what students have

emailed her, citing difficult living conditions, such as living with ten people and noise

levels: “I’m guessing that I’m only seeing the tip of the iceberg with what’s going on for

many, many students. People are not coming to this experience with the same resources.”

Though it may not be the best for staying optimistic, Professor Martin’s approach in assuming the worst has been a much-needed lifeline for students facing a plethora of issues: “I’ve gotten a lot of emails this quarter, horrible things are happening to a lot of people. It takes an emotional toll on me… That’s why I think it’s so important to remind everyone to take care of themselves. That’s really the most important thing during this time… Sometimes we forget we’re in this state of emergency.

Admittedly, when I started this piece, I briefly flirted with the idea that this could be a

condemnation for where the school had lacked responsiveness. Whether that was a failure

to adjust student’s fees, or disparities of departament responses in terms of grading criteria,

condemnation for where the school had lacked responsiveness. Whether that was failure time… Sometimes we forget we’re in this state of emergency.” however, I felt much more uplifted and captivated by the idea that educators like Professor Martin were putting students first, at any cost.

While I wanted to make this piece overwhelmingly feel-good, it wrote itself in a different

way. Although Professor Martin didn’t always seem cheery and optimistic as I chatted with

her, the serious consideration she gave to the situation and student circumstances felt

much more real, even heroic: “It can be hard to remember students are people, not

numbers, if there are so many of them and/or if there are structures that make it easy to

forget they are people…structures like remote education or asynchronous classwork.

Literally much of what I do is I stand in front of my computer and I talk to that green light,

and that, to me, is not about making the kinds of connections that I find most enriching.”

Trying to leave things on a positive note, I prodded Professor Martin to divulge what she

has found to be the silver lining in these circumstances: “I know that there are other silver

linings in terms of accessibility, but I think I’m not ready to celebrate them yet and I’m still

kind of grieving what’s lost.”

I don’t know if it was because I felt like I was receiving permission to grieve, or perhaps it was just the general timing, but with Professor Martin’s words echoing in my head, I went on to more properly grieve later that night. I lamented my forgone senior spring quarter, the graduation ceremonies I was to partake in, the people I wanted to hug, the beaches I wanted to lay on, ultimately mourning all of the experiences I could never reclaim. After some time, however, grief made way to acceptance and, perhaps, even gratitude. Even though I only knew Professor Martin as a small square, lined with other faces through a computer screen, her approach and thoughtfulness couldn’t have felt more personal. Though I will certainly experience waves of grief to come, today I celebrate those going above and beyond during this crisis.

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