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Learning Curve

A communication course offers a taste of normalcy in a COVID-changed semester: live lectures in an iconic campus building

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Photos by Sara DeGraw and Liam Monahan

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In person: Professor Sahara Byrne teaching Intro to Communication to a socially distanced audience in Bailey Hall this fall.Sara DeGraw

On a Tuesday in October, there are fifty people in Bailey Hall—and by pandemic standards, that means half the seats are taken. In normal times, an audience of that size would be a sparse turnout for a venue that can accommodate more than 1,300. But due to the need for social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there are just 100 available spots scattered throughout the room, each denoted by a sticker. The rest of the seats, blocked by strips of blue tape, are off limits.

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A designated, socially distanced seat.Sara DeGraw

The young adults occupying these assigned seats are here for what, in the context of one of the most challenging semesters in the history of higher education, is a college student’s holy grail: a live, in-person lecture. While many courses on the Hill and around the country are being taught virtually, this one—COMM 1101, the introductory course required of all communication majors—is embracing what’s known as a hybrid teaching model. In addition to the fifty students in Bailey, another twenty-two are attending online via Zoom; two more, located abroad in far-flung time zones, will watch the recorded lecture later.

It’s about a third of the way through the semester, and the topic at hand is the importance of conducting ethical, unbiased research. Up on stage, Professor Sahara Byrne is wearing a plastic face shield as she talks about the benefits and pitfalls of data gathering. “Social science studies are based on observations of people, and so we want to create naturalistic environments, or environments that tease out other explanations,” she tells the class. “We’re watching people or we’re asking them questions. . . . Then, after we gather the data, we try to look at it with an objective perspective on what it is saying to us. And to do that, we have to remove our personal bias.”

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A student’s view from the audience.Liam Monahan

Byrne’s laptop sits open on the lectern; on the stage floor is a monitor that shows her what the Zoom students are seeing. At the touch of a key, she rolls a video to illustrate her point, and a scene from the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” fills Bailey’s giant screen. In it, Leslie Knope (the small-town civil servant played by Amy Poehler) is trying to prove that the public supports her pet project to build a neighborhood park—so she gets her staff to conduct a survey including such questions as, “Wouldn’t you rather have a park than a storage facility for nuclear waste?” As Knope explains: “If you want to guarantee the results of a survey, you design the question to give you the answer that you want.” When the clip concludes, Byrne sums up the lesson. “They need to get what they want, so they start asking less strict questions, questions that are biased toward their point of view, those types of things,” she says, “which is absolutely the wrong way to do the research.”

It’s a perfectly normal moment from a typical college class—and in these unsettled and unpredictable times, normalcy has become something to cherish. That’s true for Lauren Baldinger ’23, a transfer student from New York’s Westchester County who spent her freshman year at Syracuse University. As a sophomore new to the Hill, she says she’s treasuring the chance to be surrounded by fellow students in a physical classroom. “It’s not quite the same as a normal in-person experience, but I’ve definitely met my peers that sit around me in class, and we do get to talk to each other; even though we’re six feet apart and wearing masks, we still get some interaction,” she says. “We get to go up to the professor and ask her questions, introduce ourselves. I think that’s really special—especially right now, when people don’t get that a lot.”

COMM 1101 is Baldinger’s only in-person class this semester; as Byrne notes, that’s the case for many of her Bailey students. And since it’s a required intro course, most enrollees are freshmen or transfers—meaning that it’s the only non-virtual class they’ve ever had on the Hill. “I felt very committed from the very beginning that I was going to teach it in person if I was allowed to,” Byrne says, speaking with CAM via Zoom in mid-September. “I don’t have any risk factors for COVID, and of course I trusted that there were going to be mechanisms in place to make that possible and safe for everybody.”

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Students attending Byrne’s weekly lecture in Bailey.Liam Monahan

On top of the distanced seating—Byrne distributed a chart of Bailey’s layout in advance, and students chose the spots they’ll occupy all semester—those safety measures include a requirement that everyone in the audience wear masks and remain at least six feet apart from each other. (The professor uses a face shield when she’s onstage but switches to a mask for other interactions.) Wipes are available so students can sanitize their seats before and after class, and attendees are expected to maintain social distance while entering and leaving the building. “I definitely feel safe with the COVID precautions,” says Katrien de Waard ’24, a comm major from the Chicago suburbs who’s taking the class in person. “I honestly feel safer on campus than I think I would have at home, where people aren’t taking it as seriously. On campus, everybody has to follow the rules because there are consequences, whereas in my hometown there are kids who don’t wear masks and just hang out.”

Although the comm course normally comprises two ninety-minute sessions per week, for this semester Byrne changed it to one three-hour block, with a short break in the middle. That halved the number of weekly interactions, and it means that—per Cornell’s requirement that all undergrads who are in Ithaca this semester be tested for COVID two times per week—each student has tested negative twice between class meetings. “I think we as humans get used to change really fast,” Byrne observes, reflecting on what it’s like to address a vast, mostly empty concert hall dotted with masked faces. “It’s odd—like if people didn’t want to sit next to each other, this is how it would look. But it’s almost hard to remember how weird it was the first day.”

Byrne holds her office hours virtually—conducting them from home but giving students a taste of campus by using a Zoom background of her office in the comm department, located on the fourth floor of Mann Library. “I actually think it’s easier for them,” says Byrne, who plans to continue offering an online office hours option even post-COVID. “They pop in, they ask questions, they meet each other; if it’s private we go into a breakout room. They don’t have to wait outside my office, and it’s maybe a little less intimidating. Many more students than ever are dropping in to introduce themselves.”

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Byrne conducts her office hours from home—but uses a Zoom background of her office in the comm department.Sara DeGraw

The weekly sections with the course’s three TAs are also online; these smaller groups allow for more personal interaction, albeit virtual. “I think it’s going pretty well,” says doctoral student and TA Cat Lambert, MS ’17, MS ’20. “It’s obviously a very different experience than it would be in person, because you’re supposed to be having these in-depth discussions. By the nature of Zoom it has to be more of, ‘I ask a question, somebody responds, I call on someone else.’ There’s less opportunity for them to engage with each other, which is kind of a struggle, but it’s just the nature of the beast.”

Like all courses on the Hill that have an in-person component this semester, COMM 1101 will go entirely online following the Thanksgiving break, with the rest of the semester and final exams being conducted virtually. Still, despite the shortened residential semester, students say they’re glad they came to campus. “I wanted an in-person experience to kind of keep the college dream alive,” says Alan Lau ’23, who’s from Long Island. “I only have eight semesters here before I’m in the real world, so I really wanted to get the most out of it. And Professor Byrne has done an incredible job of maintaining the atmosphere of being as quote-unquote normal as possible. Tuesday is probably the best day of the week—just the fact that I’m able to walk onto campus, go into class, and sit in a big auditorium with a lecturer.”

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A sample of what the Bailey lecture looks like to online students.

Two freshmen in the comm class—Sydney Moore and Paige Phillips—got to know each other online even before matriculating on the Hill, after meeting through a group chat for members of the Class of ’24 who are African American. While they wound up in different dorms, they were able to pick seats relatively near each other in Bailey. “At first I was nervous about the whole situation, but I do think that Cornell has done an amazing job of sanitizing things, not just in the classroom but the dining halls, for example,” says Phillips, who comes from Potomac, Maryland. “The only problem is getting to know people at a socially distanced level; you have masks on, so it might be difficult to see people’s expressions or remember their faces. That’s really the only struggle I’ve encountered.” Adds Moore, who traveled from her home in Southern California but was able to do her two-week quarantine with family in Pennsylvania: “It just goes to show how motivated people are to have that in-person experience. We freshmen, who missed out on a big part of our senior year of high school—we’re pretty much willing to do anything we can to have that. We’re getting used to the mask and the sanitation as part of our day, so I’m not really worried about my personal safety. I feel like I can trust my peers to care about my health as well as their own.”

As Byrne explains, a major motivator behind her desire to offer an in-person option for COMM 1101 was the four years she spent as faculty in residence: she and her family lived in Mews Hall on North Campus, home to all freshmen. “That really connected me to the first-year student experience,” she says. “There’s a lot of socialization into college and into your major.” To help students acclimate to life on the Hill, she even inserted a requirement that students explore a “co-curricular” activity like joining a campus club. (Two of them, Sara DeGraw ’23 and Liam Monahan ’24, satisfied it by doing a virtual externship with CAM, serving as photographers for this article—a godsend, since Cornell’s COVID regulations prohibit visitors on campus.) All in all, Byrne says, prepping for the course was essentially a full-time job for much of the summer. “I worked on this class every day for two months,” she says, “trying to prepare it for all the different modes, to really be ready for anything.”

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CAM student photographer Sara DeGraw ’24 in a self-portrait taken in her room during a Zoom lecture.Sara DeGraw

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DeGraw also shot CAM’s other student photographer, Liam Monahan ’23, studying outside; this fall, many students took advantage of the good weather to attend their online classes outdoors.Sara DeGraw

As far as comm major Milan Carter ’24 is concerned, Byrne’s hard work has paid off. “I absolutely love her class,” says Carter, a North Carolinian who says she’s enjoying life in Akwe:kon, the Native American program house on North Campus. “Professor Byrne does such a great job. She has such a great presence.” For Carter, attending in person had particular appeal: she did her last three years of high school online, to accommodate advanced training in ballet. “I was ready to get out of the house and do my own thing,” she says. “I loved the campus when I came to visit—and I have family in New York State, so it was easy for me to quarantine for two weeks at no charge. Everything fell into place and I thought, I might as well take the shot and see what happens.”

But as Byrne stresses, from the beginning her goal was not only to offer a safe and satisfying in-person experience for the students in Bailey, but to make the material just as compelling to the one-third of the class taking it via Zoom. Says Byrne: “In my mind, I have a TED Talk as an example of how I’d like the class to look and feel for the students who are online.” And Bailey’s state-of-the-art infrastructure has made the class’s hybrid model possible. The facility—which, this semester, is also hosting classes on physics and hotel administration—got an extensive overhaul in 2006 and has had regular upgrades ever since. Now boasting a broadcast-quality system with built-in microphones and remote-controlled cameras, it can essentially operate as a TV studio that can be easily adapted for academic classes, classical and rock concerts, public lectures, and more. “I’m going to so miss Bailey Hall—the huge screen, the great sound,” Byrne says with a laugh. “It’s fun to teach in there.”

Among the students taking the class on Zoom is Nkem Haffner ’23. A native of Lagos, Nigeria, Haffner is currently living in Maryland, near where her sister attends law school. She’s been there ever since Cornell’s campus closed in mid-March, unable to return to Nigeria due to travel bans and airport closures. “Staring at a computer for three hours with a twenty-minute break requires a lot of discipline,” admits Haffner, noting that she’s finding her science- and math-based classes even harder to take virtually than those in the social sciences. “Not having your peers beside you and not being able to interact with your professor in a physical way is definitely hard, but I’m getting through it. This year has taught me that anything can happen, and to be able to adapt in and out of school, you have to remain flexible.”

Freshman Karl Lam is taking COMM 1101 via Zoom from the other side of the planet—and while he’s a proud member of Cornell’s Class of ’24, the Hong Kong resident has never actually set foot on the Hill. Lam was born in the U.S., and his citizenship means that he doesn’t need a visa to enter the country; still, he and his family decided that given the long distance, a virtual fall semester made the most sense. “For me, it was the uncertainty—whether the campus would stay open or we’d be forced to leave,” he says. “Another big reason was the fact that everyone would be going home after Thanksgiving. I’d only be in Ithaca for around two months, and I’d have to quarantine for fourteen days when I got there and again when I traveled back to Hong Kong. So it seemed best to do remote for the time being.”

Lam’s local time is twelve hours ahead of Ithaca’s—which means that for him, class is held from 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. While he could have chosen to watch recorded lectures—what’s known as the “asynchronous” option—he participates live, since he’s a night owl anyway. “In terms of a class experience, it’s been pretty smooth,” he says. “There were a couple of issues with the audio and Zoom in the first one or two lectures, but now this is the new normal and we’ve gotten into the pace of things.” Asked if he ever feels jealous of the students he sees in Bailey during class, Lam replies with a rueful laugh. “Oh yeah, absolutely—are you kidding?” he says. “But it’s also great to see my fellow classmates, even if they’re all masked up, and to get a glimpse of what college life is like. I trust that I’ll be on campus soon—hopefully next semester.”

Byrne admits that the irony of the course’s subject matter isn’t lost on her. First off, she’s teaching Intro to Comm in a venue where normal discourse is constrained by covered mouths and far-apart seating. She’s trying to balance different modes of communication: in person, virtual, asynchronous. And she’s doing it at a time when much of the planet is undergoing a massive experiment in human connection—grappling with online school, Zoom weddings and bar mitzvahs, virtual first dates, socially distanced visits with Grandma.

Meanwhile, examples of the course material are playing out in real time—from the epidemic of misinformation about the pandemic to the constant messaging aimed at convincing the public to wear masks, avoid large gatherings, and wash their hands. “I could teach the whole class on ‘intro to COVID communication,’ ” Byrne observes. “Just the communication from the University to our students has been worth a career of study.” But Byrne has concluded that—despite a surfeit of real-world examples—she’ll resist the temptation to fold too much current news into the curriculum. “I had this moment where I thought, I am going to give them a break from COVID,” she says. “I might bring the pandemic in a few times, but I also want the students to know that the field of communication existed without this, and there’s more coming after this is over. Maybe, for the entire three hours that they’re there, this classroom can be one place where they don’t have to think about COVID.”

 

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