Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Facebook Twitter YouTube SoundCloud Instagram Tumblr Email list
Susan Moffitt, Watson Institute

Off Campus, On Line

Faculty and students adapt to the new normal of distance learning.

On March 12, in response to the growing spread of the coronavirus, President Paxson announced that for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, Brown classes would take place remotely. Classes were cancelled for the week of March 16 to enable students living on campus or in Brown-owned properties to pack and leave, and to give faculty time to transition their courses to remote learning.

At Watson, we wanted to know how the transition was going. Below, Susan Moffitt, associate professor of political science and international and public affairs and director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, describes her experience.

Read a student's perspective. 

What was the course you planned to teach, and how did you adapt it?

My spring 2020 undergraduate course, Education, Inequality and American Democracy, examines how public education contributes to democratic governance and how the operation of American governance has produced and reproduces inequalities in public education. The course invites students to think about next steps for policy and practice to redress those inequalities.

Covid-19 brought American inequalities into sharp relief and thrust American public education into uncertain and turbulent terrain. I adjusted the last third of the class to include more opportunities for students to engage directly with people working at the frontlines of educational practice, including school leaders, teachers, and community leaders.  Their voices, experiences, and expertise helped shine new light on educational inequality and on paths forward to help public school students in the months and years ahead. 

What was most challenging about this transition? 

I found it challenging to create an on-line relationship with my students and between my students that mirrored the collaborative dynamic I strive to create in a physical classroom for a class of 60. I have missed being able to respond to my students’ physical cues (the puzzled look, the engaged look, the skeptical look) to adjust my approach, content, and delivery. We have managed to develop new ways to collaborate and exchange feedback.  But, as a teacher, I miss being able to see, and hear, and engage with all 60 students simultaneously. 

Was there a pleasant surprise, a positive you didn’t anticipate?

Rather than surprise, I would say I was pleasantly reminded of how fabulous Brown University students are. When I accepted my position at Brown over a decade ago, former Brown University professor Scott Allard said to me “Susan, the students at Brown are going to restore your faith in humanity.” I rolled my eyes and retorted “Please, no one can restore my faith in humanity!” But he was spot on; I have been eating my words ever since. It is a pleasure and a privilege to teach Brown University students. I am continuously impressed by their intellectual rigor, by their dedication to making a positive impact on the world we inhabit, by their curiosity, and by their creativity. In my students, I see the best of what humanity can be – even in these dire times.

 --Sarah Baldwin