Tuesday, April 7, 2020

After the announcement on March 10 that Duke University was suspending on-campus classes due to the spread of the coronavirus, Duke Divinity School transitioned all classes to remote online learning beginning March 16. Ramping up the use of existing and new technologies, the Divinity School community has banded together to transition to different modes of teaching and learning.

A New Way of Connecting

For Anathea Portier-Young, associate professor of Old Testament, the kind of teaching needed for Duke’s transition to online learning is a comfort zone, she said. With years of experience teaching for the M.A. in Christian Practice, a degree program with a substantial online component, she already had developed skills needed for successful distance teaching.

But while there are similarities between teaching during the current pandemic and teaching in a program specifically designed for online learning, Portier-Young notes that the transition has not been as simple as exchanging a traditional classroom for an online environment. In the midst of a global pandemic, where everything is changing constantly and nobody knows what the next week will bring, using her normal online learning rubrics and tracking seem inappropriate, she said. “What I already know about all of my students is that all of them are bringing to my classes more than I would ask,” she said. “We’re not in a moment where I need to incentivize that. I don’t want students to be judging and policing themselves right now. I want them to give themselves space and grace.”

screenshot of Zoom classroom shows decorated bible and discussions
In a recent class, Portier-Young highlighted the St. John's Bible, an illuminated bible. The online format actually gave her students a closer look at the illustration than they would have had in the slides she would have shown in person. 

The grace has extended to the way students and faculty have interacted in their online gathering spaces, and the opportunity to connect there has been helpful to many members of the Divinity School community. Said M.Div. student Michael Larbi: “Continuing to have class during the lockdown has been good in terms of continuing to engage with friends in Divinity School.” He noted that during the first week of online classes, an entire hour of one of his classes was devoted to “a joint therapy session” as students and faculty shared how they were doing individually and were able to empathize with and encourage each other.

“While physical interaction is clearly better, what has been clear is that we are also sharing more about our lives with each other than we did previously in class settings, and sometimes even in other group settings on campus,” he said.

M.Div. student Micah Latimer-Dennis said he appreciated how remote video conferencing gave them a new view into his fellow students’ lives, “During classes, it’s been a nice surprise to get to see into people’s worlds,” he said. “I’ve been impressed with professors’ adaptation to the circumstances, and by their commitment to praying for us.”

Patrick Smith headshot

Patrick Smith, associate research professor of theological ethics and bioethics, is teaching two classes this term: “Healthcare, Inequities, and Theological Ethics” and “Issues in End-of-Life Care and Theological Ethics,” both of which have clear application to issues in the current pandemic. Both of his classes are smaller in size, and he’s found that the remote video conferencing technology has worked well. In the smaller of the two, video cameras remain on throughout the class, so he can see students visually reacting in real time. With the larger, he found it more feasible to keep cameras off except for the individual speaking.

In learning how best to use the remote learning technology, he’s found that students and faculty have been gracious and patient with each other. “These are unprecedented times, and everybody is trying to figure it out together,” he said. “I do try to approach my work with the influence of certain jazz motifs. Within the theoretical framework, there is the notion of improvisation. Something creative and new can emerge that is unexpected but still good and even brilliant.”

Challenges of Remote Learning

Portier-Young realized quickly that not all classes can transition to online learning in the same way. One of her classes this spring is a Project TURN course, which gives Divinity School students the opportunity to learn alongside students who are incarcerated in prison.

“Our incarcerated students do not have access to Internet, and five days after Duke made the decision to go online, all of their programming was canceled,” she said. Quickly pivoting, she moved to a correspondence model for her incarcerated students, which has limited the interaction between them and Duke Divinity students.

“A huge part of any of the TURN classes is the integrated work that you do and the learning that happens in terms of what it means to learn side-by-side,” she said. “There’s a lot of interpersonal learning that happens in that class that’s learning about the structures and the ramifications of our society’s carceral practices. That learning is still happening, but not with the interpersonal dimension. That’s hard. It’s painful for everyone in the class.”

For traditional students, the change to online classes has been challenging in other ways. Said Larbi, “The thing that is missing is the sense of urgency that is always on campus as we rush about to class, to the library, and work to meet deadlines. The days and nights have blurred into each other and there isn’t much else to do. So paradoxically, while there is more time, boredom and fatigue set in relatively easily and one has to make an extra effort to get on with school work.”

Portier-Young noted that for classes that are typically held in person over multiple hours, spending the same amount of time online isn’t feasible, “The screen is not an energizing medium. I’ve moved to shorter sessions. When you translate, you need to make adjustments.”

In addition, she’s made adjustments to assignments to account for the difficulties in conducting research. While she noted that the library staff has assembled wonderful resources, including extensive e-reserves and other materials, her classes don’t have access to the critical commentaries that they frequently use, among other things. “For an exegetical research paper, it’s not possible to do research in the same way. I tell them to do what you feel you reasonably can do for your research.”

Remote Learning Parallels Experiences in Churches

Jerusha Neal poses near Duke Chapel

Jerusha Neal, assistant professor of homiletics, typically teaches preaching to students who are in their second year at Duke Divinity, during a time when they’re already starting to question the original ideas they held about ministry and their call to preach. Students are assigned to small-group precepts that she said are especially important now for preaching and discussing vocational questions.

“In real time, I feel like these preaching students this term are facing the challenges that every pastor I know in North Carolina right now is facing, which is, how do we think about preaching when we’re preaching remotely?” she said. “There’s an odd way in which the challenges that our students are facing in the classroom right now are not removing them from the preaching context. In some way, they are embedding them in this particular moment in our nation’s history and in our church’s life together. And so I’ve just tried to lean into that. In some ways those groups are becoming learning communities of ways in which people could experiment together. How do we discern what faithfulness looks like here and now?”

A key part of her preaching classes, and a strategy she inherited from James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Homiletics Charles Campbell, is the practice of conducting one-on-one sermon conferences with everyone in the course.

“We watch one of their sermons together that they’ve uploaded and we talk together about what we see,” she said. “Those have been really important pastoral care times. Preaching is a really vulnerable, holy thing. My goal has been to figure out how is it that I can honor that risk and vulnerability in our students with time, with presence, with my own physicality in terms of talking through, yes, the sermon, but also the displacement students are feeling right now. I’ve been grateful to have a space through the structure of the preaching class to just be able to be present to students throughout this season.”