According to the Office of the Registrar, Kenyon is offering 102 “hybrid” courses for the fall 2020 semester. These courses are designed to simultaneously accommodate students residing on campus and those who are enrolled remotely. To address the unique challenges this semester’s structure brings, some hybrid courses have recruited paid student assistants to facilitate the learning experience.
Among the 102 hybrid classes is Intermediate German Language (GERM 214Y.00). In the class, two out of the eight students are enrolled remotely. Small language classes focus on refining speaking skills, but with everyone spaced out due to social distancing, the mechanics of their dialogue become more complicated. Each student occupies a long desk and the professor has to speak to the whole spacious classroom in Fishman Hall, opposed to the intimate seminar table of a typical semester.
For Intermediate German, the student assistant is Elizabeth Barrowman ’21. A political science major from Circleville, Ohio, Barrowman had petitioned to live on campus when she received an email from an old professor, Associate Professor of German Leo Riegert, whose class she’d previously taken. They both thought she would be a good fit for the position as she already knew and had a passion for the language. Barrowman applied via Kenyon’s job board, Handshake, and was soon hired for the position. “Had he not told me about it, I probably wouldn’t have known,” she said.
Barrowman is responsible for ensuring that the class’s technology works as intended so that the professor can focus on instruction. She arrives early before class and prepares by logging into the computer, pulling up the PowerPoint and setting up two cameras and one sensitive microphone in the middle of the classroom. Once class begins, Barrowman positions an iPad so that remote students can read the board when Riegert is speaking and refocuses it towards students when they are discussing with one another. To participate in class, the remote students unmute and speak. Barrowman relays comments from students in the chat alongside smaller tasks like ensuring that the cameras are not blurry and that Zoom operates as it should. Barrowman is also responsible for disinfecting the room after class.
Barrowman has already encountered some difficulties in her role. “It’s a lot of trial and error,” she explained, recounting an audio problem from the first day when remote students could hear what happened in the classroom, but could not be heard. Resolving the issue took 45 minutes, leaving only five minutes during which all parties could communicate as intended.
The technical issues that emerged without a clear explanation seemed to be the most frustrating for Barrowman. “A lot of times, that’s the issue with Zoom — there’s something going on, and you can’t really figure out why,” she said, “It seems like every day, we learned something else [about how Zoom operates].”
During the first week of class, a student reported a persistent problem in sound quality after class had ended. Barrowman expressed that if the student had communicated with her earlier, the problem could have been resolved, but she recognized why students might be afraid to reach out to faculty members.
“It was hard for me as a first year and a sophomore to communicate with my professors when I was having difficulties personally and academically,” she said. “When I learned to get over that and just be a person to my professors and realize that they’re a person too, it has made a world of difference for me.”
Despite the initial setbacks, Barrowman is hopeful about the semester’s potential, especially if students can use resources like lecture slides and office hours to their advantage.
Riegert appreciates Barrowman’s presence and hard work: After class, he looks to her to gauge how the class went. She thinks that the students in class appreciate her presence as well. “They seem really happy that I’m there, because they see me almost as another AT [Assistant Teacher],” she explained. “They’re like, ‘we know you speak German, we know you know what’s going on in the class. So if I need help studying, you got me, right?’” Barrowman was not so sure.
Barrowman’s vantage point is unique among her peers at Kenyon. Unlike the times she has previously been in the classroom, she is not a student, nor does she occupy any instructional role. “I just want to be a fly on the wall and not take up any space because I’m not supposed to be participating in the class — and sometimes it is hard to to not participate as well,” Barrowman said. “When you know the answer and the classroom is silent and it’s clear that like the professor needs the answer to keep moving with the class, it’s so hard to just sit there and not interact!”
At the end of the day, Barrowman recognizes that the faculty and students are in the same boat, navigating the same struggles and difficult adjustments of an unusual semester. “My biggest advice right now is to communicate with your professor and know that if you’re feeling stressed out and you’re feeling kind of frustrated, they’re feeling that too,” she said.