Arts and science students reflect on beginning the semester virtually
Students grapple with everything from engagement in lab classes to hybrid music lessons
While American University’s spring semester started remotely, adapting to online classes was the latest assignment for students and faculty in the arts and sciences as well as those in AU’s music program.
Compared to the shock of the 2020 transition, the two-week delay, while inconvenient, was relatively seamless.
“I think as a whole, infrastructure was in place, right? It's not like we haven't done it before,” said Joshua Bayer, the director of AU’s Jazz band.
However, that hasn’t meant that the early weeks of January were without their challenges.
“I think there was a little, almost PTSD for some students and teachers, going back online kind of threw people right back into the beginning of this whole thing,” Bayer said. “And I had some kids who just couldn't handle it.”
Bayer recalled having to take more time to talk to students about how to handle their daily lives during private lessons, rather than solely focusing on the music.
That pervasive feeling made Bayer feel that his classroom was an oasis, a place where students can focus solely on what’s in front of them. Creating a space like that is that much harder online, he said.
“Doing this stuff online is three times the work,” Bayer said.
Teachers may have figured out how to help students practice in sections over Zoom, but online teaching remains a daunting task. Online classes require twice the prep work and organization for all the necessary files, Bayer said. Private lessons are reduced to Bayer using software to play sheet music with his students and avoid delays in sound.
The University’s performing arts department opted for both an online and hybrid approach — including moving classes to recital halls, allowing for one-on-one instruction with professors and having classes outside.
Some of these approaches are reminiscent of the 2020 spring semester. Others reflect what Daniel Abraham, chair of the Department of Performing Arts, described as a “completely new move.”
Ensembles that require students to work in close proximity tossed around the idea of mandatory testing for participants to create a continuously safe environment, something that wasn’t possible in previous semesters. Even if not formally required by the school, the classes themselves are working toward enforcing such precautions on a smaller level, Abraham said.
“We’ve been really innovative. Having to change modality 10 days before school started was yet another critical and intense pivot, and … you’d think we’ve been down this road before,” Abraham said. “But unfortunately we have to stop and consider every project somewhat individually.”
Ava Wilson, a freshman double majoring in musical theater and psychology, said that most of her courses this semester translated well to the online modality, with one exception: her dance class.
Wilson’s Jazz Dance II class spent the online portion of the semester focusing on foundational concepts of dancing instead of the physical work. Regardless, she said that the sense of community in the arts has been harder to replicate.
“I think the [thing] that is missing with online is the energetic exchange that is inherent to dance, you can’t really have that through a screen,” Wilson said. “In terms of an interpersonal growth with dance, it’s there with Zoom, but the learning from others and some of the greatest joys of dance are missing.”
There have been some more seamless transitions for other arts and sciences classes, including labs that focus on work with Microsoft Excel and lecture-based art classes.
Mandela Langhum, a freshman majoring in environmental science, took the lab course Biodiversity and Ecosystems last semester and is currently enrolled in another, Energy and Pollution. He said there were some differences, but more in the sense of the class environment itself rather than the content and practice.
“I [wasn’t] as social as I would be in person, so asking the teacher for help on stuff is not as easy for me,” Langhum said. “If I had been in-person I could have just walked up to her and asked and immediately got an answer instead of sitting in the waiting room contemplating whether my question is a worthy question.”
As for student musicians, the shift was just as strange.
“It [was] kind of weird going back to it,” said Jacob Niederman, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and member of the AU Jazz Band, Symphonic Band and Sax Quartet. “We had so many things that we got used to over Zoom that we were relieved to do away with in-person.”
While the University was virtual for the month of January, many AU musicians practiced in their own time, and while parts of campus were closed, students were still able to utilize different amenities.
“All the access is still there,” said Thomas Goldstein, a sophomore in the School of International Services and a bassist in the AU Orchestra. “We can still use the practice rooms — I can still use the bass here at American University — but even then I think it’s reduced capacity.”
When it came to actually playing online, however, it was a different story.
“We haven’t actually played on Zoom,” Goldstein stated. “I have done Zoom performances before and it just doesn’t work.”
Though there have been complications, Bayer isn’t worried about the student’s future performances, even while bookings remain in the air. By the time performance dates roll around he said he knows his students will be ready.
“Everyone knows their parts. They played indoors, they played outdoors, they played in the wind,” Bayer said. "They've got it all down.”