The fall 2020 semester was an unprecedented one in Georgetown’s history. As part of its efforts to protect the campus community during the coronavirus pandemic, the university rolled out its first full semester in which nearly all classes were conducted online.
When virtual learning first arrived in the middle of the spring 2020 semester, professors and students quickly had to adjust to the realities of learning new online software, studying and teaching across different time zones and dealing with the emotional toll that accompanies working in isolation from colleagues and peers.
Though the departure from traditional instruction was challenging, many professors found innovative and thoughtful ways to engage students in their learning and build a sense of community within the virtual classroom.
Whether by inviting international experts to Zoom into class, finding ways for students to explore and learn in their home environment or setting aside time to check in with their students, professors redefined what an international education means in the age of COVID-19.
Increased Mentorship and Support
The strains of lockdown meant that this semester was a tough one for many students. In response, SFS faculty found new ways to connect with students and create additional opportunities for getting support and mentorship.
“This semester has imposed untold challenges for students, staff and faculty alike — and so many are struggling due to economic hardships, the realities of the pandemic, feelings of displacement and isolation and the weight of an uncertain future,” says SFS professor Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault. “In order to try to mitigate some of these challenges, I sought to work on community and communication this semester.”
At the beginning of the semester, Grimm Arsenault, who teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate level, sent her students a survey to find out any issues they were contending with as they started virtual classes, including being in a different time zone or having trouble accessing the internet, and to get a sense of what kind of multimedia resources they would find most helpful in class.
Inspired by the popular subreddit, she then set up bi-weekly “ask-me-anything” sessions with her teaching assistant in which they reviewed and answered frank questions from students. She also hosted informal virtual tea times (for undergraduates) and happy hours (for graduates) where students could have relaxed conversations with the class and find support and solutions to any challenges they encountered throughout the semester.
Her graduate class also started a Slack community where Grimm Arsenault says she and her students “posted funny pet videos, gardening photos or anything else that builds a sense of friendship beyond the course content.”
For the professor, the struggles of the pandemic offered an opportunity to practice a core Georgetown principle — cura personalis. “Cura personalis, caring for the whole person, means taking into account individual needs,” she says. “Cura personalis has never been more central to our mission than it is now.”
Student-led Support Networks
The virtual environment also unlocked opportunities for students to create their own supportive learning networks. At the Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics, students developed a new fellowship program to encourage student-to-student collaboration on performance projects that deal with current affairs. The program also connects students with faculty and artist mentors at the Lab.
The fellowship’s founders, Renny Simone (SFS’21) and Alyssa Kardos (NHS’21), who both hold student jobs with The Lab, set up the fellowship as a way for students to work together even while being physically apart.
“With so much work happening in isolation during the pandemic, we wanted this fellowship to be a space for gathering,” says Kardos. “We wanted students to have a creative space for discussion, workshopping and collaboration, surrounding The Lab’s mission of humanizing global politics.”
Simone says that Zoom has enabled them to connect students with artists and experts who would not be able to come to campus for events during normal semesters.
“The virtual format has provided us with some extraordinary opportunities to connect with people around the world. Because of Zoom, we were able to bring them in and have some amazing conversations,” he says.
In November, student fellows spoke with Natalia Kaliada, the exiled founding co-artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, an underground theater group that speaks out against the authoritarian rule of Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko. The same event featuredRaza Ahmad Rumi, a journalist and international development expert from Pakistan.
“This event would have been logistically impossible to pull off in-person, even if we weren’t in a pandemic,” says Simone. “Virtual learning has many drawbacks, but we’ve found it to be incredibly useful for making connections and facilitating cooperation.”
Fostering Peer-to-peer Engagement in the Classroom
As professors found new ways to engage with their students, they also grappled with how to foster connections between learners, who joined classes from all over the world. In spite of the distance, SFS professors put their virtual tools to work to adapt to the unusual circumstances.
In her class African Politics and Governments, for instance, Prof. Lahra Smith assigned “pair work” to help students collaborate as they logged in from numerous countries including Ethiopia, Greece, South Korea, France and China. Rather than using synchronous breakout rooms, students could decide on a time to meet and post their work to a class discussion board.
International Economics, African Studies and German major Wendy Xia (SFS’22) says that pairing up with another student made taking classes from Shanghai, China much easier. “It has been difficult keeping up with time differences and I have found missing live classes particularly challenging,” she says. “But being paired up with a peer in a similar time zone allowed me to have a point of contact that is easily reachable and we were able to bond as fellow international Hoyas. It definitely helped improve my overall learning experience.”
Prof. Andrew Black found breakout rooms helpful when organizing hands-on, real-time simulations in his Terrorism and Counterterrorism class. “Because we’re virtual, I was able to incorporate more experiential material in my class than I could in a physical setting,” he says. In-person, splitting up and reconvening took longer, limiting the number of scenarios students could discuss. But, through Zoom, Black can run 2-3 breakout sessions, enabling all the students in the class to collaborate on a shared project.
Black was pleasantly surprised by the Zoom classroom results. He explains, “The students made the best of the situation and it’s been a lot of fun. Much more dynamic and interactive than I anticipated!”
Problem-solving also brought students together in Prof. Gina Bennett’s Ethics in Intelligence Support National Security class. In breakout rooms, student teams developed scenarios for possible future ethical dilemmas relating to national security and then discussed them with Bennett, enabling the class to analyze complex current issues that are interesting to them.
Engaging with the World from Home
On campus, Georgetown students have a front row seat to historic moments in Washington, D.C. But, while studying from home, SFS students have been able to learn from the on-the-ground perspectives of their classmates living all over the world.
Prof. Michael O’Hanlon’s saw this first-hand in his class on U.S. National Security Policy. He says, “I have really enjoyed having an outstanding student based in Estonia (staying up very late for our class!), and offering trenchant perspectives from his part of the world about Russia, NATO and the Nordics.”
Faculty also made sure to incorporate breaking international news into their teaching, providing opportunities for students to analyze and respond to the biggest events of 2020.
Prof. Yoon Jung Park kept coursework fresh and engaging for students in her China’s Evolving Role in Africa class. She simulated public hearings about funding for a Chinese-built railway system in Kenya as disputes about the project happened in real-time, using breakout rooms to generate discussion. “I assigned the students a role play exercise and I managed to get students into break-out rooms of various sizes so they could collaborate and get on message with others on their ‘team,’” she explains.
Classes also grappled with some of the most pressing domestic issues of the last few months. In a scenario taken from the headlines, Prof. Michael Sullivan’s class on Strategy, Policy and Military Operations looked at President Trump’s decision to use force against Black Lives Matter protestors outside the White House earlier this year and the implications it had for public perceptions of the military.
Centering Anti-Racism in the Curriculum
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed in its wake, SFS faculty, students, staff and alumni issued a public call to make anti-racism a core principle of the school.
Many faculty members incorporated explorations of race and racial justice into their fall syllabi. Decolonizing Global Health, taught by Prof. Emily Mendenhall and Prof. Claire Standley, examined two issues at the forefront of public consciousness: global health and inequality. The class studied how systemic racism and neocolonialism operate within the sphere of public health.
The professors encouraged students to consider how even ostensibly objective knowledge can perpetuate injustice. “While concepts such as ‘health’ and ‘science’ are often assumed to be neutral and unbiased, in reality even the most well-intentioned health program or study can inadvertently sustain and even promote inequity,” Standley says.
Mendenhall, who serves on the SFS faculty anti-racism working group, explained that she wanted the class to contribute to wider school efforts. She says, “Along with the growing dialogue around decolonizing methods within the global health community, it was clear that we needed to create a space for these conversations within our corner of the institution.”
Virtual learning made reading the room challenging, Standley explains, but she was impressed with how students leaned in to uncomfortable topics and discussions.
While admitting that the fall semester has been “tough,” Science, Technology and International Affairs major Shuait Nair (SFS’22) says that he had a great experience in Decolonizing Global Health.
“There were so many things I enjoyed about the class,” he stresses. “I loved how the class challenged me to reevaluate my own biases and intentions towards global health and I loved all the amazing conversations I was able to have with my professors and classmates.”
Multimedia for the Digital Classroom
As they adapted their classes for online learning, SFS professors used new tools to replicate in-person experiences or offer activities that would not have been possible in a normal learning environment.
In Prof. Elizabeth’s Ferris’s Refugees and Humanitarian Crises class, students explored the effects of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations. The class’s research will eventually be published in a book. “I see it as a way of using this terrible situation into an effective teaching and research moment,” Ferris said.
Photography and film have long been teaching tools, and professors have made extensive use of digital archives during the pandemic. In her Immigrants, Refugees and the State class, Prof. Katharine Donato used a digitized series by artist Jacob Lawrence on the Phillips Collection website to discuss African American migration and displacement in the United States, finding an alternative to the class’s usual in-person visit. And, in his History and Politics of Iraq class, Prof. Joseph Sassoon has been using archival film footage to add variety to students’ screen time.
Teaching a course about the interface of humans and nature is especially daunting when access to learning environments is restricted, but Prof. Cynthia Wei worked hard to make her class on the subject as hands-on as possible. “While I couldn’t take my students on the field trip I would have planned, I thought it would be fun and interesting for students to explore and share the biodiversity in their own backyards and neighborhoods,” she says.
Students used an app to learn more about their surroundings and to log their findings as part of a larger citizen science effort that catalogues biodiversity around the world.
Wei even arranged for the class to do simple labs at home. In her unit on pollination, she sent paper microscopes to her students so they could get a close-up look at specimens they’d collected.
A student in the class, Isabella Dujarric (SFS’23), appreciates the efforts of professors who have made the most of difficult circumstances this year. “While virtual learning is of course not the optimal situation, I have found that my professors have worked really hard to make this semester as engaging as possible,” she says.
She continues, “Professor Wei’s class not only helped me enjoy some much needed time outside away from my computer, but also opened my eyes to the extensive biodiversity in my own backyard. I found a plethora of species that I had never even seen before, like a translucent ghost pipe plant or a handful of practically neon mushrooms!”
Global Experts in the Classroom
Without having to arrange travel and work around schedule limitations, experts from all over the world dropped into SFS classes this semester to share their insights with the student community.
Prof. Alan Tidwell, who teaches a Proseminar for first years called Peoples and Politics Down Under, introduced his students to Australian Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers, MP. In his course Smaller States and Peacemaking New Zealand Ambassador to the U.S. Rosemary Banks visited. Both joined to discuss how the themes and topics covered in classes had real-world implications in their work.
“What was especially gratifying in both cases was the generosity of the speakers to spend intimate time with Georgetown students, and their willingness to take a huge array of questions,” Tidwell says. “I think it was something the students recognized and appreciated.”
In SFS Dean Joel Hellman’s class on fragile states, World Bank Group President David Malpass dropped in to answer student questions about achieving development results in conflict-affected regions.
Other professors brought in the authors of the materials students read in their courses. In his History of Propaganda in Russia/USSR class, Prof. Michael David-Fox welcomed historian David Brandenberger as well as alumna Nina Jankowicz (CERES’13), who has written about Russian disinformation campaigns, to speak to students.
Prof. John Esposito also gave his class a chance to hear from the scholars they read in his Proseminar, Terror in the Name of God. Authors in the U.S. and UK, including Karen Armstrong and Marc Sageman, gave short presentations to the class before answering questions from their audience.
In her own Proseminar, Prof. Lahra Smith organized a guest talk from a colleague at Mauritania’s University of Nouakchott, which she says was an opportunity unique to the virtual environment.
Prof. Dania Thafer made discussions with global experts an integral part of the semester, inviting speakers from around the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia and the Middle East to her class on Oil and Politics in the Gulf. They included academics and authors of foundational texts in the class as well as former members of the parliaments of Kuwait and Bahrain, providing a range of perspectives and experiences through which to understand the themes of the course.
In her Global Challenges: Pandemic & the World Order class, Prof. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca teamed up with SFS colleagues and a host of world-leading experts to discuss how the pandemic is impacting international affairs.
Each week, students watched exclusive interviews with global leaders including HRH Princess Ghida Talal (SFS’86, MFSS’86), Chairperson of the King Hussein Cancer Foundation and Center; Dr. Saad Jabar, Minister of Health of Jordan; Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America; Jim Yong Kim, Former President of the World Bank Group and Kelly Clements, Deputy High Commissioner of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Discussion events based on these interviews were also made available to the wider SFS community.
Mendenhall and Standley made a similar effort to integrate expert knowledge into their syllabus. “We designed the course for the virtual environment, which provided a creative advantage,” Mendenhall said. Throughout the eight weeks, students spoke to experts in the U.S., Ecuador, Canada, South Africa, India and the UAE.
Shuait Nair says these guest lectures were a highlight of a challenging semester.
“Not being in-person, you don’t have your classmates around you or even your professor to keep you energized and upbeat, and I think that has led to me feeling less motivated on some days,” he says. “But an unexpected upside has been having the opportunity to speak with guest lecturers and presenters from around the world who otherwise would not have been able to make it to Georgetown’s campus! That has been really cool.”