On the “AMS Committee on Education Panel Current Issues: What can we do to support math majors and grad students in the time of pandemic?”

On Thursday, January 7, I attended a significant portion of this panel with Viveka Brown (Spelman College), Tasha Inniss (Spelman College) and Pamela Estephania Harris (Williams College), which was moderated by Katherine Stevenson (California State University Northridge) and included a student panel facilitated by Harris. I had to leave the meeting early to get to another one, but I found everything that I heard in the part I was able to attend to be informative. If you didn’t catch the live event, I recommend watching the recording when it’s available. I’ll share some highlights here.

Inniss spoke about a multi-session workshop series sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences that focused on viewing the pandemic response within higher education through a lens focused on strength and resilience, as well as thinking about lessons that could be used to shape the post-pandemic world. She mentioned that students have expressed concerns about whether they’ll be able to complete their degrees on time in an online setting. She also discussed some of the ways that there are currently opportunities to do things differently in higher education, such as evaluating and dismantling systemic racism that affects students.

In these discussions “equity and access came up over and over again,” she said. There is a need for equitable access to things like wifi and computers/tablets, but also to tutoring and peer networks. Other themes present in these discussions included the importance of building positive community and classroom culture and some of the positive aspects of remote learning. In some cases, this is including a shift towards thinking about students and researchers more holistically and a shift towards a “kinder research culture.”

Brown spoke about building community in a virtual classroom. She provided definitions of community and community building. She discussed recommendations for community building in virtual instruction. These recommendations came out of multiple studies. Some of these recommendations included reaching out to students “early and often,” working with students to discuss and address problems, limiting lecture time and increasing discussion time and more.

Brown also spoke about the notion of a collective growth mindset and shared a little bit about some of the strategies that have worked in her virtual classroom for building community and creating a positive atmosphere. She said that when she started letting students into Zoom rooms early, in one particular class, a group of them started joining the room early to work together on problems, chat, eat, share screens, etc. She also finds breakout rooms and ice breaker activities to be helpful. Some ice breaker activities she likes include “Rose/Thorn” (students can share something positive (a rose) or something negative (a thorn)), “In Common” and The App (where students briefly describe the most interesting app on their phone or tablet). She also mentioned that VoiceThread has been a useful tool in her classroom.

The panel moderated by Harris featured Lucy Martinez (senior undergraduate student at Stockton University, Becky Tang, (PhD student at Duke University) and Giovanny Marquez (PhD student at UC Santa Cruz).

Martinez mentioned that when she moved back to her parents’ apartment during the pandemic, her siblings were trying to learn online at some of the same times she was and that was challenging. She said that learning while her siblings and parents were in the same apartment was manageable, but that some of her classmates were struggling to find a place to attend online classes that wouldn’t interfere with their focus.

One of Tang’s primary concerns as a third-year PhD student has been how first-year graduate students have been coping and the troubles they were facing at her school. She mentioned that adjusting to graduate school is often already difficult and trying to adjust to remote learning can augment those challenges. She said that while professors are sometimes aware of the struggles their students are facing, they “may not internalize” them to the extent that they should.

Tang also mentioned that when Duke’s fall break was cancelled, that left many students without much needed time to take a break and practice some self-care. She said that she wished more professors had adjusted the timeline of their assignments so students would have a bit of a break that week. She said that one professor she knew of did so and students really took notice.

At this point, Harris interjected to say “Faculty take note: even if spring break is cancelled, you can still adjust your timeline” for your class assignments.

Marquez noted that many students who have moved back home — including him — have faced some amount of increase in family responsibilities such as having to help with transportation or being expected to babysit siblings while they learn virtually, which may lead to the older students having to miss class. He said that while a lot of professors are sympathetic, these responsibilities can cause scheduling issues and that those who are “sticklers for being in class on time” should realize that isn’t always possible. He also mentioned the need to provide students with necessary equipment and services, such as tablets and access to counseling services.

Stevenson, who moderated the panel, commented (I think it was in the chat) “Too often we do not realize that grad students are also teachers and should be at the front of the line for equipment.”

Tang also said that some faculty are expecting student researchers to “maintain pre-pandemic productivity” for research, homework, etc. and that it would be helpful if mentors initiated more conversations about research expectations and progress.

Marquez said that his advisor has been having weekly meetings with him and while that’s been helpful, there are still instances where questions crop up outside of that time and it’s challenging because grad students can’t just pop in their advisors’ offices to discuss things they might be stuck on. He said “be a little more flexible with your time, if possible” and that even a 10-minute conversation can be quite helpful sometimes. Of course, the folks on the panel also acknowledged that professors are going through their own challenging situations as well during this difficult time.

I hope this post has given you a taste of what the panel discussed and that if you weren’t able to watch it live, you’ll consider watching the recording!

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