In a book on influenza published last year, Robert G. Webster, a virologist at Otago University in New Zealand, had a terrifyingly prescient chapter about pandemics. He warned that "Nature will eventually again challenge mankind with an equivalent of the 1918 influenza virus." He was referring to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that infected about 500 million people around the world, killing nearly three percent (50 million) of the world's population at the time.
Indeed, at the end of December 2019, Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization to pneumonia cases, which was later dubbed as Coronavirus (Covid-19), in Wuhan City in Hubei province. Since then, the virus has led to a global public health crisis, a pandemic infecting over a million people worldwide and claiming in excess of 60,000 lives.
In the United States, the response to Covid-19 is heavily overlaid with political calculations by Donald Trump. As noted by the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the president "fiddles [while] people are dying." Consequently, because of his ignorance, initial denial and lack of proactive action, the virus has swept through the country like a wildfire. As of now, there are over 300,000 cases with more than 8,400 deaths. These numbers change by the hour.
According to latest models, we are staring at 100,000-250,000 deaths, with New York City being the epicentre, where there have been at least 113,704 confirmed cases and 3,565 deaths since the first case was reported during the first week of March 2020. Scientists and epidemiologists believe that this may be only the beginning of what is yet to come before the virus disappears into the thin air.
For American colleges and universities, Covid-19 upended many of the hallmarks of the campus experience, as the virus coincided with the start of the spring semester. Universities are especially vulnerable to the spread of the disease because of the close proximity of those who live and work on campus.
In a matter of weeks, classroom lecture as we know it was completely disrupted. In an effort to slow down transmission of the highly contagious Covid-19, Fordham University, where I have been teaching since 1988, ordered all but its most essential employees to stay at home. On March 9, 2020, the university suspended face-to-face instruction on its four New York area campuses for the remainder of the semester. Henceforth, the faculty were instructed to teach their classes online. Other universities in the tri-state area—NYU, CUNY, Columbia, Yale and Princeton, among others—took similar action.
It has been a jarring, surreal and draining experience for most of the faculty members to adapt to a completely new way of working, with everyone forced to interact with students on screens. However, the Information Technology (IT) division of Fordham made life bearable for us by creating a Course Continuity Site as an immediate resource to prepare us to teach online. Therein, we can find teaching strategies, get quick overview of internet technologies, such as Zoom, Blackboard Learn and Blackboard Collaborate. We can also find various synchronous and asynchronous tools to fit our teaching style. Those of us who needed a laptop or webcam were given one by the university's Media Services. Moreover, if a student did not have access to a sufficiently equipped computer, IT Customer Care gave him/her a laptop at no charge.
As we proceed in this new learning modality, we have to be ever-mindful of how our students' access to technology can introduce new challenges to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. We have to be aware that some of our students may be living in a completely different time zone, making it difficult for them to participate fully at the pre-assigned class time. Others may require special accommodations as outlined by the Office of Disability Services.
In light of the shift from face-to-face to online instruction, Fordham Libraries and its services are still available to us and our students. They are offering many of the reference and instructional services we relied on in the past via online meeting platforms—Blackboard Collaborate, WebEx and Google Meet.
Our bookstore, operated by Barnes and Noble, joined Vital Source Bookshelf and leading publishers to make e-textbooks available free to students impacted by campus closures. Vital Source Bookshelf is an easy-to-use, intuitive app built to help enhance one's reading, studying and learning experience. Besides, it offers handy tools to help one learn more efficiently.
The American Institute of Physics has compiled a list of resources for physics educators to support their move to online teaching for the rest of the semester. These resources highlight the use of cell phones for lab experiments, as well as other activities that can be adapted for use by students at home.
As we are forced to work from home, some tenure-track professors are worried about how the disruption will affect their tenure bids. In response, many universities have announced a one-year tenure-clock extension for junior faculty members.
I have to say that what I miss most right now is being able to see my colleagues and students walking across the campus, hanging out with them in Freeman Hall which houses the physics department, getting coffee at Starbucks, and so on. I also miss standing in front of a chalkboard lecturing, as well as mingling, talking and brainstorming physics problems with my students.
What happens next? One clue might lie in the early nineteenth-century Britain when the intrusion of mechanised technology into the textile production process ignited the Luddite rebellion, named after Ned Ludd, a mythical weaver who lived in Sherwood Forest. The textile workers who were so paranoid that machinery would replace their jobs took to the task of physically destroying machines they used.
Having said that, is Coronavirus making us face our own obsolescence just like the Luddites? I hope not. Nevertheless, under the present circumstances, I am not sure when campus life will return to normal. Lest we forget, education happens in the lecture hall and an ineffable, intellectual vibe that a great class discussion generates cannot be found in virtual online teaching. In the meantime, let us allow ourselves to be imperfect together in the service of our students and their deepest needs for learning, and meaning of humanity and compassion.
Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York.