“Back to Baldwin” and Back to Shakespeare: Opinions from some of the S&P’s student body on their campus’ new normal

By Hessy Sanders

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly persisted in America, bringing with it changes and challenges for academic settings across the country. The 2020-2021 school year looks different for all K-12 and higher education institutions, each with their own response to the pandemic. Those involved in education have learned an entirely new vocabulary by adapting their teaching methods. Teachers and students now regularly refer to online instruction as either asynchronous, synchronous, or hybrid. Zoom is now the classroom for most, and its use across the nation will likely grow as more schools transition to online learning.

Though most K-12 schools are at the mercy of district officials or their governor’s orders, university response varies for each institution. The pressure from students, faculty, administration, local officials, community members, and health experts have led university leaders to make decisions based on the needs of the community. Missteps happen in tough situations like this. Notable university semester closures for in person instruction due to coronavirus outbreaks include: UNC-Chapel Hill, Michigan State, and, closer to home, James Madison University. Fraternity and sorority related coronavirus outbreaks have impacted the campuses of Oklahoma State University, University of Washington-Seattle, and the University of Notre Dame. Despite these outbreaks on college campuses across the country, many schools, such as ours, have decided to continue their in-person instruction with heightened social-distancing procedures. In addition to Mary Baldwin, Georgia Tech continues with in-person instruction, though they reported 971 cases on their campus since March with five reported cases on September 20th alone. Additionally, the University of Alabama has had over 1,000 reported cases of coronavirus since reopening their campus August 19th.

As mentioned earlier, James Madison, only a twenty-six minute drive from Mary Baldwin University, recently went to online-only instruction as they reached over 1,000 cases since starting in-person instruction for the semester. Many students in the Mary Baldwin University Shakespeare and Performance Program have expressed concern over the close proximity to JMU and their campus’s relationship to ours. MBU’s own reported cases are small, with four positive cases to date, but nevertheless concerning. The campus-wide “Back to Baldwin” plan for reopening with safety procedures in place, in which you can view here, generally eases its students’ minds, though not completely.

We sent out a questionnaire to several students in the MBU Shakespeare and Performance graduate program asking how they felt about the Back to Baldwin plan. We received responses from seven, consisting of first and second-years. Most wished to remain anonymous and we will honor those requests.

In discussing the MBU campus procedures, most people felt that while the graduate students were following protocols, the undergraduate students were not taking it as seriously. When asked where they saw the Back to Baldwin plan practiced best, many people responded positively to their classmates’ adherence to social distancing. First-year student, Kelsey Harrison noted: I see protocols being practiced the best inside the PAC (where you are required to have a temperature check before being admitted into the building) and in classrooms with social distancing and increased sanitation in place. Outside is where I’ve seen students most often bending the rules.” Another student noted: “Rose Terrace and PAC have been really good at following the masked rules, not so much the distance again because it’s hard to distance in those small spaces […] I genuinely refuse to be anywhere else on campus because I don’t need to be.” As far as the undergraduate areas and students adhering to safety policies, the S&P students are not confident: “In the first week of school, I was stunned to see a group of ten students sitting outside together, maskless and not social distancing, by the student cafe.” Another student recalled: “The only times I’ve seen students not following safety policies have been when I’ve walked near the undergrad buildings. Thus far, everyone in our program that I’ve seen has been good about it.” We heard from another student: “When I am around undergraduates is when I feel the most unsafe.”

So, what does social-distancing look like in the performing arts classroom? In a discipline such as ours, we rely on physical contact and in-person collaboration. We use facial expression, movement, spacial relationships, and gestures to portray and interpret meaning. Many of us have never used virtual learning in our craft before. For the performing artist, this year brings with it a unique set of changes and challenges, or perhaps the need for a completely new playbook altogether.

Professor Cohen’s REN 500 and REN 530 classes are notable examples of the hybridized classroom model. Harrison, one of his students, explains her experience with hybridized learning: “Two of my courses with Dr. Cohen have the class split in half between two in-person class periods one day and a virtual class through Zoom, with all of the classmates together, on the second scheduled day.” Another example is Dr. Cooke’s REN 560 class, Shakespeare’s Contemporaries, which is a blended class made of undergraduate and graduate students. After some students in the program expressed concern over sharing spaces with those outside of the S&P community, the class time divided between undergraduates and graduates, so as to keep the groups contained. Additionally, this class meets partially in person for thirty-five minutes, with asynchronous lectures taught via Instagram. When asked their preferred learning methods, students responded with a mix of answers. Out of the seven responses, three students prefer in-person instruction, one synchronous online instruction, one online-only (with no preference to synchronous or asynchronous), one prefers a hybrid of in-person and online learning, and one prefers online learning consisting of both asynchronous and synchronous instruction.

These new methods of instruction are not without their advantages and challenges for performing artists and Shakespeare scholars. One of the most transparent challenges appears in the Stage Combat class, where Kelsey Harrison explains: “The policies make it very difficult in my Stage Combat course, where normally we would need to be in closer physical contact.” This is not the only performance-related problem the new policies present, as one student tells us: “Acting with masks is hard. Everything gets a little muffled if you don’t properly project which takes some getting used to which we’re not there yet.” An unexpected downside of the protocols has left some students disadvantaged in the traditional classroom:

“A lot of the classrooms, in the process of getting rid of desks in order to social distance, took out a lot of the left-handed desks. So unfortunately, as a left-handed person, I am having to compensate while taking notes because I am having to use right-handed desks.”

On the other hand, some students are making new discoveries in our new learning situation. One student told us: “Interestingly, I think having a mask on helps me in the classroom. I am usually very shy, but having a mask feels like a sort of protective barrier from shyness.” On the performance side, Micaela Harmon has welcomed the challenges: “It’s forced me to really look into my projection and expressions and reevaluate how I approach acting.” Outside of the classroom, Harmon also had praise for our program’s MFA company, Fireside Shakespeare: “The MFA company’s devised show was a brilliant example of how to do social distancing and theatre. It still had all the magic and charm of live theatre, while showing that we don’t have to sacrifice safety to get that. I hope they continue to hold more events like that.”

Some students are not happy with MBU’s decision to have in-person instruction, though. One student noted:

“The buildings are largely old, poorly ventilated, and with small classrooms […] I know that my program is largely attending in the Wharf building, which offers more space. But I still worry about spending long hours in that space with many other people. A lot of students have jobs that are public-facing, such as working at grocery stores and restaurants. That’s too much risk for me to take.”

Others said that though they feel safe at MBU, no school should be operating in-person for the time being:

“For the most part, I feel comfortable on campus, simply because Mary Baldwin is a small school and is able to implement super-detailed protocols and hold people accountable. That being said, I just don’t feel any school should be holding in-person classes right now. However, small schools like Mary Baldwin are probably the only schools that are able to safely have classes under these circumstances.”

Other students noted that MBU’s small population and the even smaller bubble within the S&P program makes them more comfortable about holding classes during a pandemic. One student commented on our government’s response to the pandemic in relationship to education: “I think everyone should have stayed closed and virtual. I am immunocompromised and I’m terrified of getting it and spreading it […] But then again, I don’t think that’s MBU’s fault I think that’s our government’s fault for letting schools reopen when it still is not safe.”

On the program’s role within the Back to Baldwin plan, we received generally good comments from its students. Particularly, students were impressed by the tent set up by Rose Terrace:

“I am happy with how the S&P program is following state and school policies and the ingenuity in adapting to said protocols in ways that promote traditional learning and performance practices, i.e. the Rose Terrace Tent.”

“Their purchase of the Rose Theatre tent is enormous, which demonstrates that they were truly thinking of what would benefit the students best.”

This isn’t to say that the program has completely satisfied its students. Some were uneasy with holding and attending in-person performances:

“I would say one weakness is some professors’ requirement of still going to see shows, whether it be the MFA company shows or the ASC shows. I don’t think it’s fair to require students to go out and about in these circumstances and have it impact their grade.”

“I think it’s irresponsible to be having live performances. I don’t think there’s a way to really guarantee audience and actor safety in live performance. That’s not just our program; I don’t think it’s very safe anywhere.”

Additionally, one student noted an MBU Back to Baldwin policy not mentioned on the website that was relayed by administration via email: if a student opts-out of in-person instruction in favor of online-only, they forfeit access to the MBU campus and all activities and services. This includes performances, the second-year Thesis Festival (should it proceed as an in-person event), and the library. Speaking on this, the student commented:

“I am extremely disappointed that should a student want to go completely remote, they wouldn’t have access to campus at all. I think that is unfair, particularly because I imagine a student would still be paying fees for services they wouldn’t have access to, should they choose to go online for whatever reason. For students writing theses, it is extremely unfair to bar their use of the library. I was considering moving entirely online as a means to allay some anxiety, but when I heard that I would be barred from campus in that instance, I was forced to continue with in-person classes simply because I needed use of the library […] I think this policy reflects on MBU, not S&P, but still. This policy does not set its students up for success, but rather, it punishes them for choosing to protect their health, and that is extremely disappointing.”

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