Susan Farady: Going that Extra (Virtual) Mile
Of all the school-aged populations living through the COVID-19 pandemic, Associate Professor of Marine Affairs Susan Farady, J.D., is most concerned about college undergraduates. While she acknowledges the hardships of everyone during this time of fear and isolation, unrecognized milestones and missed opportunities, the undergraduate cohort, she says, in some ways has been the hardest hit with disruption to their daily lives. Unlike younger students, the vast majority of whom continue to live with their parents, and unlike graduate students, who are already independent, college undergrads, as a demographic, she contends, have experienced a level of upheaval like no one else.
“These college students, they’re a whole different vulnerable population,” she says. “They’ve lost their roommates, they’ve lost their sport friends, even the ability to eat with their friends at lunch … They’ve literally been plucked up from their emerging adult life, and all of their structure is disrupted.”
With this heightened sense of empathy and an intense commitment to giving her students the education they came to UNE to receive, Farady has earned a reputation among students and professors alike for being one of the faculty members most appreciated for their efforts to make the transition to online learning as smooth and as painless as possible.
“Susan has been a leader in reaching out to our students and meeting them where they are,” says Director of the School of Marine Programs Charles Tilburg, Ph.D. “Our students are in good hands when they enter Professor Farady’s class,” he assures, acknowledging that his statement holds true even when that “class” is virtual.
The testimony of Farady’s students could not echo Tilburg’s sentiment more closely. “Professor Farady has been there for all of her students before, during, and following the transition,” shares Corey Ackerson, a senior marine biology major/animal behavior minor who is currently taking Farady’s Climate Change, Oceans, and the Law course. “I genuinely appreciate how [she] has been so understanding with students, knowing that this is not easy for anyone,” he says.
But what makes Farady such a stand-out faculty member in this time of pre-recorded lectures and confusing assignments? For starters, her ability to give her students a sense of structure in an otherwise chaotic time ranks high on the list. Farady maintains class schedules, delivering her lessons online on regularly planned days and at regularly planned times.
“I am someone who relies heavily on having a structured day,” says senior neuroscience major/marine affairs minor Kylee Harrington, a classmate of Ackerson. “I wish a lot more of my classes met online on a scheduled day and time,” she comments. “It makes me get out of bed, put on real clothes, and actually focus on school, which is really hard to do with everything going on.”
Farady says that maintaining a sense of normalcy is a comfort during such chaotic times, and she considers herself fortunate that the subject matter she teaches lends itself relatively well to an online format. “I’m not teaching lab classes, I’m not teaching art classes; I’m teaching seminar discussion classes, so it was probably easier for me than [colleagues in] some other disciplines to think about how to take this online,” she remarks humbly. “I have not had to really change a whole lot of what I promised to deliver [to the students] at the beginning of the semester.”
But Farady’s success in continuing the routine of the semester even after classes went virtual, is not just a product of being “one of the lucky ones” whose discipline is easily adapted to an online structure. In addition to adhering to a schedule and having clear expectations of her students, she is utilizing the technology available to her to make her online classes resemble her live classes as much as she possibly can. While she does record her lectures to make them available to students who, due to a range of circumstances in this chaotic period, are occasionally unable to attend the class in real time, Farady’s use of the teleconferencing tool Zoom has given her students the benefit of seeing one another live on a regular basis. “I think we all get a tremendous amount out of just seeing each other’s faces regularly,” she says. And Farady even takes her courses one step further towards normality by using the “breakout room” function in Zoom to allow for small group discussion. She describes the breakout rooms as “magical.” “They are fabulous,” she says, “I’ll come up with a question, and I can send them into groups, and I can literally walk in and out of each room just like I would walk around a classroom.”
“They clearly value having a chance to chat with their peers,” Farady says of her pupils, and the interaction is so important in Farady’s mind that she finds no fault in her students when she occasionally drops into breakout rooms where the conversation is off topic. “A few minutes talking to somebody else other than the people you’re cooped up with in the house with, it’s fine,” she chuckles.
Farady has also used technology in another way that has earned her gratitude from her students: she has solicited a significant amount of anonymous input and feedback from them using the learning management tool Blackboard. “Professor Farady has posted many anonymous surveys to students regarding our current learning environments, final project layout preferences, due date preferences for assignments, and preferences for how the semester would be arranged,” notes Ackerson. “She has given us every tool possible to get us through the challenges this semester has brought.”
While Farady says that all of the surveys have yielded beneficial information, the most helpful was the initial poll she took during the week of spring break, before online classes commenced. “I asked them simple questions like, ‘What time zone are you in? What’s your connectivity like? Do you have a laptop? Can you make regular class meetings that are at regular class time? If you can’t, that’s fine; just tell me, because I’m not going to build a class that you can’t do.’ It was really, really instructive to me,” she shares. “I didn’t want to build a course or a requirement in a course that really was going to cause significant heartburn with these students who are under so much stress … I tried to go into this based on their feedback.”
By reaching out and listening to her students, either through anonymous polls, or through individual conversations, Farady has succeeded in achieving what she believes is at the heart of the best possible impromptu learning experience under the given conditions: striking the right balance between structure and flexibility. By truly listening to and understanding her students’ individual circumstances and needs, she has been able to discern where structure is most needed and where flexibility is most appreciated. As a faculty member, I have a syllabus, I’ve got learning outcomes, I’m grading student work, and I take that seriously,” she says. “So it really has been a balance. I have just followed my gut instinct. Where do I sense [the students] need a little bit of relief and where do I sense that it’s important to kind of keep things on the straight and narrow here? Asking for their input doesn’t mean that you’re catering to their every whim, but I don’t want to deliver coursework that they are unable to do.”
Tori Tibbets, a junior marine affairs and environmental studies double major in Farady’s Science in Society class, recognizes that Farady has made fair adjustments where needed. “She pulled back on some of our assignments to help us feel less stressed,” she comments, adding that Farady has also been willing to allow for extra time to complete coursework – something Farady refers to as “assignment amnesty.”
Kelsey Shebey, a junior marine affairs major enrolled in two of Farady’s courses this semester, also admires the way her professor allows for modifications when appropriate, while still ensuring that learning outcomes are met. “She extended deadlines while keeping the class outcome expectations from the syllabus the same,” she explains, also mentioning that while Farady has kept normal meeting times, she has abbreviated some of the classes.
“In the end, it’s got to work for the students. It’s got to work without diluting the learning. And that’s kind of where I’ve been on a daily basis,” declares Farady. “I feel like I’m recalibrating every day. I want to make sure we’re delivering the learning while keeping the learning community intact and that we’re being as flexible as we need to be in a really extraordinary time.”
But for the students, their fondness for Farady extends far beyond her ability to be an effective instructor in a difficult situation; it’s the human element of Farady that scores her the highest praise. “While she’s done an amazing job transitioning her classes online, she’s done an even better job at helping students feel more comfortable in these challenging times,” says Tibbets.
“She really does care about the wellbeing of her students, and I have never felt so supported by any faculty member throughout my college career,” offers Shebey. “I’m extremely grateful to have her for two of my classes this semester. I couldn’t imagine having to go through this distance learning experience without her.”
Tilburg perhaps best encapsulates what both students and faculty have observed about Farady: “This crisis has brought out the best in Susan and showcased what we already knew was there: a fantastic, caring teaching who is happy to go that extra mile to help her students.”