“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Maintaining Small Campus Community in a Pandemic” (Standard)

Wednesday, June 9, 11am EDT

Linnea Minich, Heidi Syler, and Courtnay Zeitler (University of the South)

The presentation opens with a description of The University of the South. We are a small liberal arts college, focused on ideas of place and community. The college is situated on top of a mountain and for many students their time here is a literal mountain-top experience. All of this was shattered when the University went into emergency online teaching in March of 2020. In order for the college to retain its identity, the faculty and staff, including we in the Research Help office, had to establish those ideas of place and community, where we could, through our online presence.

Heidi describes her work with faculty technology coordinators to bring the academic side of the campus together on a new LMS, Brightspace. Heidi worked with Brightspace to train the trainers, then helped to organize sessions to teach faculty how to use Brightspace to accomplish their pedagogical goals. These Zoom sessions built community by giving faculty and staff a clear common goal. They made the often invisible work of “pulling together” clearer during a critical time for the University community.

Linnea describes the foray into planned virtual learning. During the Summer of 2020 Sewanee moved its annual School of Letters online. A connection with an English professor who asked for library support in his class for first-year grad students allowed us to see a need for more of a Research Help presence. Linnea had recently come from a library job search that had asked her to give presentations on online learning objects and outreach. This preparation allowed her to translate the School of Letters research needs into a series of videos, and to design a web presence for Research Help which has been useful for virtual outreach to students and faculty.

Courtnay describes a fall spent teaching the for-credit library resources class using new technology tools. Creating community was a challenging task with a group of students who were located everywhere from their dorms across campus all the way to an apartment in Pakistan. Using Zoom and Brightspace, we sought to establish personal connections with each student. By viewing each other as resilient survivors first as well as students and educators, the virtual classroom sometimes felt like folks hanging out together while researching. Through the disconnections and technical problems, we kept repeating the same phrase over and over: “grace and mercy; mercy and grace. As the instructors, we will extend it to you and we ask that you extend it to us.”

When the Pandemic started, we were still adjusting to working together. Our collaboration during this time helped us to gravitate toward complementary roles and strengthened our connection. Courtnay took the initiative in scheduling office hours and making herself available to those wanting to talk about research. Linnea created videos and tutorials. Heidi has been the record-keeper and organizer, and provides her long-term perspective on the work of Research Help. Our experience during this pandemic is not unique. We think others will benefit from hearing our strategies and stories.