Adapting to Change: Resilience and resourcefulness in the time of COVID-19

When UW–Madison students returned from winter break on January 21, they poured into lecture halls and dining halls, queued up at their favorite State Street cafes, and resumed their campus routines. The first hint of the coming crisis arrived in their inboxes the next day with a ping so small that few took notice: an email message from University Health Services welcoming students back, reminding them that this was the flu season, and introducing them to the new “coronavirus,” spread through close personal contact. As the world’s understanding of the disease rapidly grew, the UW suspended all study abroad programs, and CJS students returned from Italy, Israel, and elsewhere. By the end of spring recess, all UW students were taking their classes online from their homes.

In the space of a week or two, with support from IT staff, the entire faculty became proficient in videoconferencing and other technologies needed to continue instruction both “synchronously” (in real time) and “asynchronously” (by uploading content). They adopted a variety of methods.

Before COVID-19, Hebrew Lecturer Judith Sone sometimes had her students create recordings of their presentations and conversations. With the transition to remote learning, she increased the number of such assignments, and she ensured that students made the most of their time together by practicing certain language concepts on their own beforehand.

Judith Sone’s Intermediate Hebrew course, taught through videoconferencing technology

Adam Stern (Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and German, Nordic, & Slavic Studies) included a mixture of lectures and discussions to “approximate the face-to-face seminary style that characterized the first half of the semester.”

Rachel Brenner (Elaine Marks Professor of Jewish Studies) was also able to cover the material “with some emendations, but basically as originally planned.” Students submitted their work by email, and thanks to “the scanner, the copier, and the incredible assistance from the IT staff at LSS Techzone,” Brenner was able to return the assignments marked and graded.

Large lecture courses posed special challenges. According to Jordan Rosenblum (Belzer Professor of Classical Judaism and Max and Frieda Weinstein-Bascom Professor of Jewish Studies), research shows that most students stop paying attention to online lectures around the five-minute mark. For his Religion and Sexuality class, he recorded a series of brief videos and asked students to respond to each segment.

Sunny Yudkoff (Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and German, Nordic, & Slavic Studies) taught a similarly large group in her course Yiddish Literature and Culture in America. Before the pandemic, she recalls, a highlight was a class trip to see a local production of the Tony-award winning play Indecent, presented by Music Theatre of Madison. She made the transition to online instruction, she explains, “with the support and creativity of the course TA, Matthew Greene (a graduate student in the Department of German, Nordic, & Slavic), as well as the patience and flexibility of the students.”