Four days before Spring break this year, Princeton students, faculty and staff received an unprecedented email from president Christopher Eisgruber. The message contained news that has been echoed at thousands of other educational institutions around the globe: due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Princeton would be moving to virtual instruction.
More than a month has passed since that first email, and with the doors to libraries and classrooms firmly closed, people from across the university have adapted to new ways of working online.
In the Department of Classics, seminars, language classes and office hours are now being held over video conferencing software, with assignments and tests carried out remotely. Staff and faculty are organizing team meetings from home to discuss administrative and academic matters.
Doctoral candidate Keegan Valbuena describes the advantages of new technologies that have enabled teaching to continue. “Back before the internet [we] probably would have given everyone an incomplete [grade] or a pass and said ‘see you in the fall’” he says.
However, he also underscores the challenges of carrying out research and instruction online. “The Humanities really benefit from face-to-face interactions,” he says. “For us it is the life of the mind—that’s part of the joy and torment of the Humanities.”
“The internet […] is a mitigation not a solution,” he adds.
Staff who keep the Classics department running on a day-to-day basis were fortunately prepared for the shift online. The closure of a road in Princeton earlier in the year had led several to ready themselves for working from home, meaning they already had remote access to files.
“For us it is the life of the mind—that’s part of the joy and torment of the Humanities.”
—Keegan Valbuena, doctoral candidate
“We were all given the option to work one day from home because of the Alexander Street closure,” says Jill Arbeiter, graduate administrator, “So […] we were already prepared.”
Christopher Valentine, technical support specialist, created tailored instruction manuals on using the host of new platforms for scheduling meetings, recording lectures and posting materials for students.
“I had to prepare the tools that they were going to need to conduct courses, classes and tests,” he says. “I had to be sure that an extra level of attention was presented [for] folks in Classics.”
The change has still brought challenges for staff used to communicating on a daily basis. Nancy Blaustein, department manager, says she holds calls three times a week with colleagues to stay connected. “It’s good to see each other,” she says.
She adds that the difficulties are greatest for faculty who now have to advise students remotely: “The biggest adjustments are for faculty because everything they do on a daily basis is so much about interaction with students.”
With the world brought to its knees by the Coronavirus pandemic, it is perhaps inevitable that academic work should also be disrupted. William Dingee, doctoral candidate in Classics, describes the reality of carrying out research when many print materials have not been digitized.
“I have the important monographs that are relevant to my dissertation, but if there’s something that looks like it could be interesting, but might not be interesting, it used to be I could just walk 200 feet and have a look,” he says. “Now it’s a whole cost-benefit analysis.”
He adds that despite the challenges to research, teaching and administration, “the Classics community at Princeton has been embracing new technology to keep the study of antiquity as active and enriching as possible during this difficult time.”