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April 7, 2020

Social Sciences Division Will Use a Variety of Methods to Approach Remote Learning


Haskell Hall.

Lee Harris / The Chicago Maroon

Editors’ note: This article is part of a series that details how different College divisions will approach the switch to distance learning. Reporting is also available for the Biological Sciences Division, the Division of the Humanities, and the Physical Sciences Division.

As the Social Sciences Division prepares to teach online this quarter, instructors are taking a variety of approaches with technology, including both synchronous and asynchronous methods, in an attempt to maintain the immersive quality of social science learning despite the barriers of virtual learning.

The Social Sciences Division has offered support to its departments through a Computing Services website that offers online teaching instruction and resources. The division has also used the University’s virtual and in-person training sessions that have been offered since the end of winter quarter. 

Across all divisions, the University has encouraged a mix of synchronous and asynchronous content. Asynchronous content will be posted through Canvas, according to Sabina Shaikh, the director of the environmental and urban studies major. The computational social sciences department also plans to use Canvas for discussion boards. Zoom video conferencing software will be used for synchronous meetings, including smaller discussion groups and office hours.

Professors in the Social Sciences Division have also distributed surveys to students to understand their new environments and accommodate the challenges they pose. Departments are making an effort to include asynchronous content to accommodate students in different time zones and those with limited access.

“Many of our students are from China and have returned home for the spring quarter, so we are acutely aware of the challenges for international students completing their coursework,” Benjamin Soltoff, director of the computational social sciences master’s program and professor in the College, told The Maroon. “Obviously the time zone difference will be a challenge, but we still have strong expectations for our students and the courses we teach…. We want to provide the best education possible under the circumstances.”

Instructors from the computational social sciences program are coordinating efforts to offer the best teaching practices. “Internally, our program has a Slack channel where instructors have been sharing resources to help us adapt our pedagogy to remote learning and providing suggestions and answering questions that arise as we make this transition,” Soltoff said.

Additionally, the Higher Education Community has united to share pedagogical advice that has been helpful, according to sociology director of undergraduate studies Jenny Trinitapoli. Resources are so abundant that the sociology department has made an effort to condense the material for their professors and is distributing model lesson plans. 

Through these resources, the Social Sciences Division seeks to maintain the quality of education they could give on campus. Public policy program administrator Milvia Rodriguez said that the department seeks to offer flexibility for students while also maintaining academic rigor. “The general wellbeing of our students is very important to us and we will do whatever we can to make sure that our policies contribute to the success of the students in the program in this difficult time.” 

Ultimately, teaching methods are left to the discretion of individual instructors. Some departments, including public policy and comparative human development, expect to reevaluate methods as problems occur throughout the quarter.

The division is also reimagining how its members conduct research. The College made an effort to continue research on campus as stated in a March 16 email from Provost Ka Yee Lee. However, following the March 20 stay-at-home order from Governor J. B. Pritzker and escalation of the COVID-19 spread, the University closed its facilities to all but essential personnel. 

Many resources for social science research are virtually accessible, so departments plan to continue projects remotely. The Social Sciences Computing Service offers a research support group that assists and provides tools to allow for large-scale analysis remotely from less-advanced, personal devices. 

However, remote coordination could pose limitations to social science research due to the hands-on and humanist nature of social science research. For this reason, the Chicago Studies program administered by the Social Sciences Division decided to cancel their quarter-long program of classes where students study the Calumet region. 

“We weren’t confident in our ability to provide the kind of immersive, high-impact, hands-on learning experience that program is known for, and…we were concerned about over-burdening our external partners in the Calumet region as they also deal with this pandemic,” Chicago Studies Associate Director Chris Skrable said.

Trinitapoli said that with softwares like Stata, R, LaTeX, and ATLAS.ti easily accessible from remote workspaces, she is far more concerned about students whose research relies on the Special Collections Library. 

Third-year Orli Morag, a history major, had the same concern. “I use the Special Collections for almost every history paper I write,” Morag said. “So the recommendations made by the history department to try and write a thesis that relies almost entirely on sources I can find online are worrying.” 

Many social science departments have been pressed to accommodate the disruption of their students’ degree plans, such as completing Core requirements and B.A. thesis presentations. Departments including public policy, urban and environmental studies, sociology and the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program have moved their research symposiums online. 

Trinitapoli said she’s arranged an advisory board of undergraduates, and “together we’re going to keep the Chicago Journal of Sociology running and figure out a way to hold a virtual B.A. thesis symposium, to celebrate the awesome research our fourth-year students have completed.” 

Many of the faculty The Maroon communicated with expressed their awareness of the challenge COVID-19 poses to completing coursework. The public policy department has extended its thesis deadline by two weeks. Both the public policy and the environmental studies departments are also offering extended office hours as well as additional major and thesis advising. 

The environmental and urban studies major is offering its two core courses again this quarter to accommodate students who had planned to study abroad this year before UChicago suspended its spring programs. According to Shaikh, the program hopes that by fulfilling requirements now their students will have the opportunity to study abroad next year. 

Some programs, such as human rights, are taking advantage of virtual courses’ flexibility to invite outside scholars and professionals from around the world to join their virtual classes. 

For instance, the program had planned to offer a course at Stateville Correctional Center during spring quarter. Originally, students and instructors were going to travel to the facility to participate in the class alongside inmates, but in lieu of this, the program has invited two formerly-incarcerated community fellows from the Pozen Center Human Rights Laboratory to join and inform the virtual class, according to Deputy Dean of the Pozen Center Mark Bradley. The fellows are currently in the process of completing degrees from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 

“Our course will count toward their degrees as it does for our students and will nicely bring these two groups into a single learning community. We plan to do the inside-out course at Stateville next year, but believe we have found a generative solution given the situation right now that will enhance the learning of both our College students and community partners,” Bradley said.

Analysis of COVID-19 will also be incorporated into coursework. The environmental and urban studies major is offering a class taught by Evan Carter, called Pandemics, Urban Space, and Public Life, that will imagine creative interventions and solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. 

“It felt important to offer a course for critical perspective and inquiry, and I think students felt the same, as we listed the course last week and it filled up in a day,” Shaikh said.

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