The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the space-time continuum. There is no “business as usual” anywhere, let alone a college campus. Starting on August 10, professors had to get comfortable with new tech tools in spaces across Notre Dame not traditionally reserved for teaching — like the two largest venues at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC).
Then, there was the human element. Learning to project voice through a mask and building camaraderie across distances in the Leighton Concert Hall and Patricia George Decio Mainstage Theatre that, in the beginning, probably felt like Notre Dame Stadium. Despite it all, there was joy in being at Notre Dame together.
“I was very glad to have a chance to come back into the classroom after spending the second half of last semester on Zoom,” said Anne García-Romero, associate professor of film, television, and theatre. “I was surprised how on the first day of class with my mask and my students masked and at a distance how happy I was to be in their presence again and how powerful presence is even though our faces are covered, and we’re far away from each other. There’s a real power in presence.”
García-Romero speaks from the stage of DPAC’s Leighton Concert Hall, where The Chieftains and Leslie Odom, Jr. have walked from the wings into the spotlight to the adoration of a sold-out house. This summer, DPAC spent a lot of time thinking about what services are essential for the University to have a successful semester and how their venues and expertise in technology can assist in that — and not just for classes in the performing and cinematic arts like García-Romero’s.
Forrest Spence, assistant teaching professor in economics said, “I’ve been amazed at how quickly Notre Dame has been able to respond in terms of providing resources to instructors like classroom availability, making all these new spaces, these improvised spaces, into classrooms and making them feel safe. It’s not just like you’re throwing people in a bunch of different rooms or different theaters in the DPAC. These things are set up in a way that professors almost as a whole felt really safe lecturing, and I think I students felt safe too.”
A total of 48 courses in departments from American Studies to Chemistry, Econ to History, and Mathematics to Theology occur at DPAC. These newbies rub shoulders with those of the resident Department of Film, Television, and Theatre and also the Glee Club. Some performance-based courses also meet outside. And that portion of the curriculum is a bit of an experiment and where DPAC staff work closely with the faculty member to figure out how to make it all work.
“If you’re flexible and willing to pivot, are patient in doing what you can to support your students, and have a good partner, this model can work,” Matt Hawkins, assistant professor of the practice and director of musical theatre, said. And, boy, oh, boy was flexibility — no contortionism — required to pull off the experience Hawkins’ imagined for one of his courses.
“I’m also teaching outside and in performance class, when you’re singing, it’s just not about how you sound. There’s an acting sensibility to it; we need to see your face. So, I have a musician, he now lives in the Chicago suburbs. My students send him sheet music for the song they want to sing and then he can tailor it to them if they want to change some tempos, make some cuts or do key signature changes. He records it on his piano and sends a file to [the student]. Outside I have a sound system. They play that [file] on their phone and Bluetooth connects it to a sound system that DPAC put together for me. This is part of trying to figure out how to be innovative,” said Hawkins.
“We are out there, they’re playing the audio file Bluetooth from the phone to the speaker system, and the actor themselves have a wireless mic on that is also connected to the speaker system so we can hear them amplified, their vocals. Then I have a god mic, a handheld mic that I can speak through because we’re so far away from each other. It was this compromise of I lost the live musician but I can gain seeing their faces but only if we’re that far away and now I just sacrificed sound so then I have to amplify it. DPAC was awesome working with me on that.” Indeed!
While many professors prefer a traditional classroom experience, teaching in spaces designed for rapt audiences has its quirks or perks depending how you look at it. Diogo Bolster, professor and Frank M. Freimann Collegiate Chair in Hydrology, said it could feel like he’s performing.
“There are a few interesting challenges that come along with it. I’m wearing a cap right now because when I’m on that stage, if I want to see the students, I have a hard time because the spotlight is shining in my face. At the same time, the acoustics are fantastic.” Sharing that his students have said, “It’s like you’re doing a TED talk,” Bolster said, even with some compromises, his time at DPAC is working out well.
Another challenge of expanding teaching use of venues designed for performance can, at times, be the technology itself. Kola Olowabi, professor of organ, spoke from the Center’s Reyes Organ and Choral Hall.
“We had one occasion on which a student couldn’t be here, and we set up a Zoom session where they could see what was going on. It was very much discussion-based, playing and discussion, so I didn’t have a camera on me at all. I had it angled so that he could see the different people in the room, and I would check in every once in a while, to make sure he could hear what was going on. We probably should have a microphone set up for that, we don’t yet. I know all of our IT people have just been very, very busy, so you know there’s prioritizing what they need to do when. But it’s worked out rather well. It just requires more patience from everyone. I’ve encouraged my students to be very upfront about what they need to feel comfortable,” said Owolabi.
Although learning new audio, visual, and recording technology on top of the additional amount of screen time can be overwhelming, for Kathryn Mulholland ‘20, assistant professor of the practice in mathematics, not so much. Surrounded by the “grandeur” of the Leighton Concert Hall, she recounted how familiar the digital realm is. “I’ve been teaching online for the past three summers,” she said. “I teach a math class through the Office for Digital Learning. So, it’s been pretty similar to that for me in terms of teaching from the iPad and screensharing for the students.”
In a not very strange coincidence, faculty each spoke about connectivity — whether regarding systems, people or both. And ultimately, that is one reason they teach, and research, and mentor. The human connection, whether made online or in person.
That may be by standing eight feet away from an organ student at the bench. Outdoors in a tent. Or the angle of a laptop screen. Professors teaching at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center this most unusual of fall semesters aren’t just trying to make hybrid and socially-distanced learning work — they’re trying to be “HERE” for students in every way they can. García-Romero sums a semester on stage the best.
“Connection. The challenges with connection. The desire for connection. The challenges to work towards connection and how hard the University has worked to keep us connected. I mean, that’s been extraordinary, and I’m very grateful.”