How professors are navigating canceled spring term courses and the potential of online classes

The university is expanding spring term class numbers to account for students who were enrolled in cancelled abroad courses


Washington Hall. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Hannah Denham and Avalon Pernell

Academic departments at Washington and Lee University are navigating two issues as more and more coronavirus cases are confirmed globally and in the United States.

Can professors transfer their syllabi for cancelled spring term abroad classes to teach on-campus? And if the university decides to move to online classes during the winter term, do they have the resources to pull it off?

In an email to the campus community on Wednesday night, March 11, Sidney Evans, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, said that as for now, Washington and Lee University won’t follow the response of a growing list of other colleges and universities that have suspended on-campus classes and/or moved to online courses.

“W&L is continuing to offer classes on campus, and we hope to finish the academic year as usual,” Evans said in the email. “Based on guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control at this time, we believe this is in the best interest of our students.”

Looking ahead to spring term, which begins on Monday, April 27, the university is expanding spring term class numbers to account for students who were enrolled in cancelled courses scheduled to travel abroad.

The registrar’s office published a list of open courses on Thursday for students to register for classes with newly opened seats.

University Registrar Scott Dittman said in an email that some faculty members with canceled study abroad courses are discussing within academic departments if they’ll teach a different course on campus. 

“All of these students currently have access to spring registration, so can make a change based on what they are qualified for and what they can get into,” he said. “Some have already made changes and a few seniors have now declared Spring Option.”

Dean of the College Lena Hill and Africana Studies Professor Michael Hill were planning to teach the Africana Studies course, “Black Writers and the Allure of Paris” in France together. Michael Hill confirmed the course’s cancellation and said they focused on student health and safety when making the decision.

According to an email obtained by the Ring-tum Phi from Michael Hill to students in the course, the course will not be taught on campus during spring term. Instead, he said, he will teach an on-campus course, “Adolescence in the African American Novel” during spring term, which he offered to students originally enrolled in the Paris course.

Garrett Clinton, ’20, was one of the students enrolled in the course and said he’s lucky he didn’t need it to graduate.

“I’m most likely going to spring option and I’m changing flights now,” Clinton said. “I’m wondering what W&L’s plan is for seniors who need the credits that they’re taking this semester.”

Dittman said he doesn’t anticipate this to be a common predicament for senior students, but that the registrar’s office will discuss it with any concerned students. 

The faculty have already been discussing bending of some rules (Spring Option deadline and late fee, online-credit limit, etc.) and any question is fair game since none of us have been through this before,” he said.

Executive Committee representative Bo Torbert, ‘20, addressed the issue in an email sent to the class of 2020 on Wednesday, March 11. 

“The University is going to deal with academic accommodations to the outbreak on a case-by-case basis but has agreed to accommodate seniors’ graduation requirements if the outbreak seems likely to impact a student’s ability to graduate,” Torbert said in the email. “This will be handled if it becomes necessary.” 

He said that he obtained this information from Evans’ meeting with Executive Committee President Will Bolton, ‘20. 

Adedayo Abah, the chair of the department of journalism and mass communications, said that although it would be challenging for the university to make the move to online-only classes, she’s confident they could make it work.

“Our goal is to find a way to keep the classroom interactions that our students are used to as much as possible,” Abah said in an email. 

Yanhong Zhu, the chair of the East Asian languages and literatures department, said that her department hasn’t formally discussed plans for moving classes online because the university decided to continue in-person teaching.

But as an individual faculty member, she said, she’s already started “designing quizzes and tests that are appropriate for online testing through Canvas” for her 200-level Chinese class.

Linda Hooks, the economics department chair, said her department is also following the university’s plan. But she added that a number of textbook publishers have shared guidance on how to move classes online.

“This is a time of uncertainty for students and for professors and that can make us feel anxious,” Hooks said in an email. “W&L faculty are deeply committed to making the educational experience work for their students. We are all in this together and we will all figure it out together.”