Department chair’s response to Whitman’s move online

Yesterday, President Kathy Murray announced that Whitman will move to online learning for the remainder of the semester. Though it’s clearly the right decision, we are all disappointed as we revise our plans and expectations for the next several months.

My colleague John Stratton is serving as department chair this year while I am on sabbatical. John gave me permission to share his email to our students as a guest post here. I couldn’t have said it better myself. My next post will address the logistical plans we made at this morning’s department meeting (with appropriate social distancing!)

Subject: Challenge and Encouragement

Dear Budding Computer Scientists,

I wish we weren’t in this situation right now.  I wish this could stay a situation that was happening to other people other places.  But even having that wish is an immense privilege, one of many we must now realize we can’t take for granted anymore.

I don’t know how I’m going to replace my practice of asking “think about that, talk with the people next to you” when no one in the class has anyone else in the class next to them.  I don’t know whether we CS faculty will be successful as getting students the help they need debugging without being able to go around the class and look over your shoulder.  To some extent, because I believe in the educational model we generally practice, I have to believe that we can’t.  But we will try, with your help.

For a while now, we will not be meeting together physically for classes.  But I hope that we can all reflect on just how much we can still do because computer scientists like you provided society with amazing tools.  We have the modeling and simulation tools to show us how bad a virus like this could be, and realize how effective social distancing measures like these are at protecting our communities through collective and individual actions.  We have the computational science tools to screen huge numbers of potential compounds that might inhibit the infectiousness of the new virus.  And perhaps most relevant to us, we have a wealth of computational communication and collaboration tools to continue to learn and engage with our academic program in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even 15 years ago when I was an undergraduate student.

Other considerations for the well-being of society have become more important than your best education for now, and rightfully so.  But your education has not become unimportant.  You might not be able to contribute technologically to the current crisis, but society needs more computer scientists making more tools for the next one.  And we will need you to work with us to make the most out of the current situation.  Our connections sustain us, and many of our patterns of connection are about to be strained.  For those of you who may have the option of joining synchronous virtual classes or watching the videos later, it will be that much easier to not “show up” for the interactive class.  For those of you who rely on your partner or teammates contacting you to start working on an assignment or project, it will be that much easier to ignore them.  For those of you who do the reaching out to your partner or team to initiate working together, it will be that much easier to move on without them.  If we’re going to make any kind of success out of the rest of this semester, our patterns of connection and participation need to be consciously reinforced, if not rebuilt entirely.

Stay connected; to your classes, to your faculty, to each other.  We will miss seeing you, but we are committed to continuing our part in lifting you up in skill and confidence to wield computation to solve meaningful problems.  Please give us and each other patience as we work through this when there are mistakes made.  Help us and each other see what oversights we’re making during this time, so that we can improve and do our best.  We’ll keep you up to date as we figure out how we’re going to make this work.  And if you’re still on campus and want to say “hi” today, I’ll be around all afternoon.

Right now, we need to be more to each other than just teachers and students, classmates and colleagues.  We need to be each other’s partners and friends, cohort and community.  And so I’m signing off with the greeting that reflects my personal faith and is normally reserved for my close, non-professional friends and family, because I sincerely wish it for all of you now.

Grace and Peace,


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