University of Georgia professor: In-person teaching improves student mental health and mine

University of Georgia students wear face masks as they make their way near the Arch on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
University of Georgia students wear face masks as they make their way near the Arch on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Design teacher says his classes serve as ‘de facto support groups’ amid stress of pandemic

Amitabh Verma is a professor at the University of Georgia in the College of Environment+Design.

In a guest column, Verma shares his relief over being able to teach in-person this semester, saying it has been good for his students' mental health.

And his own.

By Amitabh Verma

After a disappointing end to the spring semester, and a summer of anxiety and uncertainty, I was unusually enthusiastic about classes starting in fall. I earnestly hoped that teaching would be as it had been before, since being in the classroom – talking and joking with students, learning their personalities, getting them excited about drawing – would be the perfect antidote to the negativity of the preceding months. I would teach online if required, of course, but hoped I wouldn’t have to. I doubted that I could recreate an engaging, optimistic environment through a computer screen, or sustain a dynamic, stimulating atmosphere over three hours of video-chatting.

The benefits of being in the classroom would be even greater for my students, for two reasons. One, in-person instruction is critical for my students to learn. The subjects I teach – design and drawing – are acquired skills, requiring personal interaction and guidance, frequent desk critiques and peer-to-peer feedback, which would be extraordinarily difficult to recreate online. In fact, I am more a mentor than a teacher, and students learn more by observation, experimentation and application than from unilateral instruction from me. The studio is an informal communal environment, and learning occurs through socialization, parallel conversations, impromptu demonstrations, and individualized discussions at student desks.

It is also my personal objective to make my studio a place of sharing, bonding, and laughter – a happy, comfortable place – because a relaxed, positive atmosphere promotes design thinking, as well as mental health. Creating this collegial feeling online, among physically dispersed students (who may have never met each other) would have been impossible, at least for me.

Furthermore, we would have to forgo treasured indulgences such as sketching outside on a nice day, unscheduled trips to see a fountain on campus, and “refocusing breaks” to go sit on the grass when the class is low on energy or feeling fatigued. The freedom to improvise, unrestricted by a prescribed schedule, is invaluable and allows me to be fully responsive to the student’s needs and psychological state. Unable to read body language or behavioral nuances through a video screen, I would also be unable to assist when the class needed help with refocusing attention.

THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE AND ANXIETY

The second reason was that I’m teaching freshmen, for whom I believe it is essential that the college adventure begin by establishing personal, human connections. As I recall, my first year of college (undergraduate and graduate) was as much about the social aspect as the academic. It was about making friends, meeting professors, discovering the campus, finding peers – people in my program, people with shared interests, people passionate about the same causes. Finding my place (both physically and metaphorically) is what made the experience so meaningful. These networks made college enjoyable and rewarding, and in moments of difficulty, manageable. Those early friendships lie behind my fondest memories of college, and some have endured for decades, becoming precious links to the most transformative time of my life. The incoming cohort not having the chance to create this invaluable support system seemed unfair and unfortunate, and an outcome I hoped we would avoid.

Amitabh Verma is an associate professor in the College of Environment+Design at the University of Georgia
Amitabh Verma is an associate professor in the College of Environment+Design at the University of Georgia

My concern is rooted in awareness of the anxiety prevalent among college students nationally. Nowadays, getting into, starting and completing college has become an intensely stressful experience for most, if not all, whether graduate or undergraduate. The stress is magnified for freshmen. At the threshold of a new phase of life, they are more vulnerable, often in a new city and on unfamiliar, town-sized campuses. Many of them feel alone, overwhelmed, and unsure of how to overcome the numerous challenges which they must confront all at once. They struggle to cope, often with serious consequences for their academic and personal lives. This problem, already critical before, has been exacerbated by an unforeseen, unimagined and seemingly unending pandemic.

A NEEDED SENSE OF TOGETHERNESS

As it turns out, I was indeed able to teach in-person. Since in a studio the students sit at individual desks, they are distanced anyway, and we just had to increase the spacing to six feet, wear masks, avoid close physical contact, and be vigilant about disinfecting. So far, all has gone well and the inconveniences, though many, are also minor. Voices are muffled, smiles go unseen, desk critiques are kept short, my humor frequently doesn’t work. But despite that, it all feels reassuringly normal and comforting, almost like before, and I look forward to my classes more than I ever have.

I am fortunate that my class structure enables this compromise since many others do not. During a crisis (or any time, actually), social support is an invaluable coping mechanism, and that is what I hoped my classes would provide. I am pleased to say that they have. Several students have told me that they feel more motivated, more in control, and less stressed in in-person classes. There is also an unexpected pandemic-related benefit – the buildup of trust has led to students feeling comfortable about opening up, and they exchange stories and tips about coping in quarantine, what recovery is like, how long before the sense of smell returns. The studios have become de facto support groups, helping to dissipate some of the uncertainty and fear of the ongoing situation. The physical togetherness has become motivational, the studio a place of affirmative and healing social interaction.

I am pleased that I can offer my students an environment in which they can relax, make friends, and also recognize that that they aren’t alone, that they are surrounded by others experiencing the same discoveries, joys, troubles and worries as they are. These are extraordinary times, and they require a heightened awareness from us about the pandemic’s many impacts, immediate and long-term, obvious and unseen. As we move beyond the exigent dangers to our physical health and safety, we must now be mindful of the pandemic’s less-apparent, intangible yet pernicious consequences, which may take longer to materialize.

Eventually, this will all be over, and we will resume living as we did in 2019. Until then, if we can help remind students (especially freshmen) that they are not alone, but part of a bigger family which cares, it may lessen their isolation, and in doing so, make it a little easier to cope with this exceptionally troublesome crisis.

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