Dean of the Caruso School of Law Paul Caron leads the fall 2019 semester’s first Bible study with the law school’s Christian Legal Society at his home. Caron continued hosting this Bible study virtually this semester to help maintain and build community among students. Photo courtesy of Paul Caron
The pandemic and social distancing precautions bleed into all aspects of life for University members. Health concerns, COVID-19 related deaths in the community and fully remote instruction continue to impact faculty and staff.
Within the Pepperdine community, the University reported 58 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths since March. Pepperdine decided to conduct classes completely online this semester due to continuing health concerns and restrictions.
Pepperdine faculty and staff struggle with feelings of isolation, adjusting to an online format and the loss of loved ones due to COVID-19. Amid the adverse effects of the pandemic, certain silver linings have emerged — more time with immediate family, improved connections with distant friends and peers and a greater sense of gratitude for in-person time with students, friends and coworkers.
“COVID-19 makes everything more complicated,” said Studio Art Professor Gretchen Batcheller. “Even joy is kind of complicated, and then when there are challenges, they feel more complicated because you know psychologically, mentally, spiritually, you’re a little bit tapped already dealing with this environment. Gus [Peterson, Batcheller’s husband] and my sort of mantra has been, ‘We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.’”
The Challenges: Isolation, Loss and Finding Balance
Batcheller’s 6-year-old daughter, Winefred, has an underlying health condition, which Batcheller said prompted her family to be extra cautious since early in March when they realized the threat COVID-19 posed. The precautionary measures they took meant their family went months without seeing others, which Batcheller said was lonely and sometimes suffocating.
“I’m going to do everything I possibly can to protect my child,” Batcheller said. “If there’s some extra mile or some extra thing I do that could be helpful, then of course I’m going to do it. It’s more work, more labor, to be that fastidious.”
As restrictions loosened and more business opened, Batcheller and Peterson reevaluate and attempt to find a balance between remaining vigilant against COVID-19 and being a little less isolated. They started allowing Winefred to play with kids from a select group of families who are also limiting their interactions with others.
The Pepperdine community also faced loss during this time, including the death of Professor of Law James M. McGoldrick on May 16 due to COVID-19 complications. Dean of the Caruso School of Law Paul L. Caron said McGoldrick was “an institution at the law school” as the longest-serving faculty member, and his death greatly impacted students, faculty and staff.
“He contacted me on a Saturday right before they were going to be putting him on a ventilator,” Caron said. “He wanted to talk about how he would assign other faculty to finish his course. That story just really hit the faculty — that at that moment, his concern was for his students.”
Caron said McGoldrick’s death caused faculty and staff to be hyperaware of the importance of being cautious, which they must balance against the desire to return to an in-person experience due to the greater sense of community and improved course engagement it offers.
Role Faculty Played in Pepperdine’s Decisions About Fall
Batcheller said she felt the surveys Pepperdine conducted on faculty opinions regarding potential teaching formats affected University decisions about how to conduct the fall semester. She said she appreciated the flexibility the University gave by allowing faculty members to choose whether they would teach in person or fully online.
Caron said he played a significant role in the decisions Pepperdine made about which format to offer classes in this semester. He said receiving the counsel of students, faculty and staff was key in the decision-making process.
The Caruso School of Law gave faculty complete freedom in choosing how to deliver their courses before the administration decided to go completely remote. Caron said many professors struggled to balance the desire to be in person with students against significant health worries.
Caron said one of his utmost concerns as dean this semester is building and maintaining a sense of community through an online format, particularly for first-year students — commonly referred to as 1Ls. The Caruso School of Law prioritized this in initial plans to have all 1L courses in person this fall.
“Our faculty was great, and we had many faculty who were older who nevertheless volunteered to teach on ground because they thought it was such an important component of the school,” Caron said.
The Silver Linings of COVID-19
Batcheller said while quarantining can be isolating and challenging, she is grateful for the increased time her family has gotten to spend together, even as she and Peterson work full time.
Another unanticipated benefit of COVID-19 is the opportunity to develop new learning methods and ways of forming community within remote instruction, Batcheller said.
“I love learning new things,” Batcheller said. “It’s part of the reason why I’m in academia. And so navigating new issues and new problems — and coming up with creative solutions and becoming more savvy with different delivery methods — has been interesting to me.”
English Professor Julianne Smith said she also believes increased widespread use of video conferencing has been beneficial. Zoom has helped distant friends and students to better keep in touch and maintain connections, she said. She recently attended a virtual celebration of three former students who finished dissertations for their doctorate degrees.
“I’ve connected and reconnected with people because of Zoom in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to me before,” Smith said. “It’s reshaping the possibilities of ways we can have virtual communities.”
Caron said he also makes use of digital conferencing to help maintain community among law students through a weekly Bible study he hosts with his wife. This technology has also enabled the Caruso School of Law to secure some “spectacular folks” in the legal field to speak to students who typically would not be able to due to budget or travel constraints, Caron said.
Batcheller said she believes COVID-19 and the resulting restrictions will make people more appreciative of casual interactions that may have seemed insignificant before the pandemic, such as running into students and casually spending time with friends.
“[The pandemic] is a season, and we’re going to come out the other side loving and enjoying the things that maybe we took for granted before, like the chance encounters in the hallway,” Batcheller said. “I’ll definitely relish those once we have them again. And even if they’re awkward, masked, six feet apart, there’s still something so life giving about that.”
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