A look at Yale’s classes, labs, and libraries for fall 2020

A sign in Sterling Library asking patrons to stand six feet apart
Library spaces have been reconfigured to encourage physical distance between library users. (Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

At its heart, the Yale classroom experience is about excellent teachers and students engaging in a vigorous give-and-take about the deepest questions in science, humanities, the arts, and society.

That hasn’t changed for the 2020-2021 academic year, Yale leaders say — whether the classroom features a socially distanced, state-of-the-art laboratory or a gripping history lecture on a computer screen.

Yale is committed to providing a rigorous environment for academic discourse, while safeguarding the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff,” said Provost Scott Strobel.

The fall semester officially started last week, as graduate school programs got underway. Yale College students began making their way onto campus this week, and classes will begin Aug. 31.

While testing for the novel coronavirus will be a prominent part of campus routine this semester and online classes are the norm, the content of that educational experience remains uniquely Yale.

We’ve found ways to promote the community aspect of learning, even when people aren’t in the same room,” said Pericles Lewis, Yale’s vice president for global strategy and vice provost for academic initiatives. “Obviously, there are challenges, but I’ve been inspired by our faculty’s willingness to think creatively about how to make sure our remote learning and in-person learning are as effective as possible.”

Since May 15, Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning has worked with nearly 1,200 faculty members, teaching fellows, and academic staff to prepare for the 2020-2021 academic year — with more than 2,500 individual engagements. The center conducted one-on-one consultations, answered technology requests, and offered a multi-tier support model throughout the summer. The center also worked with deans and department chairs to ensure that large courses and introductory sequences received direct support from Poorvu staff.

More than 330 faculty members enrolled in a guided support program, each spending 20 hours working with Poorvu staff and campus partners. More than 200 faculty members accessed digital resources in a self-directed support program.

John Warner, the Avalon Professor in the History of Medicine and professor of American studies and of history, said he found the Poorvu Center’s help invaluable. This semester, Warner is teaching an undergraduate lecture course on cultures of Western medicine and a graduate seminar on the history of medicine and public health.

I’m learning more about Zoom than I ever thought possible,” said Warner, referring to the online videoconferencing technology that has become indispensable to daily campus life in 2020.

Warner said his online teaching experience last semester showed him he can still present lectures with authority and elicit lively feedback from students in an online format. He also discovered that the PowerPoint visuals he uses in class “pop” much better online than they do in a classroom.

Most surprising, he said, was how much his students came to enjoy brief appearances from his pug puppy, Gus. Warner hasn’t decided yet whether Gus will continue his cameos, but the response was a good sign that spontaneity still has a place in Yale’s classes.

It acknowledges that we’re all doing this from various spaces and that we can embrace it,” Warner said.

Yale is — figuratively speaking — embracing its laboratory classes, as well.

Since summer, the campus has slowly, carefully, and successfully reactivated its laboratories. Each lab followed individually designed protocols that were approved by department heads, deans, and the Provost’s Office, following safety plans that included social distancing, handwashing, mandatory mask wearing, frequent cleaning of surfaces, and a lower density of people working in labs at any given time.

The same protocols will guide laboratory classes during the semester, both for lab classes associated with lecture courses and research-related lab work students participate in for class credit. Lecture course labs provide crucial, hands-on opportunities to develop the muscle memory needed for many research tasks; more advanced, for-credit lab work offers a mentored experience in which students develop and test their own hypothesis in a lab environment. 

The laboratory experience is one of the tremendous, rich experiences that our undergraduates get at Yale,” said Michael Crair, vice provost for research and chair of Yale’s Research Continuity Committee. “We’re trying to nurture the growth of the next generation of leaders, in science and beyond.”

Crair said a number of lab courses have developed take-home kits so students can do experiments in their dorm room or apartment. In other instances, teaching exercises that require close observation from students are being conducted by videocam. In addition, scientific work such as data analysis can be done remotely, rather than in the laboratory.

Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), said Yale’s graduate students “continue to benefit from the careful planning that went into the step-wise reactivation of research that started in June and will allow us to fully resume our research mission this fall. During the planning, we discovered the amazing wisdom and generosity of our colleagues at Yale Health and in the School of Public Health who dropped everything they were doing to help the university navigate the complexities of providing personnel protective gear, virus testing, contact tracing, and care for anyone infected by the virus.”

All graduate classes are being offered with a remote-only option, Cooley said, although many programs include in-person instruction. To ensure smooth delivery of remote instruction, Yale is offering a new instructional resource: undergraduate technology assistants (UTAs).

UTAs assist both in graduate and undergraduate classes with any element related to remote instruction, such as managing Zoom-related issues, breakout rooms, and chats. Many programs have reduced section size where possible in order to facilitate graduate student teaching. GSAS is providing a limited amount of technological gear such as webcams, microphones, and tablets to help in that effort.

The Poorvu Center offered a summer course for graduate students, “The Theory of Teaching Online,” that was taught by Suzanne Young, director of graduate and postdoctoral teaching development, and Gina Marie Hurley, assistant director. The four-part course focused on structuring online courses, creating community online, engaging with students, and getting frequent feedback.

The center is currently running a 90-minute workshop, “Engaging Students Online,” to prepare new and returning graduate students to teach online. Nearly 500 graduate students are registered for the workshop.

Students lounging on Cross Campus at a safe social distance, with masks on.
(Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

Of course, the Yale class experience would be incomplete without libraries.

On Aug. 31, Yale will reopen Bass Library, the Divinity Library, Gilmore Music Library, Haas Arts Library, Marx Science and Social Science Library, Sterling Memorial Library, along with the reading rooms of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Manuscripts and Archives. The Cushing/Whitney Medical Library opened Aug. 24.

Returning students will notice a few changes put in place for safety. Library spaces have been reconfigured to encourage physical distance between library users and plexiglass shields have been installed at service desks and security points. Self-service checkout will be available in all libraries.

Users must swipe or scan their Yale ID to enter any library or reading room — and only students enrolled in residence (including enrolled students living off-campus in New Haven) will have access to the libraries. Use of the library’s special collections will be by appointment, which should be made a few days in advance so the requested collection material can be retrieved from storage and prepared for use in the special collections reading rooms. When students return library materials, those materials will be quarantined for 48 hours before being discharged and re-shelved.

New library services have been added, as well: a delivery service to residential colleges, contactless pickup of materials, and (in early September) a books-by-mail service for students who are enrolled remotely within the United States.

The opportunity to interact with collection materials that in many cases exist nowhere else in the world is one of the hallmarks of the Yale experience, and I hope every student will be able to take advantage of that opportunity,” said Barbara Rockenbach, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian.

At the same time, an unanticipated outcome of the pandemic has been this ongoing integration of the physical Yale Library with our virtual library, forming a web of support for every aspect of teaching, research, and practice at Yale,” she added. “Whether students are enrolled remotely or in residence, we are confident that we can provide them with exceptional support in the semester ahead.”

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326