When Others Went To Zoom, JMU Prof Took Classes Outside

Apr 1, 2021

Journalism students at JMU find ample opportunities to report from the quad.
Credit Calvin Pynn

The COVID crisis led many universities to move classes online, but some enterprising professors took their classes outside instead.  And one prof at James Madison University says he’s going to keep his students away from the classroom even after the pandemic is over.  Virginia Public Radio's Sandy Hausman reports.

The campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg was deserted last spring as faculty members moved classes to the web, but one professor of journalism – Hawes Spencer – was unhappy.  He knew only too well how dull online meetings could be.

“We have faculty meetings at JMU on Zoom," he says. "If your camera is off it’s really easy to check your e-mail or send a text message or see what the latest news is on the royal family – not that I’m interested in that, but you know what I mean.”

And, frankly, he felt students were entitled to more.

“I have three kids who are all of college age, none of whom are in college, because they are frustrated and don’t want to spend the money and the time for a virtual college experience. College is serendipitous interactions, those discussions after class, stumbling upon a new idea in a casual conversation, it’s the friendships, it’s the parties, it’s the visiting speakers, the collaboration in the classroom.  All this stuff is lost when we have a purely virtual experience.”

So while he decided to record his lectures,  allowing students to watch at their convenience, he turned classes into discussions and workshops on the quad.

He might, for example, assign them to interview a stranger about a momentous event in their life or step behind a tree and slip into a bright green costume. 

“It’s one of those inflatable nylon balloon-like costumes that envelopes your body. It makes it look like an alien has abducted me.”

“He’s got me!  He’s got me!  Help!” he cried as he dashed across the quad.

The students were then told to interview other witnesses and to write about what they’d seen.  Spencer read those stories aloud and offered an immediate critique.

“He was yelling, ‘He’s got me!’ Sophia Nunez said.  'I thought he was kind of crazy, just running around,’" wrote one student.

"I like that," Spencer concluded.  "It really captures the spirit -- puts you there as a fly on the wall.”

He concedes the outdoor experience can be distracting, but journalists must learn to focus, and he thinks being on the quad creates a sense of belonging.

“In warm weather there are students playing Frisbee. I bring my dog Badger to every class, and he makes the rounds of picnicking students, and I think all these things contribute to building community, particularly in a pandemic when people feel so torn and so separated from their peers.”

There were days, he admits, when students grumbled about snow and cold, but he gave them coffee, hand warmers and gloves. This spring, he says, he might make pancakes, and he’ll do it with support from the administration.  JMU’s president and its Dean of Students have both praised Spencer’s approach to higher ed, and students like Madison Hricik, Michael Staley, Bronte Johnson and John Breeden love the class.

“Personally I feel I can be a little bit more creative outside.”

“We expect something new every time we’re out here.”

“If there is any potential distraction, he quickly will develop it into a lesson.”

“I think this is a great learning environment.”

And Spencer says he’s sold on outdoor education for the long run – making higher education more meaningful, promoting collaboration, observation and satisfaction with the college experience.