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Professor says communication is key to helping stu...

Professor says communication is key to helping students succeed during pandemic

Elizabeth Whalen, Leisure, Sport and Tourism faculty, teaching in a Murphy Center classroom.

When deciding to teach at MTSU just last Fall, Dr. Elizabeth Whalen, of the Tourism and Hospitality Management program, said the decision to come here was an easy one and that the students were one of the things that really drew her in.

“I chose to come to MTSU – I had a number of different options – but I really loved the environment here, the community here. The students just, they’re just so connected and they’re so interested in learning. The fact that they want this and really desire this was so impactful that it really drew me in.”

In 2015, while teaching at a Texas university, Whalen began teaching online. It’s that experience she has relied on heavily since March when COVID-19 uprooted traditional college classes, forcing them all online.

“Back then [in 2015] it was a huge adjustment because it’s not so easy just to pick up and go online. It’s a whole different subset of skills. So, I was very fortunate for that. I have a lot of experience doing that, so as soon as COVID-19 happened, I quickly switched to an asynchronous method for those classes we were already in,” she explained.

Elizabeth Whalen, Leisure, Sport and Tourism faculty, teaching in a Murphy Center classroom.

Elizabeth Whalen, Leisure, Sport and Tourism faculty, teaching in a Murphy Center classroom. (Photo: Andy Heidt)

With her prior knowledge, Whalen said she created a series of videos, changed assignments, changed the syllabus and updated everything mid-semester when COVID-19 closed the University.

“I could only really do that because of my past experience,” she said.

Now more than halfway through the Fall semester, things still look different than ever before, but Whalen is making the most of it. This semester she’s teaching on-campus one day a week and has remote and online classes, too.  The rest of the time she is working from her home office.

“I’m doing a little bit of everything and just trying to adapt to what the students really need. The students really miss the community and they really miss being on the grounds, so my goal is to foster that as much as I can despite whatever method of instruction we’re using,” she explained.

The one thing Whalen has focused on is staying connected to her students whether through email, text or phone.

“I just want them to know I am here for them even though we’re not in a traditional setting,” she said. “I’m finding that students really need that. They really need to know that they can just pick up the phone and call me and we can have a quick conversation because not all of them are as comfortable with writing an email. That care is lost in translation – that I do care and I do want them to do well.”

Dr. Elizabeth Whalen is teaching on-campus and online classes this semester. (Photo: Andy Heidt)

Dr. Elizabeth Whalen is teaching on-campus and online classes this semester. (Photo: Andy Heidt)

She also makes a point to reach out to students individually if they perform poorly in class.

“Anytime a student doesn’t perform that week, whether they performed poorly or they didn’t submit something, I send them an email individually,” she added, “A big thing for me is if a student really cares and they’re trying, I don’t penalize them because they got something wrong once. I’m fortunate enough to be able to say, ‘We didn’t do as well those last two assignments, let’s re-do them.’ They still have to meet my standards in quality, but I’ll help you get there because you’re trying and doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

When thinking about her students this semester, Whalen described them as different than ever before, though was quick to say they’re doing the work, calling it “some of it the best she’s ever seen.”

“They’re really invested, but they’re feeling overwhelmed. There’s this weight on their shoulders that I’ve never seen before – a very old, adult weight on their shoulders. That before was more excitement for the future and anticipation. The world is sitting on them and they can’t figure out where they’re going to go next.”

When asked what advice she would give her students during this unusual time, Whalen said, “I think the best advice I can have is, life is always going to throw you these curve balls where you have to pick yourself up and keep going. The thing I keep telling my students is the easiest way to eat an elephant is a bite at a time. So keep putting one foot in front of the other and this too will pass and something better will replace it because we keep striving to find that next better thing.”

Like everyone, Whalen looks forward to students returning to campus and seeing the campus spirit come back to life.

“The spirit of being there with each other and coming into the classroom and being animated and talking. I miss the spirit and the camaraderie, the community and the excitement that I hope we can bring back to campus when we can resume our lives again.”

Whalen began teaching at MTSU in the Fall of 2019. In addition to teaching, she is also working on several research projects.

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