By the end of February 2020, the students in Tere Garza’s Communication and Popular Culture course were dreaming of the big thinkers they could see during spring break: filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, singer and actor Janelle Monae, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, home-renovation stars Chip and Joanna Gaines.
They filled their calendars with discussions of immersive storytelling, artificial intelligence, internet culture and the future of music. After two months studying pop culture, they would be part of the volunteer crew for South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, one of the world’s biggest convergences of artists and influencers.
Garza, a professor of Communication, used SXSW as the ultimate lab for her Pop Culture course. Students in the class would volunteer at the conference and, in return, earn “perks” based on the number of hours they volunteer, including a badge to attend films, performances and next-big-thing panel discussions they could attend. After the festival, they would write reviews of artists and events for Hilltop Views, the student newspaper, sharing their experience with the rest of the St. Edward’s community and couching their critiques in the theories they’d learned in class.
But on March 6, those plans came to an abrupt halt. Days before the spread of Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, the city of Austin cancelled SXSW for the first time in the festival’s 34-year history.
The move was necessary to protect public health, but it left a gaping hole in the course Garza had taught for 21 years. As students moved home and prepared to finish the semester online, Garza adapted the course to the new reality, refusing to give up on the opportunity SXSW provided. The volunteer experience had evaporated, but students could still attend virtual events and write about their chosen artists for Hilltop Views. When classes reconvened remotely, her students described the live-streamed concerts they’d attended and debated ideas championed by the festival’s edgy futurists. The online edition of Hilltop Views carried their stories about the rise of virtual concerts and events.
“We managed to have the same learning objectives, just in a different context,” Garza says.
The Spring 2020 semester was marked by unprecedented challenges for St. Edward’s and universities around the country. No one had anticipated that a global pandemic would force all classes to move online. But St. Edward’s was prepared to navigate the shift to virtual education because it has always focused on teaching — regardless of the format it takes. The university’s classes are intentionally kept small to encourage discussion, debate and active learning. Professors can get to know students as individuals and nudge them toward opportunities where they’ll thrive, such as the McNair Scholars program, Fulbright awards or a perfect-fit internship.
Garza, like her colleagues, has always approached teaching as a work in progress, open to new and better ways to help her students connect with the material. Over the years, she had solved pedagogical challenges by keeping up on current research, brainstorming with colleagues and meeting with staff in the Center for Teaching Excellence. She’d seek new technical innovations from the office of Instructional Technology, which had already introduced professors to the platforms that made remote learning possible. In summer 2020, Garza attended workshops hosted by both offices and exchanged tips with other professors as she retooled her classes for the online environment. She and her colleagues entered the fall semester ready to teach in a new medium, motivated by the same commitment to students that had brought them to St. Edward’s in the first place.
“The truth is that the best online teaching is really the best teaching,” says Rebecca Davis, associate vice president for Digital Learning, who leads the instructional technology department. “We already had a very strong culture of teaching on this campus. That was our advantage in the spring, and that commitment to students has made all the difference.”
Garza arrived at St. Edward’s in 1998. She quickly absorbed the St. Edward’s ethos from professors who encouraged her or were her office neighbors in Sorin Hall: Cecil Lawson, Brother William Dunn, Brother George Klawitter, Innes Mitchell, Catherine Rainwater and Barbara Filippidis. “The brothers were great role models,” she says. “As faculty members, we carry their legacy in our dedication to educating minds and hearts.”
When she needed to troubleshoot an assignment, she talked it through with staff in the Center for Teaching Excellence, which has helped faculty refine and enhance their approaches to teaching since 1991. “The center is indispensable for helping you work through an assignment that didn’t go well, or just bouncing ideas around,” Garza says.
The center supports professors by offering individual consultations and discussion-and-action groups focused on research-informed teaching and learning. Director Jennifer Jefferson works with professors who want to design a new class, fine-tune an assignment or engage with students more deeply.
“There is an idea of continuous improvement that’s embedded in how we view teaching at St. Edward’s,” Jefferson says. “People are invested in continually trying things, seeking advice and seeking conversation about teaching. They want to figure out the puzzle of teaching to support all their students.”
Garza solved some of those puzzles with help from the center and her colleagues. From her first year at St. Edward’s, Garza incorporated active learning — like the Pop Culture course’s immersive SXSW experience — into her classes. She wove in group projects, aiming to prepare her students for life after college, when they would have to collaborate in the workplace.
As the university adopted more teaching technology, Garza and her colleagues learned new skills with help from the Instructional Technology team, now led by Davis. When St. Edward’s shifted to remote learning last spring, most of the tools faculty needed to teach online were already active. Over the summer, Instructional Technology and the Center for Teaching Excellence offered more workshops to help professors get up to speed on the key programs: Zoom; Canvas, a platform that functions as a one-stop-shop for each course, with tools for posting syllabi, administering quizzes, and turning in assignments; and Google Drive, whose applications allow students to collaborate on projects remotely.
Garza attended at least five workshops over the summer months to hone her skills, along with holding Zoom practice sessions with her Communication colleagues. In the early days of the pandemic, Zoom was evolving on a weekly basis with updated features that professors could incorporate into their teaching. When the fall semester came, Garza — along with her colleagues — was ready.
On a Monday afternoon in November, the students in Garza’s Communication Theory course logged in to the class from on campus and across the country. Garza had launched Zoom early, as she always did, to give students a chance to ask questions or chitchat the way they would in a physical classroom. As she took attendance, she asked students about their pets and about what they’d seen on Netflix lately. “Who voted for the first time last week?” she asked, and half the class waved at the camera.
Then Garza ceded the floor to five students who would present the day’s theories. It’s an approach called “flipping the classroom.” Toward the end of the semester, students work in mini-communities (Garza’s twist on the group project) to present a section of the course text and lead an interactive game related to the concepts. The assignment gives students valuable, career-relevant experience working in a team to present complex information. This fall, both the students’ planning meetings and the presentations happened entirely online.
The five students took turns explaining the lesson, using a slide deck they had created. For the interactive game, they had filmed TikTok videos in which each person acted out a humorous sketch to illustrate one of the terms; the rest of the class guessed which concept it was by typing answers in the chat box. When the exercise was over, everyone applauded the presenters by clicking on the clapping-hands emoji.
While she would have preferred to teach in person — to see her students’ eyes light up as they had an epiphany, to feel the energy of shared discovery — Garza says meeting and presenting on Zoom has prepared students for the reality of 2020. Every industry has been shaped by the pandemic, and many companies will make permanent changes in how they interview, train and hold professional meetings.
“These students will be among the first to experience things like working from home or being hired through an online process like Zoom, so they need to pay attention to these skills,” she says.
SXSW also moved online for 2021. Garza retooled her Popular Culture course once again, this time focusing on the impact of the pandemic on pop-culture creators. She built lessons to spotlight how musicians, artists, filmmakers and comedians are adapting to the virtual environment. She is encouraging her students to research the type of software the creatives used, then get certified in those programs to enhance their own portfolios. Another new assignment asks students to reflect on how pandemic protocols might permanently change pop culture: Will live shows on Zoom become standard? Will artists find new ways to collaborate without meeting in person?
Garza’s online course, geared toward a virtual festival, isn’t a substitute for the “real thing.” It is an illustration of how St. Edward’s professors adapt their teaching to the realities of the world beyond the classroom and help students prepare to contribute.
“That means not just teaching their mind, but also having them open their hearts to be responsible citizens,” Garza says. “The way to do that is to empower them, and to encourage them not to be afraid of change. I want to make sure that our students are well positioned to become leaders.”
By Robyn Ross
Photography by Chelsea Purgahn