Off campus, on line: Stephen Kinzer

On March 12, in response to the growing spread of the coronavirus, President Paxson announced that for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, Brown classes would take place remotely. Classes were canceled for the week of March 16 to enable students living on campus or in Brown-owned properties to pack and leave and to give faculty time to transition their courses to remote learning.

At Watson, we wanted to know how the transition was going. This week, we checked in with Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs Stephen Kinzer who quickly redesigned his International Journalism seminar to ensure students would still experience writing and reporting in real-time. Rather than a spring break trip to Costa Rica to research and write, Kinzer worked with students to research how different countries, mainly in Latin America, were responding to the pandemic. 

Read his thoughts on the transition below, as well as all the student articles (a number of which will be published on news media sites in the coming weeks.)

What was the course you planned to teach, and how did you adapt it?

The interruption of classes after spring break upended my senior seminar, International Journalism: Foreign Reporting in Practice. Students were already deciding what stories they wanted to cover in Costa Rica when we learned that all foreign travel had been canceled. Once the campus was closed, we faced an odd challenge: how do we immerse ourselves in the work of a foreign correspondent if we cannot travel to a foreign country? 

We came up with a novel solution, one that refers back to the reason we had to change plans so suddenly. Each of the 12 students, all of whom speak Spanish, researched the way one Latin American country is responding to the pandemic. The assignment was to go beyond what is reported on the internet by finding and interviewing people remotely—not just experts but ordinary citizens who can give us street-level views. We are hoping to come up with a package of new features that will shed valuable light on how various Latin American countries are responding to this crisis. Under the circumstances, I think we came up with something pretty close to the way much international news is now being reported. The skills students learn from this exercise are among those the coming generation of foreign correspondents will have to know.

What have been the most challenging aspects of this transition? 

In addition to my senior seminar, I’m teaching a lecture course, History of American Intervention. Over the years I’ve figured out how to deliver a lecture to a large class, but that skill is for the moment not useful. Presenting material while staring at a screen in a small chamber, with no one else present, is a new challenge. I’m still figuring it out. Which room do I use? Should I sit or stand? Notes where? How close up? Are we recording yet?

How are your students dealing with the change? 

This crisis has disproportionately affected students who were already in precarious situations. Some do not have family or personal resources that others take for granted. This crisis has helped me see once again how important it is not only that we recruit students from non-traditional backgrounds, but that we do all we can to support them at times of special stress 

Was there a pleasant surprise, a positive you didn’t anticipate?

I am in constant contact with my students, perhaps even more than if we had been on campus together. Speaking with them about upcoming assignments, or simply discussing themes related to our studies, is now part of my daily routine. I enjoy the chance to spend virtual time with them. It gives me the sense that our daily work is proceeding despite the interruption.  

What have you learned in the process—about teaching, your students, or yourself?  

I’m impressed with how resilient most of the students are. They’re taking it in stride. I wonder if they realize that this is probably the biggest world event that will happen in their lifetimes—at least we hope so! For this reason, I’ve suggested they consider keeping a journal or diary. Their grandchildren will be asking them if they were alive in the Plague Year. The ideal answer would be “As a matter of fact I was in college at Brown back then, and if you’re interested, I can show you what I wrote.”