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Interim Dean Kimberly Rivers brings a historian’s perspective to her Titans Return update for the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s College of Letters and Science (COLS). Find out how faculty and staff have reflected on and adapted to changes brought on by the pandemic as they prepare for the upcoming academic year and a fall full of sesquicentennial events and activities.

Kimberly Rivers

What lessons learned during the pandemic will faculty and staff be bringing forward with them into the new academic year?

During the pandemic, many faculty and staff were forcefully reminded how much they prefer face-to-face to online classes and will be relieved to be back on campus. Students need to feel connected to their professors and classmates, and while that is certainly not impossible to achieve in online classes, it is easier in person.

However, many of us discovered online meetings have their place even during a “normal” semester. For instance, it can be far easier to schedule virtual meetings with students whose busy lives do not allow for easy access to faculty office hours. Sometimes it can even save students an entire trip to the University if an advising meeting can be held online. Video conferencing also makes it easier to include faculty and staff from all three of our campuses at regularly scheduled events; many of our virtual gatherings last year had far higher attendance rates than they did when held on campus in the past. In addition, some people are more likely to comment in the chat than they are to talk during a face-to-face meeting.

Instructors learned an arsenal of new teaching tricks and techniques suitable for the digital environment that can still be used on campus. For example, instructors incorporated into their classes virtual presentations by well-known scholars from other universities that would have been unlikely before the pandemic.  Overall, many of them are now more conversant with online learning than they were before the pandemic. One department even liked HyFlex courses (courses that operate simultaneously in person and online) so much that it is considering running them all the time.

What’s new in your college for the 2021-22 academic year?

There are some exciting new curricular developments in COLS for fall. Departments are taking advantage of the trend toward certificates, which offer students a chance to develop expertise and interest in new areas without investing as many credit hours as in a minor.

The college has added 10 new undergraduate certificate programs in journalism (advertising, multimedia, public relations and social media), engineering technology (automation, electronics, electronic communications, environmental monitoring and renewable energy) and communication studies (professional communication). The college also has one new graduate certificate in data science and a new master’s program in professional science.

COLS is welcoming six new faculty members across our three campuses. We have new hires in English, anthropology, chemistry and mathematics on the Oshkosh campus, a new chemistry faculty member at the Fond du Lac campus and a new biologist at the Fox Cities campus. In addition, we hired a director to start up our new marching band, the Titan Thunder. The whole campus is anticipating the band’s debut next year.

How will your college be celebrating our sesquicentennial?

Because COLS does not possess any kind of formal history of itself, it is taking the celebrations this fall as an opportunity for exploration. The Dean’s Office worked with a sesquicentennial intern, who researched aspects of the college’s past, such as its origin within the institution, the rationale for its name, and the biographies of past deans, and drew up a brief history to be printed as a booklet. The booklet will be displayed alongside a banner of memorable moments in the college’s past. Other departments, such as English, have had interns working on their history. The global languages and cultures department is working on a history timeline of the department, which it will post on its website.  The results will be illuminating to everyone on campus.

Some areas are working on specific events. For instance, the women and gender studies program (WAGS) is putting together a WAGS directors’ panel discussion in honor of the sesquicentennial celebrations. The panel will feature three former directors, as well as the current one, who will discuss the growth of the program, its history and its future. The art department will host a curated exhibition in November, which will showcase the range of accomplishments of alumni and faculty over the years with an emphasis on what people are currently working on in their studios, classrooms, design work and community involvement.

What are your own personal thoughts/goals for the coming year following the unprecedented year we experienced in 2020-21?

While I am relieved to be back on campus and able to interact with students and my colleagues again, I am well aware that we do not return unscathed. The kinds of issues that students struggled with last summer—the pandemic, racial justice issues and political divisions—have not disappeared and are in some ways worse than last year. We hope our course offerings will allow students to learn about and process the events that have rocked the nation for the past year and a half.

Our students have had a tough year on most fronts, and we want to find ways to support them when they return to campus. Many of our faculty and support staff have been working on this effort this summer by attending special workshops and talks dedicated to meeting student needs in social equity, mental health and academic preparedness.  The events have been well attended and demonstrate UWO’s commitment to its students’ well-being.

It’s also clear that one summer will not be long enough to provide a sufficient mental break for instructors. Teaching tasks that were nearly automatic before last year were suddenly transformed into digital odysseys, making everything more time consuming. Even now, some of the tools that we mastered last year have been replaced by new programs, requiring another learning curve. Faculty have been through a lot in the past year and need support as well in teaching, research and service.

I see this year as one of rebuilding our campus, community and connections to one another. When people talk about pandemics, it’s the mortality statistics and the long-term effects that get all the press. The rebuilding in the immediate aftermath gets less attention, but that effort is essential and where we are now.

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