The Experience of Online Instruction at UW-Madison
During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Teaching Adventures in Cyberspace
Dr. Sandra Adell taught on online course for the first time during when UW-
Madison stopped inperson classes on the Madison campus in response to
the COVID-19 pandemic
from other departments who are interested in Black African literature or theater.”

Adell’s other project involved community theater in Madison.

“We were going to do a reading of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner,” Adell said. “And that was going to be in April at the Urban League. This was launching The Black
Theater Collective that I have organized and founded with a couple of other people in the community. And we are still hoping to move forward with it. But we chose The
Amen Corner, first of all, because it is a James Baldwin play and most people in this community who were interested know who Baldwin is. But it also gave me the
opportunity to bring people from the community to be part of The Amen Corner. I had met some women who were working out with Fabu and her exercise group at the
UW Partnership Office. I went there and met some of these people and started working out with them. These people were ideal to be a part of an Amen Corner where
they can say ‘Amen’ and all of that kind of stuff and raise hands.”

It was a busy semester for Adell, but she had everything under control doing the things that she loves to do. And then COVID-19 hit and the news of the pending
shutdown of the UW-Madison campus spread across campus.

“The day that we found out that the university was shutting down was March 11th,” Adell said. “I was on my way to give my midterm exam. I was like, ‘Oh really?’ By
that time, literally, on my walking over to the classroom, that’s when that announcement was made. By the time I got to the classroom, the students also knew that they
weren’t coming back. I had my syllabus set up so that we would start reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison after the break. Usually when I set up a syllabus, I’m
always aware of where we are at the spring break time so that we don’t start a novel and then they go away and come back and finish it. The last three books were
Invisible Man, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and All God’s Children, These Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou. The reason I chose that was because she deals so
much with the 1960s in going to Africa and Ghana and meeting Kwame Nkrumah. Du Bois was there at the time. That’s how I was going to end the class.”

It was something that Adell and most of the professors in the Afro Am Studies Department were not prepared for, physically and philosophically. Due to the fact that Afro
Am courses deal with issues of race, ethnicity and gender in a view of the world that the vast majority of their students have never experienced before and necessitate
in-person engagement. The department had resisted online courses before that could bring in more students and money during the summer months with minimal
additional cost. There was no avoiding the online world now. It was online or nothing.

“When we found out that this wasn’t going to happen, first of all, as a teacher, I was frantic,” Adell said about in-person classes. “I’m not a big fan of social media. It has
its uses and all of that. We can’t live without IT. But I try to minimize my time in front of my computer or my phone. I’m old fashioned in that regard. But I also know its use
value. In fact, when we had process during class, I had students doing group work. I think there were four groups of 5-6 students. I would say, ‘Okay, one student in
each group can use the phone and they will have things to look up.’ My whole class — and I’ve been doing this for a few years — is an electronic free zone, no devices
because I want them to focus on the text. Of course all of this is changing now.”

Within a couple of days of hearing about the university transitioning to virtual classrooms, Adell was getting ready because the virtual classroom experience would
begin in about 10 days after the students completed spring break.

“I have a lot of gratitude and I’m thankful this university has the resources that it has to put people in place to have all of these people who design and work with the
School of Education work with our IT department and programs to get us up and moving,” Adell said. “They were available all the time. They set up all kinds of
workshops to use our programs, programs that I have only barely looked at. My thing is, ‘Oh no, we have to have the book.’ When the students write their papers, they
have to give me a paper copy and all of that. All of this was changing and fast. Within a week like everyone else, we switched. On Saturday, March 14th, I was already
in a webinar on Communication and Collaboration Strategies. “You all have to be ready to teach online on March 23rd. The students are not coming back.’ Everyone
went online on Monday, March 23rd. After another week or so, we were told that they would not be coming back on April 10th. A lot of the students had left thinking they
were coming back. Students left their things. Some of them left their books. Everything turned upside down. Everyone was on teaching remotely.”

Of course Adell’s community theater project was put on hold and the visit of the Ugandan women postponed until perhaps next spring. But it would take Adell’s waking
moments to adjust and provide her content online. It wasn’t easy. Adell was concerned for the quality as well as the quantity of her class and concerned on how the
coursework would impact students in a virtual educational environment.

“I only had one African American student in that class,” Adell said about her entry-level course. “And it was really interesting to watch these students who are coming to
class and they have little background in American history and certainly less in African American history and culture.

Most of these kids, especially the kids who are coming from rural communities, their only experience with people of color is through the movies and TV. That’s a bit
frightening in the 21st Century. And so when we were reading some of these stories, of course, I think they felt kind of uneasy. I think their experience of reading this is,
‘Gosh, everything is horrible. These are some horrible white people. We must have been some horrible, horrible people at one time.’ They have no experience. This is
their first experience of going into and looking through the perspective of Black people and Black writers the experience of being Black in America. It’s a part of the
experience that they certainly don’t get in their classes.”

The first thing that needed to happen was to get the mechanics of virtual classes down at a level where it could be helpful and meaningful. It didn’t go down as planned
on March 23rd.
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling

Dr. Sandra Adell had it going on all cylinders this spring at UW-Madison. She was
teaching an introductory course called Masterpieces of African American Literature to 22
primarily freshman students and a 600 level seminar, Women Playwrights of Africa and
the Diaspora to four students. And she had two other projects going on as well. One was
connected to her course.

“It was a week-long residency with two women from Uganda who were founding
members of an organization called Semrite,” Adell said. “That group was the first women’
s publishing company on the African continent. They’ve expanded and they have
workshops. It’s been ongoing for about 20 years now. That was all in the works to bring
them here for a week’s residency and then the two founding members were also going to
give a keynote address for 4W, which is Women Wellness in Wisconsin and the World.
That was a symposium that was scheduled for early April. The women from Uganda was
connected with my seminar of women theater artists. I was going to invite other people
“There is a platform called Canvas,”
Adell said. “It’s been around for a
while, but I rarely used it because I’m
engaging with the class. I had only
begun to use the grade book just to put
the grades in so they could see them.
But this is a whole platform with all
kinds of things. And the people who
were training us are specialists in the
field of online teaching. First of all, I
didn’t know what I was doing. ‘Where
do I click?’ They were giving us so
much information. They would say, ‘We’
re just trying to get you started.’ But I
had to be kind to myself. ‘This is a
whole different world. This is a major
shift and I’m not the only one. Most of
us who are dealing with this are
feeling this panic. I don’t have to be
great at this. I don’t have to be good at
this. I need to get the material for my
class shifted to remote learning and
engage with the students and find a
way to keep them engaged.’ How do
you do that? Think about this. On
March 23rd, all of a sudden, everyone
was online. Every professor is online
in a week. For me, the first day, I
thought I had been in all of these
webinars and taking notes and doing
all kinds of stuff trying to figure out
how I was going to teach these
classes. There is something called
Blackboard Collaborate. It offers, in the
same suite of things of this platform. It’
s a virtual classroom. I thought I was
really ready for the 22 students. I had
done my work and had my lecture
prepared. At 2:30 p.m. when my class
met, 2-3 students had joined early. I
could talk to them and see them. As
more students started joining, the
audio crashed. They couldn’t hear me. I
could hear them saying, ‘We can’t hear
you Professor Adell.’ And I was like,
‘Oh my God, I don’t know what is going
on here.’ After about 15 minutes of
people logging in and saying they
couldn’t hear me, I said, “let’s call this
the end of the session. I was so
frustrated because I had done all of
this work and had gotten prepared. I
went back into Blackboard Collaborate
and recorded my lecture, which was
great.”