Perspectives: In Their Own Words

Interview by Pema Baldwin | Photo courtesy of Rachel Jabaily

Organismal Biology and Ecology Prof. Rachel Jabaily is busy. Whether it be with taking care of her daughter, conducting research, or teaching a brand-new class, Jabaily is always doing something, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t able to make time to explore some new hobbies, too. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I was teaching Block 6. It was Biogeography and Phylogenetics, a 400-level capstone class, and it was a real dream class for me. My colleague, Kelly Shepherd, was visiting from Australia, so she did the entirety of Block 6 with my class, and she had planned a big trip after that around the U.S., like a road trip. She and I had been pre-talking through modifications she might be considering and changing her plane ticket back to Australia. We were just very unsure. As Block 6 went on, we started having the students wipe down the surfaces and wipe their hands, but I didn’t think much beyond that, and we were talking about it all kind of jokey, you know.

We were trying to keep things light, but I’ll never forget — it was the Tuesday of fourth week. Those were our final presentation days, and the next day was a take home final. It was a majority senior class, and we were in the library on the Data Viz wall. The students were giving their presentations, and as it was happening, I just had this thought, ‘Oh my gosh. These might be the senior’s last moments on campus together.’ That was sad and special, and I didn’t say it out loud because I didn’t want to freak anyone out, but that definitely hit me.

I was trying to end on a really positive high note. We took a picture as a class, and we were right next to each other. That was one of the last days when that even made sense — standing shoulder-to-shoulder. I don’t regret it, but it was also kind of dumb. We were sharing food. I brought in some baked goods, and now I’m like, ‘That was dumb.’ Also, right after that, as I’m walking around, I’m seeing students, both in my class and my advisees, and they’re asking me what to do about spring break. They’re like, ‘I’ve got tickets to Mexico. Someone in my group of friends is immunocompromised. Would you go? I have tickets here. I’m supposed to do this, what do I do?’

This was before the announcement. It was so hard. I had no idea what to say, and that was really stressful. Then, also realizing, ‘Oh my gosh. These could be my last in-person interactions with these students.’ It was very emotional.

I was giving one of my students a bunch of hand sanitizer I had in my office because she was going to the airport, and I was like, ‘Just take it, just go.’ And that was it. Then the announcement came and I automatically extended all deadlines for the end of Block 6. I was like, ‘Y’all got bigger issues. Oh my gosh.’ And that was that.

So those were my memories of that time, and I was very much freaking out about my Australian colleague who at that point had left to go to Santa Fe. She got there. Everything was closing down, so she switched her tickets, came back, and she actually ended up on the last flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne, so it was very stressful. I also celebrated my kid’s birthday on that day. It was just nuts.

And then everything changed. Those really were our last minutes in person, especially with the seniors.

I was not slated to teach Block 7. I was going to focus on research, but I think the fairly random nature of what professors were teaching really shapes how we’ve responded. Some people happen to be teaching seven and eight back-to-back. Some people are just teaching eight. Some people aren’t teaching any of it. I think I’ve had a really positive transition to this, mostly because I wasn’t teaching seven, so I didn’t feel the immediate pressure.

There was just no end of think-pieces from various publications and news sources — I’m seeing them through Facebook — about the transition to online teaching. A lot the first ones were seeming to say, ‘Go asynchronous, keep it simple on yourself.’ And I think if I’d had to do Block 7, that’s probably the choice I would’ve made based on what I was reading and hearing. Luckily, I got to reflect on what I was hearing from students who were checking in with me in Block 7 and also just thinking more deeply about what I wanted to do, so I opted for an entirely synchronous class in Block 8.

I was supposed to be teaching Field Botany in Block 8, which is, by the nature of the title, a field class. As I looked at it, there was pretty much no way to meet the vast majority of my learning objectives remotely. I can’t guarantee that students have access to the outdoors, to plants, or the ability to go hike anywhere. I could never assume that. I cannot substitute that experience with photos, books, or anything like that. That’s a particular class in which, oftentimes, the experiences of that class in the field, and in making plant specimens, translates to actual jobs. I thought there was really no way I could say that an online version of that class suffices.

It was a really hard thing to think through, and my [department] chair and I talked about it a lot. Luckily the administration allowed me to substitute out the class, so I’m supposed to teach Field Botany twice next year to hopefully meet the demand on it, which is quite high.

And so then it was like, ‘Well, what do you want to teach?’ That was a really special moment.  If you were teaching in seven, and even eight, everything’s locked in. You didn’t get that choice, so I was in a very unique position that I got to choose what I wanted to teach in Block 8. I opted to teach Evolutionary Medicine, which was a brand new class.

New preps are very stressful for faculty. I’ve always said that that’s kind of the greatest predictor of how stressed out I’m going to be. How many times have I taught this class before? If it’s zero, oh my goodness. In Organismal Biology, a lot of our courses are specimen or field based, and a lot of my colleagues are facing that right now. How do you do that? So I was trying to find something that I thought did not require that at its deepest element.

I teach evolution a lot, and the last lecture I’ve given for years is evolutionary medicine, which is taking an evolutionary perspective on why conditions evolved initially and persist in our species. It’s taking a very different lens on human health issues, and it’s certainly not something I was trained in as a graduate student. I’ve done no research on it. I’m a plant biologist, but I’m also a broadly trained evolutionary biologist, and students have always loved this last lecture. I’ve always thought in the back of my mind, ‘Goodness, wouldn’t it be fun to do this as a whole class someday,’ but I’ve always thought, ‘Gosh, I need to know a lot more,’ or ‘I want to co-teach it with someone first.’

I always thought of a lot of excuses, but at this particular moment in time, especially because I was encouraged to try something, I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ Everyone, whether you’re interested in medicine as a career at any level or not, is thinking a lot more about the human body and the immune system than we ever have before, so I was like, ‘What can I bring to this moment?’ The thought was this Evolutionary Medicine class.

Luckily, I had a physical textbook on my shelf that I’ve just had around forever. I’ve just kind of thought about it and looked at it, but I was like, ‘Well goodness. There’s the guide. I don’t have to create this from scratch.’ It just felt right thinking about this as an option. I actually got excited about it. I wasn’t sad thinking about how potentially less awesome a class would be online as opposed to how well it’s always gone in-person.

So I chose that topic and then I said, ‘My number one objective is to create community. Hands down. I want the students to feel like they’re part of a campus and a group of other scholars talking about really interesting ideas.’

I found out that all my students were in the contiguous U.S. time zones and that there were only 11 of them, so that right there allowed me to do certain things that other faculty can’t do in terms of having synchronous class at times that work for people. All my students had access to the internet. There’s certain things that really allowed that to happen, so I’ve opted for a synchronous class.

We’re certainly not doing three hours a day of Zoom. I think we’ve all learned that there’s a limit, and it’s exhausting in certain ways. You can overdo it. There were things I planned in the class initially that I’ve kind of changed to minimize Zoom discussion fatigue, but for the most part, we are meeting as a whole group.

I did some lecturing, but then I applied a flipped classroom approach, and it’s really student led collaborative in real time. There are certain student leaders of units. We read a chapter, and then the students go into breakout rooms in Zoom to start building collaborative Google documents about the general biology understanding of conditions and the evolutionary medicine understanding of health conditions.

We’re not just talking about COVID. That was the first one we did, but we’re taking on lots of other aspects of human health, and I was so pleasantly surprised with how the first week went. I had no idea what to expect, but the tech worked out, which was really nice, and the students were ready for it. They seemed really genuinely glad to be seeing each other. Everyone brought their dogs and pets. I think it’s an entirely dog classroom, so that’s been a fun thing — everyone showing off their pets.

The discussions have been really good, and it’s actually kind of funny because oftentimes when I’m in the classroom, I try not to be the sage on the stage, but I talk a lot, and it’s hard for me to step back and truly let the students lead discussions. With Zoom — these breakout rooms — I just kind of float in and keep myself on mute, and I’ve learned. My goodness! Students are certainly capable of leading and doing this. I mean, my class is majority juniors and seniors and a couple of sophomores, so if these were first-year students, it might not come as naturally, but clearly our students are ready to lead discussions. So I’ve learned some things about my own teaching through this.

I have a daughter who’s in kindergarten, and my husband is a librarian at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He’s working from home, so we’re here together all the time, and so we just rotate through our days who’s doing what. I absolutely had some scholarship things I had to move ahead, and that’s part of my job too, so I had to focus on that.

I definitely slowed down and I spent a lot more time with my child in a very deliberate way, so that was really fun, sometimes… very hard at other times. It’s up and down.

They do [have an online kindergarten], and they’re doing the best they can. There’s an app with lots of little mini things in it. Some of it lends itself well to an app. Some of it is awful to get a little kid to do, like write on a screen. Convincing my child that she’s still in school and that her teacher says she should do this has been really challenging.

Everyone out there that’s trying to school their children while doing their work — it is a huge behind the scenes, and sometimes right in front of the scenes on the Zoom call, situation for a lot of us. Luckily she’s young and is very into her parents and being at home. I feel for anyone with a teenager right now.

I have joined the bandwagon on baking with yeast. Turns out a bunch of yeast in our house was not dead. It was many years old, but still going. So I’ve learned how to bake some bread, and I got very obsessed with gardening. I started all kinds of seeds, and I have ridiculous dreams of patio gardens with actual tomatoes. We’ll see if I can pull it off. Those kinds of things have really anchored me: baking, gardening, and spending time with my kid and my husband. Certainly not as much time to watch TV and catch up on all the fun shows as some people have. I’m waiting for that peace. I don’t know when it’s going to come (laughs).

I also have three OBE senior thesis students, so I’ve been helping them edit their final thesis presentations and projects and all that, so it was not at all the case that I was full time in Block 7 thinking about [the class]. That’s another reason for the flipped classroom thing, frankly. There’s no way I could have done me as the lecturer for three weeks in a brand new class. I think this flipped idea’s lending itself really well to the moment, and it was the reality of where I was at with how much content I had prepped. It’s working well for a seminar that’s student led. I think if I was in a class that was very content heavy and content driven, that would have been far more challenging than what I’m facing right now. I want the students to know how much we miss them. I’m so happy to see students I know on Zoom and meet new students on Zoom. It’s been very emotional in ways I didn’t expect it to be. I’ve gone to campus to get stuff from my office, and that is so weird, especially in the buildings. There’s certain areas where there’s always students studying there, and then they’re not. It’s sad. It’s not the same without you all. I know you know that, but I just want people to understand. We professors miss you all.

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