With the vast majority of Penn undergraduates taking their classes virtually as a pandemic precaution, the sidewalks of University City are less crowded these days, but the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School is bustling as a hive of activity.
Of course, things feel different. Upon entering the building, everyone must display a green “PennOpen Pass” screen on their phone, which indicates they are symptom-free that day and have not, as far as they know, been in contact with anyone who may have COVID-19. The furniture in common areas has been rearranged to encourage students to keep their distance from one another. With many staff members continuing to work from home, offices are dark and some familiar faces are missing — though Miss Paula is still at her post, behind a plexiglass barrier.
Classrooms, however, remain vibrant forums for discussion, despite the new challenges presented by compulsory mask-wearing and the “hybrid” curricular model the Law School has adopted for the fall semester. Some courses are being offered in person, others entirely remotely. Some students attend class via Zoom while others gather for the same class in person, placing the professor in the unenviable position of having to harmonize a conversation occurring on two distinct planes of reality.
The global classroom
Some students learning via Zoom are doing so from the other side of the world, like Junwen Wang LLM ’21, who is based in Hong Kong and was prevented by the pandemic from coming to the U.S. this semester. For his classes that meet in the afternoon, Eastern Standard Time, Wang must regularly log on at one o’clock a.m.
“A twelve-hour time difference is no joke,” Wang said, “but professors at Penn are incredibly supportive after being made aware of my situation. For example, Professor Serena Mayeri has agreed to let me take half of the course asynchronously so I don’t have to stay up all night on Wednesday. And she has also kindly arranged several office-hour sessions that are friendly to my time zone.”
Most of Wang’s classes this semester have fewer than fifteen students, which he said enhances his sense that he is part of the Law School community, even from 13,000 miles away. Wang has also found professors to be welcoming and approachable.
“Professor Sophia Lee, for instance, has arranged several Zoom ‘happy hour’ sessions to create opportunities for seminar participants to meet in less formal settings,” he said.
While sleep takes up the better part of Wang’s mornings these days, he has been surprised at how easily he has been able to adjust. Even so, he wishes he “could attend all these great classes in person” and hopes to be able to come to Philadelphia in the spring.
Faculty have also had to make remote learning adjustments. William A. Schnader Professor of Law Regina Austin L’73 founded the Documentaries & the Law Program at Penn fifteen years ago. Since then, she has worked with small groups of students in her year-long Visual Legal Advocacy course to plan, shoot, edit, and distribute documentaries that highlight a wide range of legal social justice issues. Because the documentary topics vary, the content of class discussion can also vary from year to year; however, the pandemic brought a unique set of challenges, particularly given the collaborative nature of filmmaking.
“Collaboration is so important,” Austin said. “We’re going to be collaborating with lawyers, activists, and clients facing the social justice issues that we’ll be dealing with.”
Austin said she considered having the class meet in person, but ultimately, meeting virtually seemed to work out better.
“It’s important to have dialogue and to build a community or a crew of filmmakers at the beginning of the course. The virtual technique does that pretty well,” she said. “You can hear, you can participate, and at the same time, people have to go out into the community, into the streets, to live their lives. They’re in touch with the vibe of the place where they are, and they can bring that back to the work that we do collectively to come up with a topic and to interview people whose lives are impacted by that topic.”
Currently, Austin is working with other staff and faculty members at Penn to create a protocol for content creation that abides by University precautions and CDC-guidelines. Though many elements of the pre-production process might be done fairly “normally,” the production team will have to make significant changes in how they interact with community advocates to “create final products that have the vibrancy and relevance of the videos that students usually produce in the course.”
Austin said that legal advocacy documentaries are of heightened importance during the pandemic, when more decisions are being made virtually and existing social justice issues are being compounded.
“If we can figure out how to get the images captured and collected in a way that facilitates ordinary people who are impacted by social injustice telling their stories in their own words, I think it will be very powerful to have,” Austin said. “We clearly want to capture some of the lived experience of this time so we can look back and determine what we could have done better and what the problems were; those experiences will have lasting significance.”