Pandemic/Academic

As the Fall Semester continues and October approaches, it is readily apparent that this school year – unsurprisingly – is progressing a bit differently than in years past. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities like Georgetown to adapt to a decidedly unideal reality, but how does that adaptation take place? What does it look like? Of course, there are decisions made at the institutional level, or at the government level, but much of the day-to-day success of Georgetown’s adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic is reliant on the actions of individuals: students, faculty, and staff working together to make the best of an unpleasant situation. To that extent, Georgetown History is highlighting the work of two members of our community who have played an outsized role in keeping the Department and University running: Professor Amy Leonard and Professor Kathryn Olesko.

Amy Leonard, Director of Undergraduate Studies

Professor Leonard, as Georgetown History’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, is in charge of managing the entire undergraduate history program, from putting together course schedules (with the help of Amy Chidester!) to signing up new majors to organizing events like the Why History Matters series. In Spring, as the threat of COVID-19 was beginning to loom larger, Professor Leonard took stock of the situation and assessed that there was a good chance that the disease would require a massive undertaking to work around. Her assessment would prove prescient and remains relevant today, as Leonard describes the Summer and Fall semesters as moving from “the triage and survival” of the Spring to a place of “innovation and stability.” This movement has taken many forms: reassuring and supporting students and majors, answering an untold number of questions, taking CANDLS classes, and making sure that both the students and her fellow faculty members were as prepared and comfortable as possible working virtually.

Such a large undertaking is – of course – a monumental amount of work, so how did Professor Leonard manage it? Back in the Spring, Leonard recounts that her coping mechanism lay in comfort foods (“No Regrets!”), but, as of late, she says that she has found success with aerobic walks and working out, and of course the occasionally Zoom Happy Hour with friends. However, what really has kept Professor Leonard going through all this, it seems, is seeing how her students are responding to the crisis. She says that she first expected them to be more “bitter and resentful,” but instead are more empathetic and engaged, with particular emphasis placed on “how eager the students are to make this work.” In reflecting upon her work during the transition, Professor Leonard hopes that people saw her as a useful guide during certain times and, reflecting upon the experience, comes to the ultimate conclusion that – despite everything – the last few months have made her “realize how much I like this job.”

Kathryn Olesko, Chair of the Main Campus Executive Faculty

Georgetown’s Main Campus Executive Faculty (MCEF) is a body that works with the Office of the Provost and the deans to determine and implement academic policy on the Main Campus, representing the faculty to the administrations and ensuring a voice for the faculty in administrative matters. As its Chair, Professor Olesko reflects that her most important responsibilities are identifying the issues that need to be addressed and leading the group effectively. The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a large number of policy decisions, and the MCEF has been an important part of the overall response, and Olesko recalls that she – as part of this process – has “learned a lot, most of all that faculty governance has to be nimble in a crisis!” From when and how teaching would resume in the Fall to teaching evaluation revisions, the MCEF has had to strike a delicate balance between moving quickly to respond to changing circumstances while also working towards effective, consensus-building solutions.

That flexibility has led to some shifts in how MCEF interacts with other Georgetown entities. There are now regular monthly meetings of both the MCEF and student governance to “keep channels of communication open in these challenging times.” Similarly, informal MCEF Friday-afternoon forums have become a popular venue for sharing ideas, communicating between different university entities, and preserving a sense of community. Though at its start there were not any grand plans about the forums, Professor Olesko notes that it has been called “an accidental home run.” Of particular note was the last forum of the summer, on the topic of “Remembering the Classroom When It’s Not There,” wherein a panel of faculty reflected on the loss of the classroom for the fall, where Ricardo Ortiz – Chair of the English Department – seemed to capture the mood, saying “I am never more myself than I am in the classroom.” With such a heavy weight on one’s shoulders, it’s also important to make time for moments of levity. To that end, Olesko has prudently diversified her recreation activities, spending her free time doing everything from cooking and binge-watching to gardening and Tai Chi. While she and other faculty members mourn being unable to return to the classroom this semester, Olesko remains optimistic: “In times of crisis, you can only take one day at a time, and hope that as the days add up, things will get better.”