Volume 17 • Issue 2
Southwestern @ Georgetown Southwestern @ Georgetown

Tech Revival

— Katherine S. Mangan
Program Helps Dillard U. Professors Rebuild Course Materials and Raise Spirits

When Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge overwhelmed New Orleans’s broken levees, the murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain swallowed up Gloria C. Love’s ground-floor office at Dillard University, ruining her computers, books, research notes and syllabi.

Three months later, with no home, no electricity in her recently installed government-issued trailer, and a shuttered campus, she was hard-pressed to begin planning for spring-semester classes, which are scheduled to begin on January 9 at a downtown hotel and various campuses around New Orleans.

But for two weeks ending today, she and a dozen colleagues were invited here to Southwestern University to begin resurrecting their course materials and creating new ones so they would have something to teach with when classes resume. The program was established by the Texas university and its regional technology laboratory, with the help of a $160,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

As visiting scholars at Southwestern, a small undergraduate university of 1,200 students, the professors lived and worked in a quiet bedroom community outside of Austin. The Mellon grant covered their transportation and lodging, while Southwestern picked up the tab for meals on the campus, along with a $1,500 stipend.

Ms. Love, an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, used her central Texas respite to work on her department’s Web site and prepare syllabi for courses she expects to teach. She said her time at Southwestern was “a breathing moment—a chance to recapture our spirit.” Many of Dillard’s professors lost everything when their campus of gleaming white buildings and towering oaks sat submerged in up to eight feet of water for three weeks (The Chronicle, September 16).

“They brought us from a ghost town and helped us regain our sanity,” said Ms. Love.

Figuring Out ‘How We Could Help’

After lunch in the campus cafeteria, the visitors paused and listened wistfully as Southwestern students sang Christmas carols in front of a decorated tree, a scene of tranquility and normalcy that seemed far removed from the professors’ harried lives back home. In the past month, all of them have been laid off and then rehired, but with no assurance that their jobs will last more than one semester.

Bracing themselves against the unexpected cold (“My coat is underwater, like everything else,” one participant remarked), they hurried back to a laboratory equipped with 20 advanced computer stations for their afternoon lesson.

Working alongside Southwestern professors and technicians, science professors used photo software to post pictures of plant and animal species so students will be able to view the pictures on the Internet rather than having to make a trip to another library in New Orleans. The visitors’ days, which for the past few months had been consumed by phone calls to insurance agents and building contractors, were instead spent learning about blogs, wikis and digital storytelling.

The visiting-scholar program was a natural for Southwestern, which even before Katrina touched down had established a relationship with the historically black Dillard that included plans for student exchanges. “When Katrina hit, all of us in higher education were trying to figure out how we could help,” said Southwestern’s provost, James W. Hunt.

The university’s regional technology center was already teaching faculty members from 16 colleges across the South how to prepare digital materials for undergraduate courses. It is sponsored by the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, a Mellon Foundation organization that encourages liberal-arts colleges to collaborate on creating new uses of technology in teaching.

“I thought that our center might be able to help them recover course material that was lost,” Mr. Hunt said.

Rebecca Davis, assistant director for instructional technology, said she and the other instructors tried to help the Dillard faculty members, many of whom were already computer-savvy, learn new ways of ensuring that their course materials were safe and portable, whether they were working out of hotel rooms or trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“If you have a virtual space you can rely on, it doesn’t matter where you end up,” she said.

Staying in Contact With Students

That idea is reassuring to Ramona Jean-Perkins, an assistant professor of education and director of early-childhood education at Dillard. She evacuated twice—from New Orleans in August, when Hurricane Katrina hit, and from Lake Charles, La., when Rita roared ashore less than a month later.

She said she would miss the ground-floor computer classroom where she had taught some of her classes, and she worried about how she would stay in close contact with her students.

“I was intrigued by what we learned about online office hours,” she said of the Southwestern workshops. “It’s not the same as having a student drop by my office, but it’s something.”

Until a few weeks ago, it was unclear where Dillard’s students would be living or studying. University officials initially had accepted an offer from Tulane University to hold classes at some of its satellite campuses, but that would have created logistical headaches, they concluded. Cruise ships were also mentioned as a possibility.

Last Saturday, Dillard officials announced that students would live and take most of their classes at the Hilton Riverside Hotel, about 15 blocks from the high-rise office building where most faculty members will have their offices.

Some classes, including ones that require laboratories, are likely to be held at Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans, or Xavier University of Louisiana, the other three institutions that make up a post-Katrina consortium. Dillard students will also be able to use the other members’ libraries and athletics facilities, among other resources.

José Ramirez-Domenech, an assistant professor of biology, plans to use his new computer skills to create virtual laboratories for his students to supplement the work they will be doing at laboratories on other campuses.

“I’m excited about the idea of creating an online archive that tracks changes in vegetation and landscaping in New Orleans” since Katrina, he said. “I’d like to use virtual images and Web sites, and redesign my courses so that my students can have ready access to the material.”

At Southwestern, he said, “I’m also learning how to create videos so the students and I can tell a story about the changes that are taking place.” With that information, bolstered by satellite photographs and other research data, they might be able to recommend which plants and trees survive severe weather better than others.

Unanswered Questions

During a lunch for Southwestern and Dillard faculty members, Mr. Ramirez-Domenech presented a brief overview of Dillard, a 136-year-old institution with about 2,000 students. His talk was followed by a slide show that illustrated the devastation Katrina had left in its wake.

Among the challenges he and his colleagues face are worries about where they will live, whether they will have jobs beyond the spring, and how they will continue to resurrect courses when files, research data and computers are either packed away or washed away.

With too few police officers patrolling the streets of New Orleans and huge swaths of the city still without power, “everyone worries about security,” Mr. Ramirez-Domenech said. “People are living in pockets of light surrounded by darkness.”

Still, the professors are relieved to be going back, even if the journey will continue to be a roller-coaster ride.

Just before they were scheduled to leave for Southwestern, the 13 participants learned that they were among the 59 percent of Dillard’s faculty members who were being laid off, as estimates of damage to the campus topped $400-million (The Chronicle, November 11). It wasn’t until halfway through the program that they received letters inviting each of them back for the spring semester. Depending on how many students return (campus officials are now predicting that about 1,000, or half, will), those contracts may be extended next year.

Dillard’s provost, Bettye Parker Smith, jumped at the opportunity to send her faculty members to Southwestern, even though it appeared that some of them would not be coming back.

“I knew that my faculty, who were scattered all over the place and felt very isolated, needed some camaraderie and needed to be intellectually engaged,” she said, speaking into a cell phone as she drove from an “emotionally draining” visit to her ruined New Orleans campus.

“As we were getting ready to send them, we realized that we were going to have to make some massive cuts in the faculty,” she said. “I thought that the very best thing we could do is to give those who were being dismissed an opportunity to go to Southwestern.” She hoped to rehire many, if not most of them, and at least give the others a chance to make themselves more marketable.

During the early days of the program, Dillard professors perused job ads and snuck out into the hallway to make calls about openings. They were not sure whether the courses they were resurrecting would follow them back to Dillard or become part of a job-seeking portfolio.

How Much Technology?

One Southwestern faculty member cautioned about going overboard with technology. “You have to decide how much time and effort you want to put into it,” said Ben Pierce, an associate professor of biology. “This can be a black hole in terms of your time. You have to think about what is the pedagogical value.”

Giving students too much information online can tempt them to skip or sleep through class, he added.

The Dillard faculty members had their own cautionary notes for their Southwestern colleagues: Back up your files and keep copies of your work in case disaster strikes. More important, Mr. Ramirez-Domenech said, “love your job and love your students.” After months spent worrying about students whom he was unable to contact, he said, “I’ve learned that you are nothing without your students. I don’t care how many degrees you have. They are the heart of what we do.”

That message, repeated often by the professors during their stay, impressed Southwestern’s provost, Mr. Hunt.

“What struck me was that, after everything they had been through, they were able to recognize and articulate so clearly the importance of students,” he said. “That reminded all of us that, at small colleges like ours, that’s what our core mission is all about.”

Ms. Love said her students used to call her “the picture lady” because her office was filled with photographs of her students, some sent years after graduation and showing them with their babies. Those photos were lost, along with her graduation regalia and shelves full of math and computer books. “I was saving them for a library for my students, who used to come by my office and borrow them,” she said.

Despite her somber recollections, Ms. Love, wearing a pink sweater and broad smile, was upbeat and didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her.

“We want you to be happy for us because we’re happy to be here,” she told her new Southwestern colleagues at the faculty luncheon. “We’re tearful, but we’re also grateful.”

In a few weeks, the visitors will return to an uncertain future. They hope Dillard will be able to provide the computer infrastructure to put their new skills to work. Ms. Love continues to look on the bright side.

“We don’t know what we’re going back to or what we’ll be using,” she said, “but we are returning with our knowledge and our enthusiasm, and so our students will learn.”

Copyright 2005, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission.