The idea began to circulate among Harvard Kennedy School faculty almost immediately after the University announced that it would move to remote teaching following spring break: offer students one-hour online sessions throughout the week.
The initial motivation was straightforward, says Dan Levy, senior lecturer in public policy: “to offer our students an opportunity to learn and continue to be intellectually and emotionally connected with the school at this time.” As other universities, schools, and businesses—and even cities, states, and whole countries—began to retreat and lock down in the face of the spreading pandemic, the gravity of the situation made the need for community, even in virtual form, ever greater.
The experiment ended Friday, after five days and 48 sessions, and more than 3,000 student sign-ups. Faculty and students applauded the effort’s success in bringing people together. They also appreciated the chance it gave them to preview and become familiar with the remote teaching interfaces they will be using for the remainder of the semester.
“Each day the conditions changed drastically,” says Simon Borumand MPP 2021 of the final hectic days before the semester ended. Student treks were canceled; then travel was strongly discouraged; then came the decision to move to online teaching. Students suddenly had to decide where to spend the coming months. Borumand made the decision to return to his home on Camano Island, about an hour outside of Seattle (one of the country’s first coronavirus hotspots). Hundreds of fellow students had to quickly make similarly momentous calls.
“By the end of the week there was a sense of wanting to know what the new normal is, versus the normal changing daily,” he says. “Who you’re around is changing. Your routine is changing. Having faculty say, ‘We’ll meet you wherever you are’ … that really went a long way.”
The effort behind the spring break discussions was HKS-wide. Faculty mobilized quickly behind the idea, volunteering their time and ideas, with Academic Dean Iris Bohnet and Suzanne Cooper, academic dean for teaching and curriculum, supporting the push. Kennedy School staff volunteered to help the faculty host the sessions on Zoom, a remote conferencing tool that some were still learning to use. Degree program directors reached out to students and kept them apprised of the initiative.
“This effort by our faculty to quickly mobilize and work with dedicated staff to share their research and teaching—but most of all, their time—with students over spring break has been a bright spot amidst a lot of uncertainty and anxiety,” says Amy Davies, assistant dean of student services and programs. “I was moved by the offerings and by the enthusiastic response from our students.”
The topics ranged widely, with sessions on democracy, environmental economics, science in government, and more. Some faculty members offered “ask me anything” sessions and others held office hours. But the impact of the pandemic, from public policy to students’ professional lives, was the major theme—from a discussion that Dani Rodrik, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy, offered called “Pandemics, Climate Change, and Global Economics: Where Did We Go Wrong with Globalization?” to one by Dean Doug Elmendorf and Professor Karen Dynan titled “The Macroeconomic Consequences of the Novel Coronavirus.”
The sessions gave students valuable takes on the unfolding global pandemic and a chance to acquaint themselves with new material or dust off old favorites. They also gave students and teachers a way to dip their toes into the new online medium, experimenting with norms and addressing new concerns, including whether and how to stay connected via video and how to solicit participation.
More than anything though, the faculty offerings provided a moment of familiarity amid sweeping, disconcerting change.
“It allowed everybody to see each other’s faces,” says Borumand. “We were taking pictures of friends and sharing. That was very important in creating a sense of community.”