Remote Humanities

Claudia Brittenham, associate professor, Department of Art History, in the stacks of the Joseph Regenstein Library Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, on the University of Chicago campus. (Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago)

As students head home for Thanksgiving Break, where they will remain through the end of the quarter, instructors prepare to adapt their class format to inconsistent time zones and new demands on their students’ time. For some, this may mean incorporating more asynchronous learning into the classroom as we approach finals week. The Humanities Division is delighted to spotlight its instructors’ approaches to these challenges, and to celebrate their successes and innovations. This week, we sat down with Claudia Brittenham, Associate Professor of Art History and Interim Director of the Center for Latin American Studies, to discuss her experience with teaching completely asynchronous courses.

This past winter, Professor Brittenham learned that her cross-listed spring course, Image and Text in Mexican Codices, would be taught remotely. In the past, she has taught the course in the Special Collections wing in Regenstein Library, which centered the student experience around interacting with books and facsimiles as physical objects. At first, the prospect of losing that in-person instruction was devastating, especially as Claudia struggled to feel comfortable with Zoom. The solution she came to was to format the class to function asynchronously in every aspect. As she restructured the syllabus, the benefits of such a format came to light: the course was perfectly accessible to students in different time zones, she had precise control over how she delivered content, and the students had the same control over their own learning. In fact, she enjoyed the asynchronous format so much that she has also adapted it for a 50-person Core course on Mesoamerican Architecture this autumn.

Format and Structure

This ability to carefully structure her class helped Claudia develop a format that would prove effective. She says that the rhythm of an asynchronous course depends on a weekly heartbeat, which incorporates a meaning and goal for each week, as well as a consistent schedule for check-ins and assignments. For Claudia, this means going back to the basics: thinking about first principles and what she wanted her students to learn, or rather, what skills she wanted them to develop. For her Image and Text course, the goals were to practice looking closely at documents in order to recognize and analyze how they organize information. For the Mesoamerican Architecture course this quarter, she focused on honing students’ writing skills and encouraging them to think about how space is organized and represented.

To achieve this, and while also recognizing that intensive assignments were important for asynchronous learning insofar as they replace classroom discussion, Professor Brittenham developed a handout with weekly problem sets. This would include a page of questions that the students would have to look at the assigned documents closely in order to answer. Over the weeks, the questions got more complicated and analytical, and in the end this format worked perfectly and achieved exactly the goal that Claudia had in mind. This autumn, seven short writing assignments over the course of the quarter replaced the problem sets. She also made sure to incorporate Canvas posts, and video presentations, and was delighted in particular by the quality of her students work for the latter. With more control, flexibility, and time to practice, the presentations surpassed what Claudia is used to seeing in face-to-face classes.

Student Reaction and Engagement

Overall, Professor Brittenham’s students truly appreciated the format of the course. Students with full course loads in particular were grateful to have one asynchronous class that lent them more control over their schedules. The format allows for greater accessibility as well. Students took advantage of being able to go back and replay lecture videos. This quarter, with the help of a Micro-Metcalf intern, Claudia has made a point to add closed captions to all of her videos, and students report that this really helps them absorb spoken information. For students who struggle with making eye contact or with spending long periods of time on Zoom, the format was a relief. A few students who had a limited course load (for example, seniors taking one class and working on their thesis projects) missed the social aspect of synchronous classes, and moving into this fall quarter Claudia has been careful to be clear with students about what the courses will entail so they can decide whether the format would be a good fit for them. Overall, though, she’s realized that “asynchronous teaching does have a lot of benefits, and students appreciate it, and those things feel really compelling to me.”

We know that many instructors who are considering incorporating more asynchronous coursework might be concerned about the ability to determine if students are engaged. For Claudia, this is why the weekly assignments are so important – she loves looking at the online discussion posts and thinks the overall quality has been great. She also talks to many of her students every week in office hours. She says, “my job as an instructor is to make things available and accessible, and students make decisions about what they can and can’t commit to the course.” There is a variety to this commitment, of course, especially during a pandemic, but Professor Brittenham continues to be impressed with her students. Even if they aren’t learning all the same things that they would learn in a face-to-face classroom, they’re still learning well, she says. Last spring, she even made the decision to give all students full credit for just submitting the final paper, because it was assigned the same week as the protests following George Floyd’s death. The quality of the papers remained the same. “It has really made me question how much energy we pour into grading, as opposed to into encouraging and mentoring and appreciating what students accomplish.” Since Claudia’s classes aren’t about memorizing information so much as they are about building skills, when she looks for engagement she looks for proof that students are thinking about the topics and applying them to their lives.

“What I was most concerned about was: Is this going to work? Can I deliver anything like the experience that I deliver in the classroom via remote learning? And I’d say, it works. My students are learning. They are not having the same experience that they would have in the classroom. And one of the most important things for me as I was thinking about course design was not trying to say: do a one-to-one translation of, this is what we did in the classroom, we’re going to have to do this online. But to actually go back to course objectives and figure out, what is the remote way of accomplishing each objective? In some cases, like student presentations, they’re really congruous. But there’s other places where they’re really actually quite different. And that’s fine. And I think there’s things that my students are learning remotely that they wouldn’t have learned in the classroom.”

Instructor Challenges: Video Lectures and More

Professor Brittenham admits that the hardest thing for her to adapt to was recording herself on Zoom. “I know a lot of colleagues find this to be one of the biggest barriers to online teaching,” she says, and admits that she definitely had to re-do the first few videos she made many times. But over time and with practice, she’s now usually able to finish them in one take. This autumn quarter she’s taken to recording 20-minute videos, and has her students watch five per week. “There’s something very different about the narrative arc of a 20-minute video versus an 80-minute lecture,” she says, insofar as they allow for a focused look. Especially since it’s impossible to cover as much material in a video, she’s had much more success with spending more time on the truly important topics, and going in-depth with the content that she does cover.

As she masters the structure for recorded lectures, Professor Brittenham has started to feel more comfortable with the imposing nature of the prospect itself.

“One of the things that I said to myself to make myself feel better about it was: at this point I have twenty years’ experience figuring out how to develop content for the classroom, and how to structure a lecture that works in the classroom. And I have three months’ experience trying to figure out how to develop content that works remotely. And you’d think that these skills would be transferable, but they are not as directly transferable as you would imagine! It got better fast, because those questions about pacing and timing – if you’ve been teaching in the classroom you’ve got a good instinct.”

The heightened sensitivity of the impressions one is making on students also lessens throughout a quarter, she says, as instructors and students alike come to know each other and realize they’re all in the same boat with the ridiculousness of working from home.

“One of the things that I keep telling myself and other people, and I think it’s really true: it’s so important for us to model for students, both in the classroom but especially during the pandemic, what it’s like to be wrong and to recover from it. And it’s important for students to see that you own your mistakes and it’s not the end of the world.”


After acclimating to the asynchronous format, Professor Brittenham is proud of her classes and proud of her students: “they’ve been incredibly resilient and engaged under astoundingly difficult conditions. I don’t think any of us are giving ourselves enough credit for how hard it is to re-invent pedagogy in the middle of a pandemic.” When asked what advice she would give to other instructors looking to incorporate more asynchronous work into her courses, Claudia reiterated these beliefs:

  1. “I guarantee that video recording yourself gets easier, so don’t be daunted.”
  2. “Teaching always extends to fill all available time.” Designate days to film and then tell yourself that you’re done. “Perfectionism is the enemy.” Make sure to set boundaries for yourself.
  3. It’s important to build in feedback and guidance each week, as well as flexibility.
  4. Think about whether your grading actually impacts the learning that students are doing.
  5. Students need to find a class that is a good fit, and instructors need to create a format that is a good fit for their pedagogy. What’s most important is that overall, the university offers a good range for students, and that instructors communicate clearly so students can make good choices. “Don’t beat yourself up if a certain format doesn’t work for you. If you have something that’s working, just do it!”