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In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the St. Mary’s University community has adapted — faculty stepping up to deliver quality education to students from a distance.

Benjamin “Josh” Doty, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English, Literature and Language, shared some lessons from his now-online classes in a Q&A. Doty joined St. Mary’s in 2019, specializing in American literature — particularly colonial and antebellum literature. In Spring 2020, he taught Contemporary Literary Criticism, American Literature, and Foundations of Practice: Literature.

Q: What was your approach in switching to online learning in a short period of time?

A: My first concern was to ensure an inclusive and equitable experience for all of my students, which for my classes meant switching to an asynchronous model so that students could learn at their own pace and on their own terms. I’ve focused on retaining core learning objectives while being as flexible as I can about technology hiccups and the inevitable challenges that come with a pandemic.

Q: What are some new teaching methods you’ve picked up along the way?

A: I’ve learned a lot about using Kaltura, which is a technology we use at St. Mary’s to simultaneously capture webcam videos and computer screens. I’ve been using Kaltura to record short videos in which students can toggle back and forth between, for example, a passage from a short story and footage of me discussing it. My students and I are also using Zoom, a cloud-based videoconferencing platform, to discuss paper drafts. Zoom’s screen-share feature allows me to annotate a draft in real time, and it works so well that I’ll continue using it in the future!

Q: What has been your biggest opportunity for growth in teaching online thus far?

A: I’ve thought a lot about being present at a distance: How do I enact the personal attentiveness that characterizes Marianist education when my students and I aren’t in the same room? How can I use the tools available to me to maintain that connection? To that end, I’ve relied on email, Zoom chats, discussion board posts and even the feedback I give on papers to stay in touch.

Q: What has been most surprising?

A: I was surprised at how much fun it is to create video lectures — in general, I’m using many more visual aids than I do in a face-to-face classroom. For example, in my St. Mary’s Core literature class, I assigned Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring, which the movie The Ring is based on. I was surprised by how much screenshots from the movie enlivened my lectures on the novel. Plus, I got to screen the cursed tape for my students!

Q: What has been the most beneficial aspect of teaching online?

A: It’s been wonderful to see the grace and determination with which St. Mary’s students have approached this crisis. Every student who emails me inquires about the health and safety of me and my family, which speaks to the special community we have here.

Q: Students look to you for guidance, for wisdom, especially during times of crisis. How have you managed your own challenges and anxieties in quarantine?

A: It will surprise precisely zero of my students that I look to Henry David Thoreau for guidance in times like these. There’s a passage in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” a chapter in Walden, in which Thoreau talks about retaining one’s calm within chaos: “Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses. If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like.” 

Plus, I’ve been playing a lot of Animal Crossing, which feels like Walden with more design options.

Watch the video below to see Doty’s explanation of what Walden Pond looked like in Thoreau’s time.

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