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‘Nobody Signed Up for This.’ College Professor Drastically Rethinks Syllabus to Prioritize Human Need Amid Coronavirus

5 minute read

“Nobody signed up for this.”

As one college professor mulled over how best to proceed with his classes amid coronavirus disruptions, this was the primary principle that he concluded should guide his decisions. From there, he created a revised syllabus that has been praised by teachers and students across the country for its emphasis on self-care, flexibility and humanity over traditional academic values in this unprecedented time.

The educator, Brandon Bayne, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells TIME that when UNC announced on March 11 that in-person classes would transition to online-only indefinitely, he realized he was going to have to drastically overhaul his approach to teaching his Religion in America course for the spring 2020 semester.

“I was sitting down to try to figure out how to accomplish the same learning objectives with different assignments and it became clear that we couldn’t simply take what we had designed for the course online,” he says. “Doing a final exam in the way we had it structured, which was a pretty traditional final exam, wasn’t going to work the same way. Taking attendance at recitation wasn’t going to work. We had to really adjust our whole mentality.”

Bayne explains that, if the semester had gone as planned, one of his students’ assignments would’ve been to attend a local religious service outside of their own tradition and write a mini-ethnography about it. But as the situation surrounding the novel coronavirus continued to evolve, that possibility went out the window.

“I realized that it would be irresponsible to send them out into large groups,” he says.

As he contemplated a new syllabus, Bayne says that his students’ answers to a poll about their remote learning circumstances laid bare vastly different experiences that stuck in his mind.

“They were coming from very different and diverse contexts. Some of them felt quite secure. They had high-speed internet. They were largely bored and looking forward to getting back to a new normal,” he says. “Others were asked to travel home to Singapore and India and Brazil and were trying to figure out what that would look like. And then over 15% of them said that they didn’t have access to high-speed internet, that they’d be relying on phones and going to other locations to try to access the internet.”

But Bayne says that it wasn’t just his students’ unique individual situations that influenced his adjusted syllabus, it was also a recent personal experience. Just before the semester began, Bayne found out that his mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She passed away within a month.

“From the very first moments of the class, I was asking my students to be flexible through a struggle that I was navigating,” he says. “That really informed the principles about prioritizing ourselves as humans and being flexible and recognizing that we can’t fully know where this is all going.”

Bayne’s post about the syllabus on his personal Facebook page has been shared over 1,000 times alone since March 15, a development that he says was definitely unexpected.

“I’m fairly active on different forms of social media and I’m used to putting something out there and getting one like, one comment,” he says.

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However, Bayne says the most surprising, and rewarding, aspect of his syllabus going viral is how teachers of all different levels of education have responded to it.

“I expected it might resonate with other people teaching religious studies, but to start getting emails from professors of music, from high school Spanish teachers, from elementary school teachers in New Mexico, that made it clear that there was something that was resonant to all educators who were struggling,” he says.

“For me, that’s been the most meaningful thing of all. Not the attention, not the kind words from colleagues, but the elementary school teachers, the middle school teachers, the high school teachers who have told me that this has allowed them to breathe and has given them a sort of foundation for the decisions they have in front of them.”

Brandon Bayne, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with his daughterBrandon Bayne

In addition to this statement of principles, Bayne also sent out a more detailed outline of his academic expectations for his Religion in America students for the remainder of the semester. But moving forward, he says this experience, along with a series of other disruptions, from hurricanes to an academic fraud scandal, that UNC students have braved in recent years, have convinced him that sometimes we should examine education through a personal lens.

“There’s been, particularly in [the religious studies] field, a really strong emphasis on separating ourselves from the subjects that we study, and I think this moment is one of a series of moments in both my life and the lives of my students where that’s just not going to fly,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean that we need to inject [our personal beliefs] into the classroom. I wouldn’t advocate for that. But I think the idea that we’re some sort of disembodied brain that’s only engaged in intellectual exercises is problematic.”

Bayne says that one idea in particular that he keeps returning to in the midst of everything going on across the world is the concept of cura personalis, a Latin phrase meaning “care for the whole person.”

“It means care for the entire individual and this comes from the sense that you need to tailor education to the unique needs, situations, challenges and gifts of the people you’re in relationship to.”

Please send any tips, leads, and stories to virus@time.com.

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com