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Chuck Marsh: 'I miss the students'

Professor Chuck Marsh conducting Zoom class at his homeAssociate Dean of Research and Faculty Development Chuck Marsh feels the journalism school was better prepared for the pandemic than other parts of the university even if its transition to virtual learning was not perfect. Marsh unexpectedly took on the role of associate dean of research and faculty development in February 2020 and said his workload has changed in part from the pandemic and in part from his new leadership position. Human interaction is what Marsh misses most, and while Zoom is the second-best option for synchronous teaching, nothing compares to face-to-face interactions with students in the classroom. 

Marsh said he is grateful for his privileges that have made it easier to emotionally cope with the impacts of the pandemic, so he tries to be sensitive to the hardships that students might be facing, such as financial instability, food or housing insecurity, and illness. Amidst all the chaos caused by the pandemic, Marsh hopes students understand how much their professors want them to succeed.

► Listen to the audio version here.

Maddie Hall: This is Maddie Hall. Today is Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. I'm interviewing Professor Charles Marsh for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. Welcome, Professor Marsh.

Chuck Marsh: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Maddie Hall: Okay. So going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Chuck Marsh: I was in my dining room when I heard that KU was closing. Here in my home, here in Lawrence. The School of Journalism is a very well-run school. We're a tight-knit leadership group. I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. I'll do that in a moment. It sounds like I'm praising myself. I am one of the school leaders, but one of the minor ones. We had foreseen the possibility of the school closing or of campus closing. And by the time the official announcement was made, we really had already built contingency plans to move our classes online and it certainly was not flawless. I think we were better prepared than a lot of other units. I'm sorry, I'll turn off my email. We were better prepared than some other units to adjust.

Maddie Hall: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus this semester?

Chuck Marsh: Not seeing students face to face. I've always believed in the lecture format, even as much as we can adapt that and not even the lecture format, but just looking people in the eyes as we're exchanging information and me trying to teach and me trying to learn. There's just something very primal and very human about that, that even face-to-face through a screen, at least from my perspective, can't duplicate. I miss the students. I think our alternative is working well, but whatever magic that is that happens when two human beings are in the same room, kind of pursuing the same goals. We have second best on that right now. That's been the biggest change. And then frankly, the other change is gosh, as long as I've been teaching and it's been 32 years now at KU, I still have been taken aback at how much business got done with students and with faculty colleagues just in hallway conversations.

Maddie Hall: Before we keep going with the rest of the questions, I know I cut you off earlier, so if you want to go ahead and introduce yourself and talk about your role specifically in the J-School, go ahead.

Chuck Marsh: Sure. You're being modest. I think I'm the one who accidentally skipped by that. I am Chuck Marsh. I'm the Oscar Stauffer professor of journalism and mass communications. Oscar Stauffer was an old Kansas journalist and gentlemen and I just, as I told his family, it's an honor to go to work every day in his name. I've always been flattered by that position. Since last February, I have been associate dean for research and faculty development, which means I stepped into that leadership position a few weeks before all hell broke loose. So it's been a real education. Anyway, those are my functions in the School of Journalism. My research agenda, you had asked about that, is -- this is interesting to me and maybe no one else. I love classical rhetoric, the old Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, and taking their lessons of persuasion and relationship building and applying those to modern marketing professions, like PR, marketing and advertising.

Maddie Hall: How has this semester been different when comparing the Spring 2020 semester response to the pandemic to the current fall semester response to the pandemic?

Chuck Marsh: One of the biggest differences was having been able to begin the spring semester with the face-to-face with students. So when we made the adjustment, I realized I was much better at imagining the student being there. This is going to sound weird because I still see students' faces on the screen. Although as we've gone farther into the semester and, and the stresses and strains are getting worse, I've told students if I'm teaching totally online, they can turn off their camera if they want to. And frankly, most of them do. And, and so the lack of just personal visual contact for me has, has been the biggest difference.

Maddie Hall: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Chuck Marsh: That's hard for me to say because my workload has changed also, so much because of this new associate dean job that I took on. It was kind of an unexpected situation for us. So it's, I'm sorry. I don't have a very good answer for this. My workload has just gone right through the ceiling, but I think part of it is attributable to the pandemic and part of it is attributable to my kind of unexpectedly taking on a new job. 

I found that I'm more productive. I'm getting more done every day than I used to because it has to get done. The sacrifice, and I don't really know if this relates to your question or not, but the sacrifice that's painful for me is and I'm sorry, this isn't all about me, and this is my choice to do what I'm about to say, but 40% of my job is supposed to be research. And, and that is so deeply fulfilling for me and because of the needs of Zoom and additional student needs that have to come first. And I certainly agree with that. My research is probably down to about 10% of what I'm doing, and I sure don’t mean to sound like poor me, but that is sure affecting job satisfaction.

Maddie Hall: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you been emotionally coping with it?

Chuck Marsh: I'm very fortunate in emotionally coping with it. Gosh, I don't know how to say this without sounding bragging. I have a nice home and a wonderful marriage. And we were able to persuade one of my daughters to move back home, which has been great security for me, knowing she's safe and sound. So I'm -- emotionally, the adjustment for me has just not been that difficult. Being a professor and loving my research, being solitary is not that unusual for me. I have a joke coat of family arms. I designed a family coat of arms for myself, and the Latin motto is “me solum relinquatis,” which means leave me alone. And the image is the chair and a book and some music and a glass of wine. So this -- this has been easier for me than almost anyone I know.

And so I really try to be mindful of that and, and try to -- I hope -- I'm trying extra hard to imagine what it would be like to be a student in this, and especially for freshmen. I mean, all of you were having such a -- I can't even imagine, but, but to be launching into a college career, even like you getting close to the end of a college career, this -- as stressful and as difficult as university life is for a student, it also can be one of the most exhilarating times of your life, I think. And, but I think if I had one wish in the world, it would be to make this go away and let you guys get back to the full meal deal of everything a university education can be. 

Maddie Hall: Can you describe the level of participation among students or faculty on Zoom in comparison to in-person school?

Chuck Marsh: I can give you my impression of that level of engagement. It's where we're so fortunate that we've got this option. I'm imagining what it would have been like to try this 30 years ago, and we couldn't have done it. So we are so fortunate to have the technology we have, but it is second-best by 1,000 miles. Maybe it's because I study rhetoric and theories of persuasion that I don't know, maybe I've been sensitive to the face to face and, and the magic of human beings together in the same room. But there's -- there's just -- there's not a good comparison. Zoom is second best. The personal interactions, the facial expressions, that being able to have command of the whole room, seeing everybody, seeing the nuances, seeing the body language. 

I'm sure, I mean, this'll sound vain. I pride myself on being a pretty good teacher and, and I'll bet I am not doing nearly as good a job in talking with students this semester compared with previous semesters because I, and maybe this is just old guy, not adapting to new technology, but I can't read the room as well. It's, and maybe I'm wrong, but my impression is it's been pretty easy for me to tell when I'm getting too boring, you know, people's eyes rolling back in their head or that, that glances out the window increase and, and all that is gone. So I'm so grateful we have Zoom and similar programs, but it's a poor second-best.

Maddie Hall: What do you wish that students would understand about professors' experiences this semester?

Chuck Marsh: Oh boy. You know, every professor is different, but in the, at least in the School of Journalism, I think it's how much we like you and how much we want you to succeed, how much we believe in what you're doing. And so it's concerning to wonder how much this is affecting your engagement and your commitment and your ability to learn because what we're studying here is just essential. And, you know, I'll get up on my soapbox. Democracy can't survive without journalism. Democracy can't survive without strategic communications. And whether it's corporations or activist groups or governmental nonprofits, we need to know how to build honorable, honest, ethical communication relationships with one another. And anything that interferes with the success of that is, is deeply troubling. 

And, and so maybe we don't talk about that enough in the School of Journalism, but I think, I think maybe what we don't communicate enough, that the professors almost take it for granted is we just expect that, you know, how much your success and commitment means to us. And, and boy, that's being driven home to us this semester, as we think maybe we're not doing a good enough job and what the consequences of that might be.

Maddie Hall: How do you feel about the School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Chuck Marsh: That -- that has been one of the good things about my accepting this leadership position. Again, it was unexpected, and frankly, it was something I didn't want, I did it to be a team player, but one of I've always thought the School of Journalism, especially with the leadership of Dean Ann Brill and Associate Dean Scott Rienardy, has been extremely well-run. 

Now that I'm on the inside and talking with the chancellor and the provost and comparing our unit metrics and things like that to other universities, we are so fortunate to be in the School of Journalism with the leadership that we have. We were the first school to make the quick adjustment to online. As far as I can see, we've done better than the other units. Our classrooms were prepared earlier and better than other classrooms at the university. And you know, the other aspects of the university are doing well. I just think they're not up at the level of the School of Journalism where we're -- I'm not talking about myself here -- but we're very fortunate to have the leadership we have. And all of us can think of at least a dozen ways this could be better, but I think we've been super fortunate in having the leadership in place that we have to make this change.

Maddie Hall: How do you think the pandemic has changed the School of Journalism and KU as a whole?

Chuck Marsh: I think it's -- it's maybe made us think about some things that we just take for granted. Just the pleasure of walking across campus and seeing people that, you know, or being able to go into Watson Library and wander around the stacks and look for books that you've never heard of, just going and having a cup of coffee with friends and, and hearing other conversations around. I look forward to the time when we take that for granted again, that that just becomes part of your college experience again, and you don't even think about it. That's what I miss right now. And that's been such, you know ... if it's a 1-inch tall problem for me, it's a 10-foot tall problem for you guys.

Maddie Hall: How do you think KU will be better from everything that's happened this year?

Chuck Marsh: Wow. I think when we get back, one way we'll be better is we'll be so overjoyed to be together again that seriousness from professors and students will go way up. And then I'm just wondering, my father was a student at KU clear back in the 1940s when all the veterans came back from the war, from World War II. And he said, you know, he was 18 years old at that time. He said that was a great time to be a student here because when those vets got back, they were not here to mess around. Man, they were here to get an education. And I got a little bit of that. I came here as a student, righ, when so many Vietnam vets were returning. And, and it was the same thing. Those were serious guys who were here to make up for lost time.

Chuck Marsh: And I just think the struggle that you guys, you students that have been here during this time, if we can get things back to normal-ish, you are going to set such a tone for the next group of freshmen that come in. They're going to come into these classrooms, and they're probably going through the same thing in their high schools. So maybe they won't need this kind of adjustment, but they're going to look at you all who, who more than any group in a generation, don't take this college thing for granted. I'm really hopeful that just the mood of the whole campus is going to elevate the, you know, the really noble commitment we have to learning here.

Maddie Hall: My final question is what advice would you give to someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Chuck Marsh: Wow. That's a good question. And a tough question. I think some of the most important advice and this really isn't academic advice, but it's not to judge other people's experiences by your own experience. I'm having to be really cautious again, as I, and I feel guilty for saying this, but sitting in my nice secure house where I don't need to be going out and knowing that I'm financially secure. The advice would be people in those highly-privileged positions need to be super mindful of the people who are not in those highly-privileged positions. Students who are living with food insecurity right now and housing insecurity and financial insecurity, and who have parents or relatives that are ill, and they can't get there to help them. You know, I hope something like this never happens again, but it will. And, when it happens again, the people who enter it with a sense of privilege can do a lot to try to justify that privilege by just being mindful and kind and sensitive and trying to, to listen to other people and try to help.

Maddie Hall: This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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