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Lisa McLendon: 'Is KU going to move online?'

Lisa McLendonDr. Lisa McLendon said the transition to an in-person and online hybrid model has taken some getting used to even with the summer months to prepare for the fall 2020 semester. As the News and Information track chair, McLendon has seen how the stress of the pandemic, on top of 2020’s already-turbulent social and political climate, has made this semester a difficult adjustment for both students and professors. McLendon mentions that her biggest challenge this semester has been fostering relationships with her students, who are mostly freshmen, because Zoom makes it easy for students to hide, ultimately affecting their learning. 

She also says that the pandemic has opened her eyes to the ignorance of American society. As a journalist, she is disappointed in the way a public health crisis has been politicized and deemed a hoax by so many who choose to ignore science. Regardless, McLendon is pleased with the J-school leadership’s proactive response to the pandemic and the J-school’s smooth transition into the school year.

► Listen to the audio version here.

Maddie Hall: This is Maddie Hall. Today is Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. I'm interviewing Professor Lisa McLendon for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project.

Lisa McLendon: Hi, I'm Lisa McLendon. I'm chair of the news and information track in the School of Journalism.

Maddie Hall: All right. 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?

Lisa McLendon: Well, it was spring break and it was still kind of, like, confined largely to Washington state and New York. And so, you know, here in Kansas, we were aware that something was going on and aware that it was kind of getting worse, but, you know, it still seemed kind of distant. And then it was about how, I mean, I think it was kind of rolling. I mean, people had sort of started talking about, Oh, “is KU going to move online?” A lot of other schools had already done that. And so I don't remember exactly where I was when -- when it finally was like, Oh yeah, we're going to do this ‘cause I kind of -- everybody kind of knew what was coming. So I was probably at home. I said, I don't know. But it was not at all unexpected when the news came because everybody had sort of expected. OK. Yeah, we're all going to be -- we're all going to move online here.

Maddie Hall: How has this semester been different comparing the spring 2020 semester with the pandemic response to the fall 2020 semester with the pandemic?

Lisa McLendon: Different problems. I think, you know, we knew going into fall that it was going to be, you know, some mixture of in-person and remote, probably skewed more toward the remote side. And so, you know, we have a chance to really plan for that and set classes up that way. So it wasn't like a big, “Oh my God, we all have to scramble” kind of, kind of moment. We knew that this is how it was going to look. You know, I think that what -- what I said when I said new problems, I just kind of meant that, OK, so we've got everything kind of planned for this, but, you know, actually doing it, then it's like, wow, OK. This is really different. And the people who teach sort of the in-person and on Zoom at the same time, that really took some getting used to. Students, I think, were having a lot more trouble than they would if it had been just sort of an in-class semester.

I mean, because everybody's sort of stressed out about the pandemic in general and people are stressed out about race relations and politics on top of that. And they're trying to learn in this weird sort of either all remote or semi-remote setting. I mean, it was just -- it's sort of a recipe for a lot of stress and, you know, mental health issues and things like that. So in the spring, it was sort of like, well, here we go. We're all in this together. We're kind of figuring this out as we go along and, and you know, it was -- it was stressful on the one hand, but everybody's expectations were kind of like, let's just get through it. And I think in the fall, you know, we're like, OK, this is how we're going to have to do it. And then there was just a whole other set of challenges that we were -- that we were dealing with.

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

Lisa McLendon: I think the biggest challenge, for me anyway, I think the biggest challenge was, you know, finding and nurturing that sense of connection with students. I teach a class of freshmen or largely freshmen. It's a freshman class. I mean, it's Journalism 104, which is a writing class that's, you know, required as soon as you enter the J-School. And I've got mostly freshmen in it, but a couple of transfer students and one senior who, I'm not sure how he ended up in the class, cause he's not a journalism student, but whatever. And you know, again, sort of, you know, freshmen, when they come to campus, it's already like a new environment. It's a new way of learning with new expectations. And now we're, like, taking away all their fun and piling on a whole bunch more stress. And so I think for them in particular you know, it's been hard for them, really hard for them to find that sort of sense of connection there. They're working really hard at it and they're, you know, the best little bunch of troopers I've got. But you know, I think that that was a problem that, I mean, I think everybody, it wasn't unexpected. Everybody knew that, yeah, this was going to be a problem, and we're getting creative to try to deal with it. And some things are working, some things aren’t.

Maddie Hall: Yeah. How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic, your workload as a professor?

Lisa McLendon: Oh my God. It's so much more. It's so much. I mean, everything takes twice as long. Online grading takes twice as long online, prep takes twice as long online, meetings take twice as long online. I mean, not class meetings, but you know, I mean, like the meetings that we have as professors, the meetings that I have as an administrator in the sense that I'm a track chair and, you know, we have meetings, but all that kind of stuff, I mean, everything takes so much online and people are like, “Oh yeah, you can work from home.” And it's like, I'm glad I can largely work from home, but it doesn't mean anything's any easier. You know, I mean, it's like I can take a stack of quizzes and blast through them and mark them really quickly, you know, and when I'm grading them online, it's a much more slow process.

You know, same thing with student writing, I've got essays, you know, pieces of writing, not essays, but texts that my students have written. And, you know, if it was a piece of paper, I could circle things and put a little question mark and mark them up and, and do that really quickly. And if I'm trying to leave comments online, you know, I can do it using VoiceThread if I want to or I can kind of mark it up, like you would with a pen, only that's with the mouse and it takes forever. And then you mess up and you have to delete and you have to start all over again or you can type in comments. But again, it's like just something like that is longer.

You know, students, it's a lot harder for them to just sort of, you know, stay after class and ask a quick question. They have to make a Zoom appointment. And so you have to set the appointment up for, well, first of all, you have to email back and forth and find a time and then set it up and then have the appointment when it, like, would have taken literally five minutes at the end of class. So, you know, that's -- it's like I'm working twice as hard, but I'm not getting twice as much done.

Maddie Hall: Yeah. I definitely feel that.

Lisa McLendon: And I'm sure the students feel that, too, because it does -- it takes a whole lot longer to just do pretty much everything online.

Maddie Hall: Definitely. Could you describe the level of participation among students on Zoom in comparison to in-person classes, just from previous semesters?

Lisa McLendon: It's a lot easier to hide on Zoom. I mean, yeah. There's going to be classes where you have students who, you know, they’re shoe shopping while you're working on something in class. That is not new, you know, depending on what kind of class it is, you know, I mean, generally the classes that I have tend to be smaller classes and if you're working on an activity, then they actually have to do something, but, you know, I'm thinking of like bigger classes where it's more lecture based and people can just kind of check out if they sit in the back and that's fine, but you know, when you're remote, it's so much easier to just turn off your camera and just check out. Even if you don't really plan to do that, there's so many distractions right there on your laptop.

Or like my writing classes at 8 o'clock in the morning, I'm sure some of them log on, black their screen and go back to sleep because you don't actually have to, like, haul your butt up the hill and get to class anymore. And so, you know, I'm not blaming them because I probably would've done the same thing as a freshman. But it just, it does make it -- it makes it easier for students to kind of check out and, you know, that isn't -- that's not the most effective way for them to learn.

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

Lisa McLendon: Well, I mean, it's something that I've thought was very serious all along. But I mean, part of that is because, I mean, I'm college educated. I know a lot about science, I'm a journalist, I read credible news sources. And so, you know, I'm not thinking that it's a hoax. I'm not thinking that it's fake. I'm not thinking that it's overblown. You know, the nice thing about working at someplace like KU  is you've got friends who are actual scientists and they can tell you, they can give you the scientific perspective on stuff, which is -- sometimes it's really good and sometimes it's very scary. So, I don't think my perception of the pandemic itself has really changed very much. It's, you know, what's changed a lot is my perception of society and the American populace. You know, that, that people would -- that a segment of our population would be so willing to actively ignore things that are protecting themselves and their families. The people are -- they want to politicize nonpolitical things like public health and science. That to me is really scary. And also, you know, that  has affected my perception of our society.

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

Lisa McLendon: Probably that we're just as stressed as they are. But that we have to, you know, hold it together and present this aura of calm and yes, we know what we're doing. Even if we don't, even if we aren't calm, even if we're, you know, we hope we're doing the right thing, that we're trying our best. That we're, you know, I would like students to know that we are working really hard to try to give you a good educational experience. It may not be the one you signed up for. It may not be the one you wanted, but we're trying to make it effective for you so that you actually learn stuff. You know, that because we want you to be able to go onto the next level without feeling like you're not prepared. I would want students to know that.

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

Lisa McLendon: Oh, I think it's been fantastic. As the news track chair, I was on the, you know, sort of the journalism planning group, and we met every week all summer long planning things. And oftentimes the J-School was like out in front of Strong Hall with things that we had decided to do, you know, measures we had decided to take, things like that. And I think that, you know, the dean and the associate dean were very much putting students first. They were always thinking about what is going to be best for our students. They were thinking about protecting students, protecting faculty, protecting staff. For the J-School leadership, I was really very pleased with the fact that, you know, we ordered -- the J-School just went ahead and ordered face shields, plexiglass, things like that before KU kind of got on the ball and did it.

And because we ordered stuff early, we had stuff well in-advance of the semester starting, whereas lots of units in KU were kind of scrambling. You know, we could have, you know, probably -- the dean wasn't sure that, I don't think, that some of it was going to get paid for and she didn't care. She was like, “We're going to order this stuff so that we have things for our students and faculty to be safe. You know, we know that we need this, whether KU decides to finally do it or not, we know we need it and we're doing it now.” So I was really, really pleased with the response.

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

Lisa McLendon: I think that, I mean, I think that it has let people know that sort of, you know, I hate to get jargony, but multimodal class delivery is possible. That sometimes -- it's kind of nice to have options sometimes. And that people I think are far more comfortable with certain aspects of technology than they were before. And I think that's a really good thing. I think that because we were able to deliver education flexibly this fall, I think students are going to come to expect a little bit more flexibility in course delivery in the future. I think people are also going to realize that there are some things you can't do remotely. There are a lot of things you can do remotely, but there's some stuff that you really can't and that's OK, too.

You know, that I hope that we can get better at realizing what things have to be done in person and what things don't have to be done in person. You know, and I think that's not just for the university, but for the work world in general, you know, that there was, I think before this, a lot of places were like, “Oh, we're not going to have people working remotely and it'll never work.” And they're realizing that people work actually harder when they're working from home. They're more productive a lot of times when they're working from home. So, you know, I think that that will change not just at KU and in institutions of education, but, you know, sort of in, in the work world in general. It'll be interesting to see how much it sticks around, let me put it that way.

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

Lisa McLendon: I think the key will emerge, you know, sort of realizing kind of what I just said, that, you know, some classes it's OK to deliver in more than one format. That you don't -- you don't necessarily lose something by moving online. You lose something by moving online if you don't do it very well, if you don't have a plan for it, but for some students being able to attend school this way is actually a benefit. For students with disabilities, for students with chronic health conditions -- that this can be a way to make education more accessible to some people. And that's a good thing. So what was the question again?

Maddie Hall: How do you think KU will be better moving forward?

Lisa McLendon: Yeah. I mean, I think that that's better to make education more accessible to more people. That's a good thing. You know, that, I think KU is going to need to look at, you know, is going to, right now, it's got to consider student needs. It's got to consider faculty and staff needs that, you know, that people make a university run and you need to make sure that those people are safe and well for the university to run. And it doesn't really matter, you know, what else happens. If you haven't gotten students or you haven't got faculty, do we actually have a university?

Maddie Hall: My final question that I'm asking everyone during this round of interviews is what advice would you give to someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Lisa McLendon: Listen to the doctors. Don't make it political.

Maddie Hall: All right, well, this is the conclusion of this oral history.

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