News

Dr. Robert Scott Given SAS Special Award for Pandemic Pedagogy

Professor Robert Scott has served as the Anthropology Department's Undergraduate Program Director for almost seven years.  As the COVID crisis unfolded, he helped to develop contingency online teaching plans and individually coached and encouraged many faculty members.

From SAS News Digest December 2021:

Special Award for Pandemic Pedagogy
Robert S. Scott, Associate Professor, Anthropology

Professor Robert Scott is a noted teacher and has served as the Anthropology Department’s Undergraduate Program Director for nearly seven years. As an evolutionary anthropologist, Professor Scott understood the implications of SARS-CoV-2 long before most of us did. As early as February, he began circulating reputable information and preparing us for the worst while beginning to develop contingency plans for online teaching.

Professor Scott personally evaluated all the software platforms available, initially recommending Zoom and Big Blue Button, and then Zoom alone. While these decisions may seem straightforward in retrospect, Professor Scott had to grapple with vast unknowns in real time. He individually coached 18 faculty at every rank and across the whole spectrum of technological familiarity, cooperativeness, and confidence. A colleague recalls, “glancing at my inbox from March 2020 brings back the extreme chaos and stress of that time. Uncertainty and fear about what was happening in the world was, for most people, compounded by uncertainty about what was happening at work and what was expected of us. I was dismayed by reports of chaotic and conflicting messages from colleagues teaching at other schools (I recall asking a friend at UM, “doesn’t your department tell you anything?”) and I soon realized that my relatively smooth experience was the anomaly, and that it was owed to Rob Scott’s leadership.”

As spring 2020 wore on, Professor Scott laid out the options for summer and fall—and ultimately spring—online teaching. He urged each of us to develop contingency plans, imposing deadlines on everyone, including senior colleagues. Rob led training sessions on Zoom and Canvas. He test-drove VoiceThread and shared his experience across SAS in an episode of “Tea and Teaching.” He developed strategies for moving lab sections online and he produced two videos on pandemics for anyone in the department to use. Over the entire spectrum of pedagogy—Anthropology spans the gap between natural sciences and humanities—Professor Scott coached instructors on planning for the fully online teaching. A colleague writes, “Rob’s steady and responsive leadership is what enabled faculty, in turn, to provide steady and responsive guidance to our students. I am proud of the way that our department handled the transition to remote teaching, and I credit that success largely to Rob. Rob really coordinated our entire department’s response [to the pandemic] and deserves a medal for it.”

Of course, Professor Scott was meanwhile adapting his own pedagogy to the web. Professor Scott was scheduled to teach his long-running Signature Course, “Extinction” (01:070:111) in fall 2020. Not only was he now tasked with transitioning the entire course online, he joined forces with a self-described technologically-backward colleague to co-teach it. This required training both a colleague and three teaching assistants who had never taught online before the pandemic. Devoting an enormous amount of time to the project, he ensured that the course was accessible synchronously and asynchronously to meet the range of student needs. At the close of “Extinction”, students raved about the course, as they always do. This time, many commented specifically on the format. One student said, “I think everyone 'in charge' did a great job dealing with the adaptation to a virtual classroom.” Another added, “He has presented lots of information that was interesting as well as topics that he genuinely enjoyed. I liked it a lot more because of all the details he could provide that I otherwise would have missed. The synchronous format was really well done as well.” Finally, one student commented, “He is a delightful presence…. Every lecture was fun to listen to and dare I say I enjoyed taking the exam?”

Professor Scott routinely reminded the department that while we can’t change the challenges of the moment, “What we can do is offer our students the best online semester they can possibly get. Given everything they are going through now, we owe that to our students.” This was his modest goal—one that required immense patience and competence. And, he delivered. While we are not empowered to give out medals, Professor Scott truly deserves the SAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education.