• Sylvie Epstein

Aiding and Abetting

Preceptors make Zoom class possible—but what exactly do they do?

By Sylvie Epstein

In the spring of 2021, Professor Alfred Mueller taught a 3000-level physics lecture in which the student with whom he worked most closely was not actually enrolled in the class. The student was Devin Friedrich, a then-sophomore in Columbia College majoring in History, of all things. Through Handshake and a simple cover letter, Friedrich had “pitched myself as a Zoom student who knew what people would need.” He landed the position of “Al’s” preceptor and found himself attending Electrodynamic Waves and Optics in Pupin every Tuesday and Thursday, January through April.

The role of preceptor was created in Fall 2020, at the start of Columbia and Barnard’s first entirely virtual semester. In response to, “distinctive challenges presented by the virtual learning environment,” the University hired students to assist professors with their technological challenges. Any student in search of employment could apply for a preceptor job during the past three terms, but the majority of positions are filled by those on work-study. For student workers accepted to the preceptor program, the professor pairing process is entirely based on course schedules, with no regard to class material or familiarity with subject matter. Hence Friedrich, who spent his summer in the bowels of Fayerweather sorting Italian letters with our editor-in-chief, precepting lectures on Maxwell’s equations. Placed outside their areas of study, dozens of our peers tasked to aid the functioning of the classroom wound up in unusually interdependent and sometimes even laughable relationships with professors whose course assignments may as well have been in hieroglyphs.

This September, on the first day of United States 1940-1975, the classroom computer unexpectedly failed to record sound. The handful of students Zooming into class couldn’t hear a word of Professor Mark Carnes’s lecture concerning the Great Depression’s influence on World War II. It fell to our preceptor, Katherine Flanagan, to rectify the technical difficulty and restore knowledge of the Atlantic Charter to us students. Flanagan rose to the occasion, finding a solution in the microphone of her personal laptop, which she placed on stage next to Carnes. She followed him around for the duration of the lecture to ensure consistent pick-up of his voice.

Friedrich said he, too, had to follow Mueller’s movements with the expensive video camera he was given, but his responsibilities extended beyond the few hours a week of lecture. Devin’s help was requested on Fridays, when Mueller held “live Blackboard office hours.” And because students were only permitted to attend virtually, Devin was the only student Mueller interacted with in person, one-on-one. Not quite able to rhapsodize about thermodynamics together but needing to fill the time, the two ended up “having a friendly rapport … talking about life in Morningside Heights, life generally. Chatting on the way out of the classroom about running down to Zabar’s.” Because Mueller does not use email, Devin was his primary student contact.

Illustration by Rea Rustagi

Columbia and Barnard preceptors are the odd-job guys on campus—their role and responsibilities feel nonsensically simple. “I feel like my role in the classroom is to be as unobtrusive as possible” shared Grace Novarr, BC ’24, the preceptor for Nick Smith’s lecture, Urbanizing China. But when life was virtual and isolating, they were friendly faces to talk with about lox or Manhattan park preferences. When technology fails us in the hybrid space, as it so often does, preceptors swap out arm day to hold their personal devices for 75 minutes to record our lectures. When the video on a live-streamed class buffers into oblivion, they kindly guide the professors in rectifying the problem. And sometimes, on days when no students need the Zoom link, preceptors are fully allowed to sit there, “while everyone else is taking notes and … play Flappy Bird.” But though none of us may exactly be sure what preceptors are expected to do, they still manage to make new friends, learn new subjects, and provide us all with a bit of comfort knowing we won’t have to be the ones to fix the WiFi.


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