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Honors Biology professor takes time to help students juggle challenging schedules

By: Carol Stuart

Biology Professor Dennis Mullen has had to adjust some of his instruction while teaching first-semester Honors Biology classes in the middle of a pandemic—but it’s communication with his MTSU students where he’s especially making extra efforts.

In each of his Fall 2020 courses, 10 of the 20 students rotate by odd- and even-numbered weeks into in-person lectures in their Honors building classroom, where they can interact with their professor. The other half can watch Mullen’s instruction remotely on livestream or later on video, and then the next week the groups switch. Students also alternate for the lab portion.

“I think the biggest challenges are knowing where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there, for each of their multiple classes,” Mullen said.

Dr. Dennis Mullen teaches Honors Biology. (Photo: J. Intintoli)
Dr. Dennis Mullen teaches Honors Biology. (Photo: J. Intintoli)

“Their lives have got to be confusing and complicated. So, the thing that I’m trying to do more than anything else is just constant communication . . . so they’re not surprised and they can plan for it.”

Each Friday afternoon Mullen emails students outlining exactly what’s happening the next week. And, during a Zoom meeting with 25 Biology Club members recently, he just asked, “How’s it going? What are your biggest challenges?”

“That’s what they said - knowing what they had to do for each of their classes each week,” Mullen said. “I can imagine. It’s a challenge of coordination, planning, especially for freshmen and sophomores who really have not ever had to do that in their lives before.”

Just the other day, a commuter student from a neighboring county emailed and said, “Can we talk? I’m struggling.” Mullen quickly gave out his phone number.

“We had about a 20-minute conversation about how to handle the stresses. She’s living at home, she has some classes on ground, some classes completely remote, and she just needed help with time management, being able to keep up with her classes and study,” he said. “Hopefully, I was able to help her organize a little bit better.”

(Photo: J. Intintoli)
Dr. Mullen makes sure to check in with his students throughout the week every week . (Photo: J. Intintoli)

Each morning Mullen arrives an hour before class per his normal routine, but now he conscientiously checks not only on any labs but also technology (MTSU’s new Panopto video system equips each MTSU classroom for livestreaming/recording. Mullen said he did have to post signs reminding him to wear the microphone!). And then, masked up, he waits any student who arrives early to talk.

As a department, Biology prioritized students getting some in-class instruction even with social distancing required—and opted to go with lab exercises that supplemented lectures rather than those reinforcing material. That meant rearranging the lab sequence and syllabus.

“The extra part was just planning out how to conduct a semester . . . in a room that can only hold 10 students and do as much on ground as possible because I think it’s really important,” said Mullen, the department’s chair.

“I think the students really appreciate having some face time, being in room with the faculty.”

Mullen, likewise, appreciates teaching students in a classroom. The March shutdown was a shock to all when instruction suddenly went remote.

“The biggest challenge was spring semester, going from being able to stand in front of my classes and deliver what I hope were coherent lectures and convey the information and ask questions and interact with the students, to sitting in my office and trying to deliver content in a meaningful quality, high-level manner without actually being able to make eye contact with my students,” Mullen said.

Instead of his usual method of writing on the board and sharing images, he typed up a sentence-by-sentence “script” with visual links and emailed about 25 pages on weekends before class Zoom meetings in Spring 2020.

Now, although he has a son who started graduate school this fall, Mullen believes the COVID-19 crisis will make him more in tune with students and better “understand the stresses of their lives . . . even without the pandemic.”