Interview with Yuehan Liu, Visiting Student, Spring 2020
Yuehan Liu Visiting student, Barnard College, Spring 2020 Rising Senior at Beijing Foreign Studies University
Please introduce yourself and tell me a little about yourself.
Cool, my name is Yuehan (I also go by Hailey) and I’m from Beijing, China. I was actually a visiting student last semester at Barnard. And I’m a junior, majoring in linguistics.
Were you visiting Barnard for just this year or a semester?
I’m visiting for just the semester. And my home university is Beijing Foreign Studies University. This is a program we have with Barnard for juniors. We can visit and study at Barnard for the semester.
As a visiting student, how was your time at Barnard? I know you didn’t get your full semester.
Yeah, but still I feel so good studying at Barnard. When I first arrived, everybody was just so welcoming. And I had a little bit of an issue when I was selecting classes, but I’m glad I had my academic adviser, because I’m a linguistics major, so there was a limited choice for me. There are also regulations from my home university about transferring credits, so there’s kind of limited space for classes, but we worked that out.
Did you have a good experience with your adviser at Barnard?
I think because we don’t have this kind of academic adviser thing at my home university, the experience is pretty unique. It’s nice to have someone to talk to - a professional to talk to when you’re picking your classes. And someone who knows all your professors, that feels pretty good. Like they can just call them and say, “What is your course about? [Can my] students take this?” and that’s pretty cool. And it really facilitated my process.
Have you kept going to your adviser with questions during the online period?
Yeah, I actually reported to her, Professor Cobrin, how I was having trouble--like, I’m traveling back home, so I’ll probably miss some of the classes and if that’s okay. And also there’s this policy at my school: previously we were actually transferring letter grades, so scores out of 100. But this time, as you know, Columbia/Barnard changed it all to pass and fail. So we’re still figuring out how we’re going to transfer credits given this special situation, so we’ve been talking about that.
Describe how online learning has been going for you. What changes or surprises has the format brought that you weren’t expecting?
I think generally speaking it is going okay. I feel good to still be connected and still be able to attend class and listen to lectures, given this situation. But also there are several frustrations, like the technical issues. And when I first landed in Beijing, I went into collective quarantine. So also these types of environmental factors affected me attending the course. But I think generally it’s still good to have class, even though we’re not meeting [in person].
What is collective quarantine?
It’s kind of a new regulation in China. When people have been traveling and enter China, they have to quarantine for two weeks when they land. You have to stay in this quarantine hotel and you cannot leave your hotel room; there are health inspections. You will be sent meals and cannot leave the hotel room. And you have to take your temperature twice a day and report [the results]. And when you get through this cycle healthily, you can just go back home. But when you land you cannot go straight home. Those are the new health regulations here because of the pandemic.
How was that for you? You were presumably attending classes during that two week period, right?
Yeah, yeah - so I got lucky. When I got back I think on March the 24th, Barnard/Columbia had just decided to extend Spring Break. So during my traveling days there wasn’t any class. So class started when I landed and kind of got settled in the hotel room. But the quarantine experience is actually pretty good at first, because you’re all on your own and you can do whatever you want and there’s actually no day and night in the hotel room so, you know, I kind of lost the sense of time. But then it got really boring: it’s fourteen days, two weeks in a room. But I think generally it was good and it passed really fast because I was sleeping most of the time. But also there’s like this frustration of the internet connection, the time difference, and all that kind of stuff. So it was pretty rough at the beginning.
Describe the time difference. That must have been hard since the time difference is so significant.
Yeah, I actually had two classes that are four meetings a week, in the afternoon Eastern Standard Time - so that’s like right in the middle of the night in Beijing. When I first stayed in quarantine, I was still kind of jet lagged, so I attended a lot of the meetings right in the middle of the night. I attended a couple of live Zoom classes at first and then I just listened to the recordings.
But when I listened to the recordings, I felt the quality of my own studying was kind of decreasing because you cannot have those timely interactions with the professors. And sometimes when I listen to recordings, when a professor asks “Do you have any questions?” I’m like, “Yes, yes! I have questions!” But, you know, I cannot just ask right away. I probably would have to write an email afterwards, so that’s kind of an issue of listening to the recordings. But still attending class at 2 am to 4 am every morning is just not that possible. So I have to [use] recordings for most of the time. So I think that’s been a little bit frustrating for me.
Have you been communicating with professors outside of the scheduled lecture times?
Yeah, I have been writing emails if I have any questions. That’s the main channel for our communication.
What experiences from this period do you see as positive?
I think first, as I mentioned before, it’s so good to stay connected and to be part of this community during this time, because I actually feel pretty good attending class and listening to recordings. This is really [a time] of uncertainty, but it is good to know that every week you’re still going to meet with your professors, like pretending that your academic life and your campus life is going on just as regularly. So I think it’s good to have that kind of routine in this kind of social distancing life right now. And also, [I think] online classes give more free time and autonomy to individuals for their schedules. You know, you don’t have to get up early or to save the time for getting from classroom to classroom. I think that’s something positive, I guess. You have more control over your own schedule and you can kind of arrange more things during a day because you can save the traveling time.
So are you finding that you’re actually busier these days, because you’re scheduling more things in a day?
Sometimes, yes. Like some of the days where I have a lot of work to do. But some days no, I just kind of have more time to rest.
From what you were saying before, it sounds like classes have given you structure for your day, even if it’s a flexible structure.
What has been the biggest challenge with online learning?
I think, actually, when online classes have been going on for a while, there are only minor challenges like technical issues and the time difference, but I can conquer those. The greatest challenge that appeared to me is that feeling of uncertainty when I decided that I would travel back home [to Beijing] when I was still in New York. But what about all the classes going on during this process? And I didn’t know what I would be facing when I landed because there is a lot of news coverage about how people are getting infected during the flight. During the flight home it could be somehow dangerous. And also the policy in my country is changing daily so you’re really not sure what you will be facing and what regulations you will be subject to when you land. So during that time I had a lot of things to do and also because I’m here with this program and also I’m actually sponsored.
My program was sponsored by the government, the education department, so I had to get in touch with a lot of people in the government who are running our program and also my home university, our teachers. Because we’re being sponsored we have to get some kind of permissions and there was a lot of paperwork. And meanwhile I also had to get in contact with my professors here [in Beijing], to let them know that I have this situation, I might not be attending class [or] I might miss some of the deadlines, so I was worried about that. I think that period of time is when I felt the most challenged, because I was dealing with so many things at the same time and I wasn’t sure where everything was going. So after that, when all of the online teaching started happening, I felt that it’s going to be okay.
Did you consider staying in New York at first?
Yeah. I was actually thinking, “I don’t want [to go] through all the trouble traveling back, given all the problems.” But a lot of my classmates decided to go back. I felt kind of alone and anxious if I kept staying in New York alone. So I just decided to go back as well.
Did that impact your online learning at the time or were you not doing any online learning?
I was pretty lucky because during that time it was still in the middle of all the decision-making of Barnard and Columbia so all the classes were still suspended. I think I just had one week of class before Spring Break and after that Spring Break got extended, so that’s when I was going back home. So I got pretty lucky because there weren’t classes going on during that time.
Have you learned anything about your learning processes now that you’re doing your learning in a very different environment?
I think one of the biggest things I’ve noticed is that I’m very dependent on the whole academic environment and just the vibe of the classroom is kind of like a motivation for me to study. I realized at home you’re in a relatively laid back environment. And that’s really affecting my attention span. And I have noticed that my attention span is so short. Like I cannot focus for a period of time, like [I can] at school in a class or in [the] library, so I realized how dependent I am to [on] the learning environment [and] how I lack the feeling of being on campus.
So I think I realized that I really value the whole package of campus life in my education.
What have you been doing to cope with that now that you’re doing it from home?
I feel like there’s not much to cope with because, you know, there’s nothing I can do. But what I can do is to still try my best to get in touch with all my professors and also try to stay focused when I’m listening to recordings and when I’m doing my homework.
What advice would you give professors as someone who’s experienced being online for half a semester?
Actually I think given the situation of students staying all around the world in scattered locations and with very different circumstances, so I think it would be really good--a lot of professors are actually doing this - but I think it would be really good to consider all of the kinds of conditions students might be facing. One of my professors was using Skype for office hours, but I just kept having trouble connecting to Skype, so I just communicated with him via email. But, you know, email and the written form and communicating like this is different, so I think that actually kind of discounted my experience [of office hours]. But he did not say anything about coping with a new platform for this kind of live office hours so we just kept talking via email, which is still good but I think it would have been better if we could have communicated earlier about how we could find a way of speaking live online. So I think that is one thing I want to mention.
And for the rest of it, I just don’t feel like there’s a lot for professors to do as well. Given the situations of technical issues and the affordances of this kind of mediation as a whole, I think other than acknowledging everybody’s different conditions and kind of resolving some of the technical issues and learning how to use the platform and stuff, I think other than that there’s not much to do.
Going back to the story about the professor who only uses Skype for office hours, what would have been a better option for you?
I wrote an email talking about how I cannot get on Skype and how I wanted try to figure out a new platform for us to meet face to face, but I don’t think he replied. I think he probably had his own reasons [because] probably he wasn’t available on other platforms. So I think it would be better if the school probably can provide more tutorials or instructions for professors - like explaining there are other options for you to use with students. I think that would be pretty good.
You couldn’t get onto Skype because of internet problems?
I don’t think it's the internet; I think it’s just one of the technical issues. When I log in it keeps saying that my account is not right. And also because we have to get a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to access CourseWorks as well, so that’s like [an] extra time bomb on the technical issues - like the VPN could be off sometimes so we cannot get online and connected onto CourseWorks.
So is there anything else that you think it would be helpful for a professor to do if they’re keeping in mind all the different situations people are in?
I think all of my professors have actually done that, rearrange some of their content and structure of the course after this happened and make it more suitable or more convenient for students to cope with given all of the uncertainties. I think that is really sweet and the professors have also been encouraging us during this time and I think that has been really helpful for me. And also I think Barnard had these kinds of tutorials online for professors if they encountered any technical issues, because one time when I was accessing the recordings it suddenly demand[ed] a password and I asked my professors and he said he didn’t know about this. The system just suddenly put the password on and he didn’t know how to resolve that problem. But after that he found the tutorials Barnard provide[d] and that got resolved. So I think [my advice is] just still stay connected with students and get updated with all the technical stuff.
So what has been the most helpful thing that one of your professors has done, either for you or the whole class?
I have this class--it’s about linguistic anthropology and the professor is Gretchen Pfeil. This is a seminar class and we are submitting journals weekly and we have papers to write, but after the pandemic she kind of turned the whole class around and turned it into an ethnographic project.
The ethnographic study sounds so cool!
Yeah - so she just cancelled all of our papers. That’s really cool. And she kind of united the class and turned it into a project that we’re doing together. So each of us can pick a topic from the stuff we’re interested [in] during this pandemic that is related to linguistics or related to anthropological investigations, so we can write posts and we are now trying to build this website and put all of our posts online. I think that’s pretty cool.
That’s really cool!
Yeah, it’s also good to have someone instructing us this whole time.
That sounds amazing! What topic are you doing by the way?
I’m actually doing a project, “Noodle and the Pandemic” about Wuhan during this pandemic and how people are reacting. There’s this phenomenon of using a kind of food, a kind of [cuisine] that is called “Wuhan Sesame Hot Noodles” to refer to Wuhan instead of saying that--instead of just saying the name. People are saying that like “Sesame Noodles, carry on” and “Welcome back, Sesame Noodles” and people are using sesame noodles as a metonymy for Wuhan, kind of a metaphor for Wuhan - and I’m studying this linguistic phenomenon.
Do you want to share anything that we haven’t yet talked about?
I think I’ve mentioned most of what I wanted to share, especially how stressful it could be at the beginning, like during the [switch] to online studying, especially for international students, given that they were probably returning home. And also how I like the feeling of structure all of my classes have given me during this really uncertain time and how that feels good to me. And I actually feel kind of empty given that lectures are ending now.
Interview by Sophia Gates, Rising Junior, Barnard College