As one of the first liberal arts colleges in the country to make digital fluency a requirement for students with the Foundations curriculum, Barnard takes pride in how it introduces and enhances new modes of teaching and learning. Given the historic challenges of our time, the College created new and innovative learning experiences over the summer to help students think critically about today’s most pressing issues — health, economics, race — and to introduce avenues where they can turn their ideas into action. To advance Barnard’s stellar interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum in STEM, the humanities, and the arts, faculty across departments collaborated to create new courses and co-curricula that will help students better understand the world they’re inheriting, while giving them the tools needed to make positive and effective changes in their communities and beyond. 

Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020 is one example of how Barnard’s commitment to faculty-student interaction is centered and strengthened across disciplines.

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With students in mind, the College pioneered a new first-year course, Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020, especially for the Class of 2024. With a focus on the year’s historic challenges and weighty issues — such as the health, social, economic, political, and ecological upheavals — faculty across disciplines serving as First-Year Experience directors will guide students through difficult questions and share the tools needed to examine what the current intersecting crises reveal about scientific knowledge, existing power structures, historical value systems, and the institutions that produce and reinforce them.

“This course was born from a genuine desire to better analyze the profoundly destabilizing time we are in — a time that is often described as ‘unprecedented’ or having ‘no rule book,’” explained Cecelia Lie-Spahn ’11, associate director of the First-Year Writing Program, director of First-Year Writing Workshop, and lecturer in English. “I’m excited about the way this course simultaneously honors the newness of this moment and pushes back on that framing a bit.” The directors of Barnard’s First-Year Experience programs worked collaboratively to bring this big course to students: Lie-Spahn; Laurie Postlewate, senior lecturer in French and co-director of the First-Year Seminar Program; Pamela Cobrin, senior lecturer in English, director of the Writing Program, director of the Speaking Program, and co-director of the First-Year Seminar Program; and Wendy Schor-Haim, director of First-Year Writing Program and senior lecturer.

Uniquely student-centered, each discussion section will be coordinated by specially-selected and trained student facilitators, such as Digital Humanities Post-Baccalaureate Fellow Sylvia Korman ’18, and will give first-years the opportunity to get to know their upper-level peers. Big Problems also includes a larger lecture series featuring prominent voices and renowned culture experts that will be open to the entire Barnard community. 

Roxane Gay

New York Times contributing opinion writer and bestselling author Roxane Gay is also a professor, editor, and social commentator. Gay is the author of The New York Times best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist, as well as the short story collections Ayiti and Difficult Women, the novel An Untamed State, and the memoir Hunger. Gay’s writing focuses largely on the intersection of feminism, sexuality, and race. Gay will inaugurate the series on September 16. 

Linda Villarosa

Award-winning journalist Linda Villarosa is also an author, editor, novelist, and educator. Currently, she is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, where she covers race, inequality, and health. Villarosa is the author or co-author of several books, including Body & Soul: The Black Women’s Guide to Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being and the novel Passing for Black, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Villarosa will share her insights on October 14. 

Roberta Schwartz

Roberta Schwartz is the executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital, one of the Texas Medical Center’s founding institutions. She is responsible for overseeing all operations at the 924-bed hospital, which U.S. News & World Report named as the No. 1 hospital in Texas for seven straight years. The healthcare expert, who focuses on how innovation in medicine can be achieved through excellence in clinical care, research, and innovation through digital technologies, will present a lecture on November 11.


Sian Leah Beilock

President Sian Leah Beilock expressed her excitement over the new course. “I love that our newly designed curriculum will focus on the current moment, asking students to use different disciplinary lenses to interrogate and learn from this time in history,” President Beilock said. Imagining the topic that she might address, President Beilock said, “If I were teaching a Big Problems class this year, I would specifically focus on the achievement gap in education — the fact that children coming from lower-income households gain less knowledge across the school year than their higher-income peers. How will the current pandemic exacerbate this gap? What can we do to close it?”

These are the types of questions Big Problems will ask students to consider. The course is designed with two elements: an open-to-the-community lecture series featuring prominent thought leaders who will contextualize the current moment and small discussion sections for students to think through the problems to create innovative solutions. 

“I am confident this course will help us all respond as more informed, collaborative, and creative thinkers,” said Lie-Spahn.
As students work remotely in small discussion groups around Big Problems topics, first-years will foster community among each other and collaborate on projects to be preserved in Barnard’s Digital Collections.

Digital Innovation at Barnard

Big Problems joins an established group of innovative Barnard programs that reimagined learning and integrated new technologies long before COVID-19 made such transformations imperative: 

In Fall 2016, the College’s Foundations curriculum began requiring all students, regardless of their major, to take at least one course focused on Thinking Technologically and Digitally, one of six modes of thinking at the center of a Barnard education. Barnard formally established its own Computer Science Department in 2018 and welcomed a renowned expert in digital learning to helm it beginning Spring 2019. And when the new Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning opened its doors in Fall 2018, it brought technology-enhanced learning spaces together, in the form of seven interactive centers designed to help students explore design, media, movement, empirical reasoning, computational science, and innovations in teaching and learning.

The Center for Engaged Pedagogy, which opened in 2018, explores “the possibilities of education as an active process through which students and faculty can experience mutual growth and empowerment and establish meaningful relationships between class material and their daily lives.” This critical work empowers Barnard faculty members and students to conceptualize the classroom in radically different modes. At the outset of the pandemic, the CEP launched regular online office hours for faculty looking for individual assistance with Canvas, Zoom, and online learning. For students without laptops who had to leave campus because of COVID-19, the CEP borrowed laptops from the Empirical Reasoning Center (ERC) and Digital Humanities Center (DHC) and worked with campus partners on a laptop loan program to support students in need. They also collaborated with the Barnard Library and Barnard’s Instructional Media and Technology Services (IMATS) office to establish a virtual student support team to help answer questions, brainstorm solutions to issues the community might be facing, and share tips and strategies to support learning.

The Empirical Reasoning Center was also a source of leadership as Barnard shifted to online learning. Since 2012, the ERC has been an integral resource for everything relating to quantitative data at the College, offering training for statistical and textual analysis and geographical information systems software in both individual and classroom consultations. When the pandemic forced everyone off campus, the ERC worked closely with the staff of CEP, IMATS, Barnard College Information Technology (BCIT), and Columbia University Information Technology (CUIT) to assist students and faculty in obtaining remote access to costly proprietary software and to loan out laptops to students who need them for online learning at home. They have also continued to host workshops online and to provide the same support to students through individual consultations that they offered in person before the pandemic.

With the opening of the Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning in Fall 2018, the Movement Lab at Barnard became a space for experimentation and exploration at the intersection of dance, performance, and technology. Outfitted with leading-edge resources, the Movement Lab integrates learning and experimentation with hands-on experiences in areas such as filmmaking, performing arts, animation, lighting, sound design, music, fashion, photography, anatomy, virtual reality, engineering, and other fields of study at the College. With support from the Dance Department and the Sloate Media Center, the Lab’s team, led by assistant professor of professional practice in Barnard’s Department of Dance Gabri Christa, worked effectively to transition their April 4 Moving Body–Moving Image Biennial Festival online and welcome guests to explore “Aging & Othering” on screen and in society, via short films, video installations, and virtual discussions with filmmakers and guest speakers. The virtual festival was viewed by an audience of thousands from 52 countries — in person, they would have been limited to 220 attendees.