Santa Fe College Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs, Vilma Fuentes, talks with Humanities and Foreign Languages Chair, Bill Stephenson and Professor Kerri Blumenthal, as they examine the challenges and adaptations required to internationalize virtual classrooms, as a result of Dr. Blumenthal's unexpected and extended Covid-19 quarantine in Peru.
Vilma Fuentes 0:00
So welcome to Santa Fe College. My name is Vilma Fuentes. And this is our podcast on developing global citizens. Today I am joined by Dr. Kerri Blumenthal and her Chair Bill Stephenson and I want us to just take a moment and explore how one department, the Humanities and Foreign Languages Department is internationalizing virtual classrooms in the midst of this global pandemic. So, Bill, Kerri, thank you so much for joining us today.
Bill Stephenson 0:37
Yes, good to be here.
Vilma Fuentes 0:38
Kerri, where are you now?
Kerri Blumenthal 0:38
Vilma Fuentes 0:05
Where are you right now? Are you in Florida?
Kerri Blumenthal 0:42
I am not in Florida. I'm currently located in Cusco, Peru, where I have been in quarantine since, more or less since late January/ But our official COVID precaution started March 16. and so, I have been here, what started out as a two-and-a-half-month trip to check in with people who I had met while I was doing my doctoral fieldwork, turned into a 10-month extended stay that is continuing. No, no real sense of when I'll be able to get back to the US.
Vilma Fuentes 1:19
Okay, so this makes it really exciting, maybe scary as well. So, when you first went to Peru, or Cusco, in particular, high up in the Andes, in the Andean region, were you teaching for Santa Fe College?
Kerri Blumenthal 1:34
Yeah, so I've been teaching for Santa Fe since 2014 I think. It's actually kind of a funny story. Bill can chime in here. I was in the PhD program at UF, in the Religion Department and you know, at that point, the program was really large and there weren't a lot of opportunities for teaching positions. And so, Santa Fe was always on my radar. I’d adjunct at Stetson, but I wanted something a little closer to home. And I would say for maybe two , or maybe two or so years, I would email Bill and be you know, introducing myself saying, “Hey, just wondering if anything still available I want to stay on your radar”.
I would come in for an informational meeting here there. And then finally, something popped up and I started teaching Religion in America on campus, I would go to Starke, I would go to the Andrews campus, whatever I could do to get classes and gain teaching experience. And then in the last two or so years, when I was in the thick of dissertation writing, I went online, only just for the flexibility of not having to commute So yeah, I was persistent, stayed on his radar and I'm still here.
Vilma Fuentes 2:45
When the spring 2020 semester started, were you strictly teaching online?
Kerri Blumenthal 2:51
Yeah, I was strictly online, I had one or two online only courses. The plan was to be back in the States about halfway through the spring semester. But when COVID hit it was clear that I wasn't coming back anytime soon, so continued with those courses. But it was tricky. We went into a strict lockdown on March 16. Our mobility was restricted, we were only able to leave our private residences a couple of times a week and only during certain hours. And so, coordinating just simple things like going to the market and getting food and you know, taking care of basic things conflicted a little bit with trying to check in with my students, who are also going through their own their own challenges with the start of lockdowns in the United States. And so, couple that with internet that's not always super reliable. There were a lot of hits and misses in that time. So a unique semester I know for all of us, but not one that I expected going into it.
Vilma Fuentes 3:53
So I first heard about your situation. In mid-March, when I received an email from Bill Stephenson, he was rather alarmed. He was emailing me as well as a few other vice presidents on campus and he shared an email that you sent and I hope, if you don't mind, but I'm just going to read the first sentence.
Kerri Blumenthal 4:16
Vilma Fuentes 4:16
It says, well two sentences, right, “I hope this message,” this is for Bill, "Hi, Bill. I hope this message finds you well or as well as can be given the circumstances I wanted to update you on things in Peru, we're currently under martial law, borders are closed for the foreseeable future and we have been under strict quarantine for the foreseeable future.” Then it goes on. So I'm going to ask you please explain the difference. So martial law and a quarantine? Why, what, how are these similar? How are these different and how were they impacting you in your life?
Kerri Blumenthal 4:51
No, that's a good question. Because in the United States, we don't really think about, fortunately we don't really have to think about martial law, but martial law is when the people in charge, the President, although that's a different story in the last month or so, but the people in charge can suspend the constitution and limit people's mobility. They can say you can't leave your house five days a week. And you can only come out to do X, Y and Z. They could also say you can't leave your house for anything. It also means that we have armed military units all along the city with large rifles, police presence as well. But in essence, they can block off what we would think of as constitutional rights. So, the ability to move around wherever you want to go, the ability to be out at whatever times you want. In terms of our quarantine, I think it's also a little bit different than what people were experiencing in the US. So along with the martial law, along with the state of emergency where the borders, the international borders were sealed. Our quarantine and safety protocols meant that initially, we had to be at home, couldn't leave on certain days of the week, they tried to stagger it, where men could leave to go to the market some days and women on the other days. But then there are all these weird cultural misses, like men that the Saturday market day when usually men are not responsible for buying groceries and the Saturday market day is the last day that you can go out during durng the week. And so, women were kind of up in arms about that. So that was a little bit funny. What were these groups?
Vilma Fuentes 6:21
I want to hear more about this? So yes, I have these vivid images of women, many of them Indigenous women in the Andean region going to market, selling their products, buying their products. What did the women in Cusco do?
Kerri Blumenthal 6:37
You know, a lot of them, so we have at the open air markets, we have these caseras who sell fresh juices, and you know, they're also selling their produce. but a lot of the markets had to dramatically reduce the size of the people that they could have coming and going. And so, you know, maybe there's half the number of caseras who are selling things, the safety protocols, they limit the number of people, you have to get sprayed down, usually just your hands, but sometimes your whole body, to take your temperature, you have to be wearing masks. But for these initial for these initial days, the government tried to institute this thing where women could leave the house on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Otherwise, we had to be indoors, and then men could leave the house on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, which meant that any grocery shopping you need to do any I mean, that's really the only thing that there was to do at that time, would need to be done in those days. But if the markets are closed on Sundays, and the next day, you can go on Monday. That means the men are responsible for doing the shopping on Saturdays, which is virtually unheard of here. It's even in the more urban parts of town, it’s the women who were doing the grocery shopping. So, I would see these funny memes on social media, like a woman is writing this list about what her husband should get at the market. And like drawing shapes of, of mediheal and different herbs that she wants the man to buy. We have this really spicy pepper here called a rocoto, they are crazy off the charts spicy. So on one of these memes it was describing, you know what kind of pepper to buy. And it's like, if you don't know, just taste it, your mouth would be on fire if you get into a rocoto in the market. But that was kind of cute. But yeah, the logistics of life just changed a lot here are things that a lot of us really love about being here going to the markets and you know, sitting and sitting with your favorite casera and getting your delicious fresh juice. I mean, these things were just out of balance. All of the stores were closed. Living in the Centro Historico, where I live, you know, you're used to a lot of commotion, and there are these beautiful, beautiful spaces, these amazing cathedrals from the 15th century. Everything is closed off. It was like living in a ghost town. It was super surreal.
Vilma Fuentes 8:55
So Bill, let me turn to you. So from your perspective, I remember I would describe it as you were a little panicked. But maybe the milder way is very concerned when you lost contact with Kerri, explain to me what you were thinking sitting here in Gainesville, Florida, about her, about her well-being about the classes about just everything. Explain your mindset back in March, please.
Bill Stephenson 9:21
Sure. Well, I was mostly just worried about figuring out a way to making sure that we could stay in contact with her, help facilitate a way for her to return if that was possible, and that that was something that she wanted. And obviously beyond that, it was about making sure she was able to continue the work that she was doing with students. So, it was primarily about well-being but then like just getting information and figuring out what was possible and what the logistics would be. And Kerri, I remember you mentioned that for a while there, obviously we were back in communication, that it was kind of dicey to be a foreigner out in the streets.
Kerri Blumenthal 10:03
Yeah, that's true.
Kerri Blumenthal 10:04
I'm glad that you reminded me of that. Because you know, in time you sort of forget these things, and it's true, there were there were foreigners who would have rocks and bottles thrown at them. I got yelled at, on my way up around to a market when I was walking with a friend of mine. Understandably, the local population was really concerned about COVID in the beginning. I mean, they still are, but initially, it was really associated with foreignness, and, and I get it. but they're also practical things for life that you have, you have to go to the market, I have to eat.
Bill Stephenson 10:48
You have to top off your phone so that you can continue to work.
Kerri Blumenthal 10:49
Exactly, exactly. So part of our communication challenge was that when, when it became clear that we were going to be in strict lockdown, I was living in a small apartment. And you weren't allowed on the streets unless you were going to the market unless you were going to the hospital for medical care. And many of the apartments here, Cusco are really small. And so to be in that small space, without access to the outdoors, was really uncomfortable and made me feel claustrophobic before the whole thing even started. So, I moved over to this, this community called healing house, which, oddly enough, my dissertation was based in part on and there's some outdoor space, so I moved to this space, but then the Wi Fi goes out.
We also didn't have workers coming to repair the phone lines, or who could come and do this. And so you rely on on saldo, on your data for your for your phone, to be able to tether and use the internet. So, if you can't get out to buy more sell, though, you just can't connect. And so I found myself in this strange, situation where I have students who are depending on me and can't get in touch with me and are getting in touch with Bill and Bill can't get in touch with me. And fortunately, through the virtues of Facebook and WhatsApp, we were able to connect and then you know, establish, reestablish the lines of communication, which was helpful.
Bill Stephenson 12:13
it was it was really, really great first to, to get a response from you on Facebook and realize actually find you and then get a response to you on Facebook and figure out WhatsApp was a pretty, pretty good way for us to communicate and then what, what a delight and relief to actually get to talk to you real time via Canvas.
Kerri Blumenthal 12:33
Oh, that's, that's right. We did a Canvas conference to touch base. And yeah, it was great for me too, because, you know, it's you feel you start to feel really isolated when you are in a different environment. Even though I am familiar with this environment, under the circumstances, you feel like you're kind of floating out into the ether. And so, to be able to have someone to help ground you and remind you like this is your place, you're here we're connected. Was really, wasn't just helpful, it was just really, really pretty calming, because it was an intense time in those moments,
Vilma Fuentes 13:09
So one thing that hasn't quite come out, so I know you're still in Peru. But the US Embassy in Lima also closed its doors and suspended its consular services, the border shut down. I know that I was reading new stories of like Americans trying to just walk across the border, which I'm not really sure how you managed to do that in a country that's as mountainous and as diverse as Baidu is I mean, it's not just mountains. Right. But have you? were you hoping to get out sooner than you know now?
Kerri Blumenthal 13:45
That's a tricky question. Yeah. I mean, yes, my flight back to the US was mid-April. And that was the original plan. And then there was something of this, you know, we all knew that it wasn't going to be resolved by then the situation wasn't going to be resolved, the borders weren't going to reopen. And for a while it was living month by month and thinking, well, should I try to get on one of these repatriation flights, because you're right, the embassy closed, the embassy itself wasn't doing any more repatriation flights. And so, you have these private companies crop up, who were who were basically helping stranded people who were stranded, who wanted to get back stateside to do that outrageously expensive. And that was the cost was definitely a consideration. I mean, my family offered to help in that process.
But then when I started looking at the numbers in the United States, it kind of felt a little bit like, well, I can stay put here or I can go there and have to stay put there. And you know, I just actually just defended my dissertation in December of last year, and so the plan was to come back to Peru for a little while, touch base with everyone, start figuring out some next steps and then all of a sudden, everything froze, and it really was logistically financially, it felt better to, to do that here to kind of start to brainstorm a little bit here. And then I ended up testing positive for COVID. And getting very sick in the middle of the summer. And so that's a whole different story. So, at that point traveling wasn't a possibility for me, I was not in good shape for about three weeks. And then since then, I've been in the thick of it, I started teaching the Intro to Humanities course. And so I am grateful enough to have four full classes online and be able to kind of buy myself a little more time to figure out what coming home and where home actually is, what that looks like.
Vilma Fuentes 15:45
I want us to spend some time talking about your health and the whole experience of contracting COVID in another country. But before that, let's maybe spend some time on your classes. So, have you been able to convey any of these experiences to your classes of Santa Fe students? And if so, how do you do that? How do you just share anything really about this experience?
Kerri Blumenthal 16:13
Sure, you know, teaching in the spring, when all of this was so new to everyone, and I was out of pocket and couldn't quite get back in contact with my students. And then once I once I was able to do that, I just leveled with my students and said, “This is what I'm going through, this is where I am. If communication is a little touch and go, this is the reason why,” but I think it helped. I think it helped the students develop a little bit of empathy for the professor, which isn't always the case. And it helped them understand, oh, here's someone who's also going through a tricky situation and we're here. And so we can really work together to not only have a successful semester, academically, but also be there for each other as human-beings. I would do check ins with them from time to time, my online conferences, the face-to-face meetings that I'll sometimes hold really started out with, how are you? How are you doing? Do you need anything. And so it was really helpful in that regard, it created this human connection that I think is sometimes lost in online courses, where I joke with my students at the beginning of the semester, I am I am a human, I am the one who is leading and teaching this course I am not a cyborg. Not in the sense that you might be thinking of, and I'm not a bot. And so this was an opportunity to really hit that home. And so, I was grateful for that. And then that's really continued. The summer things seem to settle a little bit for for online students. And I think the numbers were maybe in a place where people were more comfortable. And then I got sick. At which point, there was another opportunity for me to say to my students, listen, this is my situation i am i'm going to be doing my best, you are not going to be held responsible for any challenges or shortcomings on my end due to my health. So let's get through this together. And then this fall, it's been similar, I think we have kind of a crazy fall with the political season coming to a head and then numbers in the US not going in a super favorable direction. And I know it's changed the way as I said, it's changed the way my students relate to me. But it's also changed the way that I relate to my students. I think, I think really just humanizing the experience for all of us and taking students at their word, offering support checking in making sure that that people are doing okay, because I think right now a lot of people are just are just treading water and trying to get through as best as they can and offering whatever support I can to make that a smooth process for them, in addition to creating a favorable learning environment,
Bill Stephenson 18:53
And you've been putting a lot of time into doing little video lectures, as well, really wonderful, I've seen a couple of those and they're terrific.
Kerri Blumenthal 19:01
Yeah, it's, the nice thing about being in Peru and having the context that I have is that I, I have people who can help me create more creative resource, I have a little more time on my hands being here than I would being back in the States. And so my religion and America courses are asynchronous in theory. But I found in the early iterations of the online course that I was teaching that the class just wasn't as engaged. I felt like I was offering an independent study. And so with a friend of mine, who's a videographer here, I've done some mini lectures for each of my units. and been able to add that and learn a little bit more about that sort of technology and how to engage online students. And what would bill has, I think, rightly, characterize this kind of a flipped classroom model. And so that's been fun.
Bill Stephenson 19:48
It's, I think those are really helping. Give your students a sense of your passion, about about your subject as well. Something that doesn't often come across as well in virtual virtual environments.
Kerri Blumenthal 20:06
Yeah, I think you're right, that's I am a pretty dynamic teacher, I move around the classroom, I am also very high strung, which is something I throw out to my students at the start of the semester. So I'm going to be going all over the place. And with these with these videos, it's an opportunity for them to get a sense of my personality and for me to talk with my hands and have them see them. And I mean, now we're accustomed to zoom, but it's not quite the same. And I think that helps.
Vilma Fuentes 20:34
So this is great. Thank you for sharing. Have you been able to expose your students here in Florida to a little bit of Peruvian culture and religion? And yes, yeah. How do you expose them to the world?
Kerri Blumenthal 20:52
Yeah, so my, my research, I'll touch on that really quickly, because that's a good segue to how I can then bring that into my classes. But my PhD is in religion, My interest is religion and globalization, migration, tourism, and spiritual practices, indigenous inspired spiritual practices. And Cusco is a real hotbed for indigenous inspired spiritual practices. So Andean rituals, combined with yoga and spirituality and Reiki into this amalgamation that foreigners in particular are participating in. And so even in my, you know, in my religion and America class, for example, if we're talking about new spiritual movements, we'll talk about Andean inspired spiritual traditions that are not just here in Latin America, but they are they are in the United States as well, people, there's this cross fertilization that's going on between the Americas. And so we have this, this flow of ideas and practices. So that's one way. The other way, at least with the religion in America course is really early on. Religion in the Americas was one of my my research areas, but really teasing apart what we think about as America. And, you know, we've got this course that's titled religion in America, but what does that actually mean? And what does that mean to people here in Peru, who also consider themselves Americans. So being able to give some concrete real-world examples that help us break down and, and tease out some of these challenges that, you know, for a lot of people, they may, they might go on an investigated or on evaluated. So. So that's been fun,
Vilma Fuentes 22:39
That’s a great way to begin a class because I know throughout my life, and I've had the opportunity to travel to many places in Latin America. And inevitably, in almost every trip, somebody will look at me and say, Why do you all call yourselves Americans? We're all Americans, right? There's one America. And as you know, in Spanish, we are ciudadana de estados unidos, right? Like a United States citizen, you're not an American, but we in the United States call ourselves American. So it's really, it's, it's great to have that opportunity to, to just analyze this terminology, and why have we appropriated it as our own to the exclusion of others? And how did they gain it back?
Kerri Blumenthal 23:22
Right, to locate the politics of that, and to take some ownership over it. And then, you know, some people say, well, What's in a name, but there's, there's a lot at stake. And having had those same conversations with people here has been helpful, it's been able to, I've been able to, to use that, you know, to kind of break apart these categories. And that's really helpful just in in the study of religion. In general, we've got this thing, this category called religion that we understand as like a concrete object of study. But really, it's just based on the categories that the scholar or the students are using to describe it. And so it's a way to take the, the particular or the specific and make it make it broader and then use that as a jumping off point. Because in my religion classes, but also in my humanities classes, my goal as a humanities professor is to help students understand that not everyone sees the world through their eyes, the way that they the way that that this individual sees the world through their eyes. So, we all see things differently. And that's okay. But through these classes, through sharing these experiences that I've had overseas here in Peru, being able to equip students with the tools to be able to do that in an objective way to understand why someone doesn't see the world in quite the same way that they do, and be able to make sense of it just on those terms.
Vilma Fuentes 24:50
So, to ask things slightly differently, how has living through this pandemic and martial law and political instability? We haven't even touched on that one, right? And how, throughout 2020, right, it let's just say the whole year you've been doing this, how has that impacted your teaching? And maybe more importantly, your perspective on teaching?
Kerri Blumenthal 25:17
Hmm, that's a really good question. It's challenging, because this year has had so many unexpected twists and turns, and just hard stuff that we've all had to grapple with and deal with. And so, I think, I think it's helped me. I think it's helped me keep things in perspective, I think there's this idea that, especially for newly minted PhDs that you then have to go out and get your tenure, track job and change the world and do all these things, when really important, small changes and connections can be made, right where you are. And it shifted my perspective, and maybe my priorities a little bit more to that, that those are really the things that are important that our time is finite, and it can be filled with a lot of really challenging things. And so it's important to make those connections, it's important to level with people. I think, I think that's been that's been sort of, I wouldn't say latent, but something that I've tried to harness in my teaching, and now it's just all the more important. So there's, there's that that's sort of the the meta. And then from, you know, a more subject specific context, particularly humanities courses, you know, these courses are designed to help students understand and cultivate their own ability to see how feelings and ideas and philosophies are expressed. And the humanities are all the more important in moments like this, because we see this variety of human experiences and the variety of expressions that come out through that. And so there are a lot of creative means by which people are doing that right now. And I think that's a really interesting thing to be able to bring to, to bring to classes and studying and teaching.
Vilma Fuentes 27:15
So, this has been a really heavy year, almost right, like full of a lot of challenges. I think that's a word many people, you know, a lot of things have been unexpected, and they've been challenging. And have you had any comic relief in the process? Or is there anything funny happened to you? And have you been able to, like, inject this into your classes? You know, this,
Kerri Blumenthal 27:39
I feel like 2020 is a mix of like, they're really challenging, and just the so absurd that it's funny. You know, it's like every moment is full of this. They're not contradictions, but it's this blend of feelings and experiences. So yeah, I mean, I have tried to learn some new skills while in quarantine. I heard this also happened to people in the United States, but I tried my hand at sourdough at learning to bake sourdough. And sourdough is tricky. under the best of circumstances, you have to grow this, this masa, it's like a pet. And so, I would have my little jar of masa and it was doing super well and you weigh it and then you don't more and then you add more flour and more water. And it is no exaggeration to say that I probably tried 15 different configurations of oven temperature. adding extra water I'm up at 11 and a half 10,000 feet. So baking anything is really difficult. sourdough I think I bit off a little more than I can chew, no pun intended, because it was a dramatic failure and the the people who I was living with at the time in this house, I drove them crazy. There was flour everywhere, all the time of masa super sticky. It gets stuck on you. So that was one of my bla, I was really disappointed about it. But I also saw the humor in buying kilos of flour whenever I went to the market and wasting most of it. I was kind of a bummer.
Vilma Fuentes 29:09
And I heard there were some interesting stories with construction workers outside your window or something.
Kerri Blumenthal 29:18
Oh, goodness. Well, yeah. So now things are a little more open in Cusco, which is wonderful, but constructions not particularly regulated here. And so, it's not uncommon for your neighbor to just pop up a second or third story with drywall and some beams. And as I'm looking out onto my view here, I can see that that is just the case. But the other day I was slowly waking up and heard some audio Speedwagon blasting from my neighbor's. He the musical tastes are eclectic and varied. So yeah, so that's been that's been interesting. The other thing that has been To me, it's not funny to my friends, they find this really funny. I have this obsession with buses and public transportation. And now that things are more open and you can take buses, it has become my my goal to figure out the entire bus system and Cusco. And they all have these funny names like Batman and trying to think of some other ones and some like Petula and Spanish names, and I found this app, that's fantastic. So my goal is to kind of puzzle my way around the city, if I have to get across town to I don't know to I volunteer at a at an NGO here. So, if I have to get there like to figure out how I can do that really quickly. And that's been a trip, my friends think I'm ridiculous and don't understand why I can't just hop in a taxi. But I love the idea of being able to figure out this, this kind of local puzzle.
Vilma Fuentes 30:49
Very cool. Bill, normally we sit here during our podcast, we tend to focus on students and the impact our students are the impact on faculty, but from an administrator's perspective and chairs perspective, how has this experience? It may be exposed you more to the world, not that you were aware of it before, but how has it changed your perspective on teaching?
Bill Stephenson 31:15
Well, I have to be honest, I'm not I'm not sure how much it's changed my perspective on teaching. I mean, to me, it's just remarkable what Kerri has been able to do to be so successful with so many challenges with the quarantine with the martial law with its you say recently, political instability and also getting really ill. I mean, Kerri's probably the first person that I knew who got seriously a little with COVID and I have passed her words on to me on to so many people, she said, “This is no joke, you don't want to get it do everything you can to stay away from it.”
And so my behaviors actually changed because of it. I think other people I know have taken it began taking it a little more seriously. early on. And so I I have appreciated you know, the opportunity, I probably carry carry, and I've had more regular conversation over the last 10 months, you know, than we had previously. Although we did you know, we did communicate with some regularity. But it's been great to, to maintain and kind of deepen that relationship with her. And that's, I guess what have to say.
Vilma Fuentes 32:46
For me, what stands out is? So it's interesting, you said that your area of specialization was religion, migration, globalization, but just how small if you will the world has become because you're in another latitude, longitude, altitude, you name it any tude? Right. And, but here you are, and you're still teaching for our students here in North Central Florida. And reminding them that, yes, it's a globalized world. And there's so much that we can learn from other parts of the world, no matter where we're sitting and what we're doing. So thank you for sharing your experiences. It's really quite phenomenal. And I look forward to hearing more about your experiences in the future.
Kerri Blumenthal 33:32
Yeah. Thanks for the opportunity to share.
Vilma Fuentes 33:34
Bill Stephenson 33:36
Always good to talk to Kerri.