An undergraduate perspective on the return to in person classes

By: Lily Houtman, undergraduate student and social media coordinator for the UW Geography Club

After over a year of virtual learning, classes have finally regained some semblance of normalcy at UW–Madison. For geography students, this means a return to Science Hall, with all of its quirks and charms—from too hot or too cold classrooms and plenty of stairs, to beautiful architecture and an impressive view down State Street.

For many geography undergraduates, this is the first semester that Science Hall is their home. Geographers often discover the discipline midway through university, so many of us were not geography majors before the pandemic. I myself, now a cartography and GIS major, took my first cartography course in spring 2020 (just as the pandemic was beginning) meaning my semester began in person, but ended virtually. Now a senior, I am excited to complete my degree in person.

UW Geography Club students carving pumpkins

More than anything else, in person courses have reminded me of the seemingly insubstantial moments that make life meaningful. When I sit in the UW Cartography Lab, non-academic conversations arise naturally, as a peer receives an important news notification, or sees a funny tweet. We share a laugh, and soon get back to work. However, these random, fragmented conversations never occur with virtual classes. These moments are essential, though, in getting to know my peers as people, not just as scholars.

In my courses, too, discussion arises much more naturally in person. I am currently in a seven student human geography seminar, and after a year of awkward Zoom interruptions, it is a relief to use body language to indicate that I wish to speak next, or see that another student has a comment. When we held the class virtually during the week of Thanksgiving, there was a clear and obvious drop in participation. Human conversations were always meant to involve full, animated bodies, extending language beyond just words. The head and shoulders (or worse, a turned-off camera) visible on a video call aren’t enough for fulfilling connections.

Students with carved pumpkins in front of Science Hall, October 2021

Beyond coursework, I am perhaps most excited for the revival of many department traditions in my role as an officer for Geography Club. We host “Department Donuts” (now with gluten free and vegan options!) monthly, and serve pizza and host a quiz bowl at every Geography Club meeting. These are traditions that my now-graduated peers have shared as one of their favorite parts of the UW Geography Department. Luckily, with the help of other seniors, we are able to bridge the connection between pre-pandemic undergraduate traditions and the post-pandemic undergraduate experience. I hope that myself and other undergraduates can use these shared experiences as a starting point to make connections and network with alumni of our program. After all, what better says “UW Madison Geography” than grabbing a donut before attending the Yi-Fu lecture in your Wisconsin Geography cow shirt!

Author: Geography Staff