Students explore COVID-19 effects on gender inequality

Like most Cornell faculty, Professor of Sociology Tori Barnes-Brus surveyed her students before finalizing her Block 8 class, Gender, Power, and Identity, which would be taught online due to the global pandemic. It would not be business as usual, and she needed to know more.

Professor Barnes-Brus at home
Professor of Sociology Tori Barnes-Brus works from her home office with her cat, Persistence.

Of course she needed their time zones and technology access. But more importantly, she had to find out how comfortable they were taking a critical look at how COVID-19 was affecting gender, power, and identity—or if studying the pandemic was going to be too painful. Most of these students were away on spring break when college leadership had to announce most of them could not return. Their belongings were locked in their residence halls and they would miss their usual end-of-the-year experiences and rituals. 

“With COVID-19 my concern was, is it too soon and is it too personal? I wanted to be empathetic, and I didn’t want to set them up to think about something they were not prepared to think about critically. As a feminist and as a gender scholar, we should be interrogating this from a critical standpoint,” Barnes-Brus said. “Some of them said they were really interested in taking a closer look at it. Some of them did say it’s going to be hard but it’s important.

“I had one student who felt uncomfortable. So we talked and I said, ‘I think you should take tonight and think about it. Here are a few articles that aren’t overtly violent or death-ridden, and then think about it and if you don’t want to do it, we’ll come up with another project.’”

The student came back and said she was ready. 

In a strange way, that did mean business as usual for the Gender, Power, and Identity course, which has always been personal and timely.

Birth in Pandemic slide
A slide from the student presentation on birth during the pandemic.

“I have my pulse on what’s the timely issue. A few years ago when #MeToo was happening, I was able to incorporate that. In the election year I had a woman politician come in,” she said. “Students often do research projects on an issue of particular importance to them.”

The class met over 3½ weeks in April and May on Cornell’s One Course At A Time block schedule. It was the only class Barnes-Brus taught, and the only class the students took. 

“The block plan gives so much more structure to a class regardless of whether we’re on campus or online. Even though my home life is completely different than my life at Cornell, the block plan was able to help me stay focused, motivated, and dedicated to finish the class,” said Ralin Corrales of Kremmling, Colorado.

The class met synchronously via Zoom two to three days a week in addition to asynchronous work. 

One aspect of the course that worked better online was the screening of documentaries, Barnes-Brus said. Instead of watching in class, students watched on their own and created video reflections on FlipGrid. Then they viewed each others’ reflections and discussed them. It worked so well Barnes-Brus will likely continue this after students are back on campus.

domestic violence report slide
A slide from a student presentation on COVID-19’s impact on domestic violence.

At the end of the block students presented their final projects on how the pandemic impacts gender inequality. Their projects included a critical evaluation of the pandemic’s effect on women and mental health, birth, and domestic violence. The Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program is continuously sharing related content on its Facebook page.

“Addressing COVID-19 in our last project really opened my eyes to see how health was being handled during this pandemic as well as other struggles that weren’t being broadcasted in the news,” Corrales said “The wage gap has been a struggle to close for years and looking at various articles about the impacts has really shocked me. I was aware of this wage gap before, but the impact it has on families and women alone is frustrating. Women’s domestic labor is not factored into the labor that they put into an outside-the-home job, so they are really being made to work more than their partners.”

As another student wrote in a followup reflection to the class as a whole: “We were learning in real-time, real-life examples.”

Barnes-Brus was one of many Cornell faculty who incorporated publicly available content on their syllabi for online courses. This is from the Gender, Power, and Identity syllabus: 

Nobody signed up for this.

  • Not for the sickness, nor for the social distancing, nor for the sudden end of our collective lives together on campus
  • Not for an online class, not for teaching remotely, not for learning from home, not for mastering new technologies, not for varied access to learning materials  

The humane option is the best option.

  • We are going to prioritize supporting each other as humans
  • We are going to prioritize simple solutions that make sense for the most
  • We are going to prioritize sharing resources and communicating clearly

We will foster intellectual nourishment, social connection, and personal accommodation.

  • Accessible asynchronous content for diverse access, time zones, and contexts
  • Synchronous discussion to learn together and combat social isolation

We cannot just do the same thing online.

We will remain flexible and adjust to the situation

  • Nobody knows where this is going and what we’ll need to adopt
  • Everybody needs support and understanding in this unprecedented moment

Many Cornell College professors found new and unique ways to connect with students during distance learning classes Blocks 7 and 8. This is part of a series of stories about those courses.