UNI professor teaches from distance


Being housed in her hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband, a newborn daughter and her parents was not what Brooke Wonders expected when she left Cedar Falls in May of 2019 for a professional development absence.

Wonders is a professor in the UNI Department of Languages and Literatures, as well as a non-fiction writer.

What started out as a trip around the country full of research and writing, with plans to circle back to Iowa in July of 2020, turned out to be a roller coaster for Wonders.

“We got here in May of 2019 and have not made it anywhere else. It has honestly been a running joke,” Wonders said.

Wonders said when she found out she was pregnant, they still had hope for traveling a little after their daughter, Maeve, was born in April. But news of the pandemic arose in March, and it hasn’t been a safe choice.

“It has been quite the year, to say the least,” she said.

Arizona, among others, is one of the top states in terms of number of COVID-19 cases. According to the state health department’s coronavirus tracking website, Arizona had 198,103 cases of COVID-19 as of 3 p.m. on August 23, with 4,771 deaths. In comparison, Iowa had 56,275 positive cases at that time, with 1,036 deaths.

Unfortunately for Wonders, Flagstaff is also next to the Navajo reservation, which has had, per capita, the worst number of cases in the nation.  After looking at those numbers and being informed of the Tyson Plant outbreak in the Cedar Valley, staying put in Arizona looked to be Wonders’ best option.

“We looked at all these pieces and thought, ‘It does not seem safe with a newborn,’” she said. “We are stranded, in a sense.”

Jim O’Loughlin, Languages and Literatures department head, allowed Wonders to teach online for the semester, saying she had a lot of “reasonable concerns” about her situation.

“My experience has been, as long as faculty members are willing to work a lot harder, they can still do really meaningful classes online,” he said.

However, he admitted that it is a lot harder than it seems and stated that he believes if the pandemic had occurred five years ago, schools would not have the flexibility or tools to be put in place as they are now.

O’Loughlin said that Wonders is a beloved teacher, and he is looking forward to having her back in person.

“I do get the sense that she would love to be back here in person as well,” he said.

Wonders is teaching a full course load online and said it has been a difficult transition.

“I am deeply committed to offering a meaningful learning experience in my classes,” she said.

Wonders said she has spent the past month learning new applications of familiar tools—

especially Blackboard, G-Suite and Zoom— in order to maintain her usual standard of teaching. She also has taken workshops and planned out different activities during Zoom meetings to keep class interesting and engaging for her students.

Wonders plans on traveling back to Iowa and hopes to see students in the spring, although her plans are still “to be determined” after the first semester.

“It is not ideal, but I am super hopeful we can make it back in December, weather and health permitting,” she said.