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Pan 'Jackie' Liu: 'You're jumping from fire to a hot pan'

Pan "Jackie" LiuPh.D. student Jackie Liu had just returned from China when he found out the news that KU was closing for the rest of the spring semester. He had traveled back into the United States with his mother successfully, just before travel bans were put in place. At that point, nobody thought the coronavirus was a big deal, but things went downhill significantly after that. 

One of the biggest challenges Liu has faced while adapting to the changes on campus is teaching online. He feels it’s difficult to know whether or not his students are learning the material. Since the pandemic, his workload has increased significantly because of the need to accommodate all of his students, including those abroad and the ones who have contracted the virus. 

► Listen to the audio version here.

Kara Daneck: This is Kara Daneck. Today is Nov. 6, 2020. I am interviewing Pan “Jackie” Liu for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. Going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: I was actually -- I think I just came back from China when this thing just happened. And then with my mother, unfortunately, I mean, fortunately, sorry, fortunately we didn't have a burden at that moment, so I was able to come to the United States with my mother successfully without any shenanigans or travel ban and COVID tests and stuff like that. But -- and then I come over here, I even worked until March break, the spring break, which I think at that moment, the whole school or the whole American public knew that it existed. But they didn't think that it was a big deal of it, right? So all my main source of information that I got from coronavirus actually [was] from both Chinese media, because that's unfortunately where it originated from, and the U.S. media. I just want to see, of course, how other people may, in different countries, may report on it.

And then definitely I just got the information nobody thought it was a big deal. At that time, I think the scientists predicted that that is going to be a million, a couple of million people being contracted and at least a few 100,000 people were going to die from it. And everybody thought that was kind of a hoax, which, you know, was different from the definition of hoax, you know, from Donald Trump. But we really saw that wasn't really big of a deal ‘cause that was really out of the ordinary how they interpreted it. But yeah, and then after fall -- after spring break, the whole campus just locked down. Just surprise and things just go downhill significantly after that. I hope I answered your question.

Kara Daneck: Yes. How has this semester been different comparing spring semester with the pandemic to fall semester with the pandemic?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: Well, personally, I think this semester is way worse. There are a couple of reasons. First of all, my workload, since my mother was there, you know, I specifically altered my workload ahead of time. So last semester was my easiest semester so I could, you know, take care of her. And so I didn't have to teach online. And quite honestly, the School of Journalism, you know, it's really treating me very nicely because I was helping Chad Curtis on broadcasting as a broadcast coach. And after spring break, I really didn't have a lot of things to do.

And all my school work, which was now pretty hard, there was one online class. And then one statistics class was shifted online. That's my own class, but it really, to me, it was somewhat better because I could -- I was able to go back and forth and check the course materials. I guess there's another class, yes, this Python class, it’s a coding class. So that one wasn't really affected, either, ‘cause I really needed to go back and forth and check the materials and so forth. But this semester was a lot different, first coming from spring semester and everybody had, you know, physical and mental fatigue and we just thought it was, you know, just harder, we have to do this again.

And then I think every class that I was taking somewhat shifted online, even though some of them were not clearly labeled as online, but everybody just voted in to say that we just want to do it online. So I was pretty tired. And I had to teach online in the business school, which everybody knows that was not an easy class to teach at all by all means. So yeah, I have to drive to campus once every week and just teach them and grading and all those things are happening on my end. It was just hard. Yeah. And of course, I mean the pandemic has significantly affected our, you know, daily or secular, whatever you want to call it, life as well.

You know, which means that some shops or supermarkets or, or those facilities will be closed temporarily where some of them even close for good. I just found out that my bank branch, one of the branch of my bank, U.S. Bank, was closed permanently. You know, that was pretty close to where I live so that's the living issue, one of the living issues that really affected my life -- so granted, you know, my mother has left and I’ve had to deal with all those things, you know, by myself and there was -- I just got, unfortunately, some personal issues going on as well and difficulties. So this semester, you know, it seems like it was far more difficult than last semester from my personal perspective. Yeah. But I think one thing that would be in common is that people definitely have this accumulated fatigue carried on from last semester that will be something in common I assume.

Kara Daneck: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: One of the biggest challenges I am facing adapting to campus, I guess, is just first of all, you know, the business school, at least this was the case, you have some stairs that only allow you to go up and certain stairs they only allow us to go down, and you have to figure out, and you have to detour every time you go there. And every time you go to the classroom, there was no student or were probably one, two, three or no more than three students over there because most of them opted to take this course online. And then it was just, just, I mean the teaching style is way different; it’s hard to teach online. It is really hard to teach online, and I bet Dr. Finneman can concur or can testify this. You can’t really effectively pass your knowledge or your instruction to students effectively. Most of the time, you don't really if they're not there. There are a lot of restrictions, you know, forcing them to turn their camera on, which I understand because when I was taking my own class, I sometimes don't want to turn the camera on, you know, so I could do my own things while listening to it, but I was paying attention.

But my concern as the instructor was saying, I didn't know if they’re paying attention to it. So it was just hard.

Kara Daneck: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: My workload was increased, has been increased significantly. At the beginning of this semester, I even didn't know if I could -- if I could do it because we need to accommodate with a lot of students who either first are not in this country, right? We're talking about international students who are not able to be here due to travel ban. And those people, students of mine, who contracted coronavirus, of course, you need to by all means, you need to accommodate them. And those who just didn't want to come over here, which I understand as well due to use of safety measures. And then sometimes it’s hard to put students together. And then at the beginning of the semester, you were suggested to teach multiple sessions, to duplicate multiple sessions to accommodate, you know, each and every student, you know, at least most of the students. And that was just hard because they had doubled or tripled my workload. And I, you know, I understand the rationale behind it, but you only get 24 hours a day. So it's really hard for you to, to do that, you know, successively as an individual. But I do understand the need, but it's just hard.

Kara Daneck: Yeah. How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: Well, at first, I think me, but not only me, but also I think everybody else was thinking that this thing is going to be gone. As I mentioned earlier, it was just not a big deal ‘cause we've had Ebola things and all those, like even 20 years ago, actually seven, eight years ago, there was SARS. I think there's sort of like a pneumonia thing. And then there's some other things, swine flu at one moment. I think, you know, these may have caused some, you know, stirring moments, but none of them were like this. I mean, I think according to the research that last time a real pandemic happened, it was, you know, the Spanish flu [in 1918]. And that was almost 100 years ago. There's no way that our generation or even last generation, sorry, previous generation would be able to experience this.

So we really don't know how to react to it. I think we're trying to downplay it at first. And then we realized this really is a real serious issue. And then we just had to deal with it. But I think the whole momentum has been lost. What we're talking about the word momentum, steady momentum, that's just the necessary consequence of it. So yes. In essence at first nobody thought it was a big deal, including me. And then we realized this is a real difficult issue. So, we just decided to deal with it. And there really -- there's no better solution. We try to cope it, of course. I'll try to not make a big deal of it, try to buy food and work from home. But still the amount of fatigue of working from home is just not cope-able, you know, it's just not doable. So we're -- we're trying to cope, but I really couldn't tell you how much often effort has it made.

Kara Daneck: Yeah. How do you feel professors have handled the pandemic?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: I think they've all been doing a very good job. First of all, you know, they recognize this situation, and then they were trying to be accommodating. You know, either from my own coursework or from my teaching perspective, supervisors of mine, or professors of mine, were really trying to cope [with] students' needs and stuff. If we, for example, if we ask for a deadline extension, most of the time, they would. They'll be way more lenient than what, you know, they would have been if coronavirus wasn't there. Definitely that was one thing. And the other thing is that they were really trying hard, at least the professors that I was fortunate to have, were really endeavoring to change their teaching styles and alternate their teaching strategies to make sure they have the online learning either synchronously or asynchronously will be as effective as if we were able to go to the classroom.

Of course, the technical thing is the macroscopic picture that, you know, some of the things just, you just can't change, but really try to find out ways to bypass it or to strengthen the pros of online learning. So I think they have really been doing a good job there, able to push out deadlines of modules together and simplify their modules, which I think, you know, it could be applicable even after the pandemic. That's the reason why a lot of people say that a lot of the changes will be permanent, especially in higher education. Because sometimes when teachers, professors, are teaching, there is some fluff in it. But right now, we'll just have to cut all the fluffs, get straight up to the point. The lecturer professors’ posts tend to be a lot shorter and a lot more concise because you just can't possibly watch like three hours. You just catch yourself being distracted. So, some of them opt to post like five to 10 minutes, very concise version of the material. But if you don't understand it, it's all right. You can go back and forth and check it out, you know, multiple times as you need. So I think that's a great constructive way they came up with to do deal with this pandemic.

Kara Daneck: Do you have plans to adapt your education or career to the current situation?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: Oh boy, that was a -- that was a tough question to answer. I'm still trying to figure it out. Right now, as a Ph.D. student, our main job -- there are two main jobs of ours aside from taking courses. One is teaching, which it doesn't happen to change a lot, quantitative-wise. I mean, just the delivery has changed. So that part is, is pretty secure. I can put that on my CV, right? Let's talk about pragmatic. And then there's another part, which is researching. And this part has been hard because we're social scientists. And then we just could not possibly implement some of our original -- our research plans that require human subject research. Of course, you know, if you're interested to be an oral historian, I guess, this is a great thing for you because they don't need IRB approval anyways. By the way, IRB is, I don't know if you know this, IRB stands for institutional review board.

So it's like an ethical board of KU that oversees each and every person who’s conducting research at KU. So basically, if you want to do research, you have to submit your proposal to them and then tell them what you're going to do. And they're going to decide whether you can do it or not, which they have very big power as we can tell. So for human subject research, it was fully banned at first. For right now, it was partially banned and has been really restricted. And then you have to follow a full list of health-related protocols, which I understand.

But at the same time, you know it does disable some of the research that requires, for example, face-to-face interaction and stuff. I was concentrated on psychophysiological research, as we know that we have a lab called experimental research media lab at KU. And I was part of this lab. We use eye tracking and we put sensors on people's face and their body to measure their psychophysiological data while presenting them a stimulus. Right now, it's just impossible. We could not do it. It's not going to be approved. And then I assume that a lot of people would not be able to or are not going to be willing to participate in it anyway. So this part has been shut down. I mean, at least temporarily.

So yes, so in the future, if I don't have a lot of research that's being published, you know, due to this, of course it's going to be affected. So I'm thinking about either going back to China, really. You know, I would find a job there because I'm not a [U.S.] citizen. And once I graduated, I either find a job -- sorry, I have to extend this. This has been really because the current president of the United States [Donald Trump], at least now, he was trying to restrict immigration policies. This significantly affects international students and especially those from China, of course. And then of course, a lot of institutions will not sponsor visa anymore. That means that there are jobs out there. You can see the job market can be pretty good, but it doesn't matter because you are excluded from those who could be hired.

They don't sponsor visa after six months, sometimes a year. You know, if you don't get a job, which likely you won't, because they're either under a hiring freeze or they don't sponsor international visas. We have a lot of prerequisites we have to fulfill in order to stay here. That'd be the case, I just can't possibly find a job here. I won't graduate until 2022, but there are students who will try to graduate this year or who graduated this year, international students who just could not find a job. It really doesn't matter how many publications you have. It's just -- there's no job for you. And that's really hard. And then they had to go back to China and all those things they were trying to build up in order to find a job was completely, completely diminished due to this pandemic.

Kara Daneck: Yeah. How do you feel about the School of Journalism’s response to the pandemic?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: Well, I think it's pretty sufficient. Our dean, Ann Brill, did a good job sending out weekly emails. And especially during the beginning of the semester, I was trying to tell students to encourage them and to inspire them and to just say that we're all together. And then, they're trying to implement the safety measures. And then as a GTA, or I guess, you know, for any of the professors in the school, we were asked our preference of teaching either online or in person before they assigned us jobs. So that was pretty accommodating, which I know how hard it was. It’s just impossible right now. There's another level of variety when you're trying to put those classes together, you know, assign those students and instructors, which was originally not an easy job to start with.

So yes, they have been doing a good job. I was personally really surprised because I had to purchase flight tickets for my mother, which was 10 times more expensive than what it used to be, 10 times more expensive. And then Dean Brill, even though I didn’t even talk to her about it, she heard it from somewhere. And then she was sending me Dillon’s shopping cards and I think $200 cash. I can say that. And of course, it's not going to be anywhere near the amount of money I spent, but I also realized it’s a full mercy. I just should not even take this $200 or shopping cards for granted. They really try their best to help students. And there was a nutrition nook over there. Really, I think Journalism School is doing a good job. Of course, they have difficulties, some problems they could not solve. If you put yourself in their shoes, which we're in right now and I do understand since I’m both an instructor and a student, I know some of the things were not as perfect as you might want it to be, but they're really trying their best.

Kara Daneck: How do you think KU will be better from everything that's happened?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: Well, I would originally say that I pay tuition so you as administrators think about that ‘cause that was my concern, too. But since you ask, I think, first of all, KU has been doing a good job. I think the most important thing is to control the number of cases, which of course requires some sort of enforcement, which this is, you know, in itself a paradox because if you enforce that and students are at home, their well-being, or satisfaction of joining a school will be lower. So this is the paradox. It's not an easy answer, but still you don't want people to keep being contracted and die, and this whole thing is going to collapse if that happens to be the case.

So basically from my perspective, the decisions are really hard to make since you're jumping from fire to a hot pan. I was actually thinking about if we just put everything online all together that might be a result. But I mean, it's really not depending on KU, but depends on the whole microscopic social status of the United States of America. The United States is a democratic country. So, if you don't control other people in this country, which in essence, you cannot possibly do that, then it doesn't really matter if you just control everybody at KU because people do contact with each other and other people do come in. And then there's no point to do that. But I guess it will look better on the face, but still the people could get infected. The students could get infected in Chicago or elsewhere. So if the status quo is not changed, really there's little that KU could do other than micro-level accommodation.

Kara Daneck: Yeah. And lastly, what advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Pan “Jackie” Liu: I think first of all, a democratic society has a loophole, which I suggest people from 100 years from now really will think about the system of democratic society or a democratic regime and try to fix this loophole. Because most of the time, democracy sounds a really great idea. And, you know, it's been testified for 100 years. However, when there is extreme emergency cases, democracy can't fix it. For example, a pandemic. America is f***ed up. And a lot of the European countries are f***ed up, but Americans are more f***ed up because Americans, to some extent, run in this sort of democracy. And people are encouraged to hold different ideas. So people won't listen to one voice, especially when this voice has something to do with forcing you to do something or get yourself at home and stuff. I don't see how this thing is going to be like totally controlled. I don't see this happening in the United States. Just because the type of ideology, constitution, so on and so forth, that this country is built upon. So yes, fix this loophole. Otherwise the United States might not be destroyed by other residents, but it might be destroyed, according to Bill Gates, by a small, subtle virus. So that’s something I would like to tell them.

Kara Daneck: Thank you, Jackie. This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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