Professor Spotlight: Dr. Wiggins on How Higher Education Has Changed During the Pandemic

Teaching Through the Pandemic

The early days of the pandemic took a heavy toll on Southern Utah University faculty, as they were forced to spend Spring break overhauling their courses to be taught in a completely different modality.

After surviving the rest of the semester, faculty were faced with additional challenges such as conducting research remotely, changes to university admissions, rank advancement and tenure pausals, and uncertainties surrounding the upcoming school year.

Amidst these challenges, some members of the faculty also found time to innovate their classrooms as they incorporated new teaching methods to serve all of their students, regardless of how they chose to attend class.

Dr. Brandon Wiggins – Assistant Professor of Physics 

After nearly completing his fifth year as an assistant professor of physics, Wiggins believes that this year permanently changed the way higher education operates. 

“Higher education is dead as we know it. The only reason it’s flopping around on the ground is that the signal hasn’t gotten to the rest of the snake that it’s dead yet,” Wiggins said. 

However, he doesn’t believe that the shift in education that the pandemic has caused is necessarily a negative thing. 

“We are in a new era and that’s okay,” Wiggins said. “We are in an era where accessibility and accommodation are being emphasized.”

As an undergraduate, Dr. Wiggins received a bachelor’s degree in math from SUU  before receiving a Ph.D in physics and astronomy at Brigham Young University, completing a dissertation on exploding stars. In Las Alamos, New Mexico, he completed research remotely and is still a member of the Center for Theoretical Astrophysics in New Mexico. 

“As a student, I knew that I was coming back at SUU to teach,” Wiggins said. “I know that sounds presumptuous, but that was something I knew very early on.”

When the pandemic hit last spring, Wiggins’ thoughts as a professor immediately turned to his students and how they were processing the event. 

One of Wiggins’ primary goals as a professor is to dismantle unnecessary stress that can come with academic atmospheres, and that goal was only accentuated during COVID-19. 

“Physics has this aura of being a scary thing. The challenge was trying to make an environment during COVID-19 was trying to make it feel like things were still under control when they weren’t,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins did this by maintaining a light sense of humor, being accommodating and understanding, and trying to sustain a stable classroom experience for his students throughout the pandemic. 

“In the face of uncertainty what do you do? You try to be that one fixed point in that student’s life, and that is what the classroom had to become, something that felt stable and safe and familiar,” Wiggins said. 

Wiggins’ sense of understanding toward his students was built long before the pandemic hit after an experience he had with one of his students during his first year of teaching. 

“A student came to my office and said, ‘You’re the first person that I’ve told, but I’ve been diagnosed with a fairly aggressive cancer and I’m wondering if you can help me complete my studies to kind of maintain a sense of normalcy,’” Wiggins said.  

Wiggins emphasized that to her the insignificance of his class in the face of the larger challenge she was facing. 

“I remember having the impression then as a teacher that I should say to her, ‘Right now, physics isn’t important. You need to know that this isn’t the emphasis right now and it can’t be the emphasis right now,’” Wiggins said. 

Wiggins expressed that he believes that experience with his student struggling with cancer during the first semester of his teaching career greatly influenced how he handled COVID-19. 

As a professor, he focuses on teaching his students and offering a rigorous learning environment, but that comes second in the face of challenging times. Wiggins’ number one priority is putting “people first” and being accommodating. 

“We as professors think that our class is the most important class, but the reality is that at the end of the day SUU in general is about the people,” Wiggins said. “It’s about the individual students that are going through very dynamic experiences and we as professors have the charge to meet students where they are. In COVID, that meant something different than it did before.”

To get a feel for what his students were experiencing when classes went completely online last spring, Wiggins decided to enroll as an online student himself.

After completing a calculus course through the University of Pittsburgh, Wiggins realized his students were facing a harder challenge than he initially realized. 

“It turns out that taking an online course during COVID was grueling even though I already knew the subject matter,” Wiggins said. “The psychology was hard.”

Wiggins stated that as a professor, he has always known he was there to support students, but with COVID-19, he has been taught that again. 

“It’s been eye-opening. It brought about a lot of compassion for my students,” Wiggins said. “We’re changed, and we are stronger for it.”

Referencing the original founders of SUU who continuously went in search of lumber on the mountain again and again, Wiggins proudly praised SUU students and staff for their strength and resilience. 

“We’re SUU, we’ve done hard things. We go back up the mountain. Students don’t know how well they’ve done,” Wiggins said. “This is a once-in-100-years type of disruption, and you guys need to know you’ve done something hard, and you’re pulling it off. Good job.”


Story by: Liz Armstrong
Photos  courtesy of Dr. Wiggins