This summer, I was diagnosed with a strange condition called frozen shoulder. Basically, I could no longer lift my left arm more than two or three inches away from my body, and getting my hand over my head was impossible. Physical therapy was attempted, and failed, which meant I had to have a shoulder manipulation, a thoroughly unpleasant procedure that entailed undergoing general anesthesia. Getting older is not for wimps!
Knowing that I would have to do this—and being aware that I might have to spend several weeks on very strong pain-killers—gave me great concern for my classes. I hate getting behind in a class, and I feared that my lectures might be somewhat bizarre if given under the influence of medication. So to counter the possible loss of class time I rededicated myself to Moodle (our version of online materials for classes). I posted study guides, the powerpoint slides from class, extra materials for enhancement, and learned how to record podcasts so that I could ‘lecture’ from home. I recorded myself talking about the readings, trying to help unravel concepts that students had previously complained were difficult to understand . I even found some humorous videos that illustrated the ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and the ‘English Civil War’ with song and dance.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to miss much time, and a few students have complimented me on the new materials they had access to. It’s better than a dose of oxycodone to have a student say “thank you, that was really helpful.” But unfortunately the students who most NEED that extra help are the ones who stubbornly refuse to use it. And nothing I can do—no amount of pleading, persuading, or downright threatening—makes a difference. The student who only wants a C or who values the sorority/fraternity/athletic schedule more than academics does not care about how hard I work for his/her benefit.
I think I’ve learned some things from this semester’s experience. The first and most important is that I’m really blessed to be at a place where people care about you! My colleagues in the history department have been wonderful throughout this experience and keep my spirits up with gentle teasing about my ‘torture chair’ (that helps stretch my arm) and my ‘gizmo’ that runs electric currents through the muscles to block the pain. And for the most part, my students have been understanding and not upbraided me for having to sit down while I lecture. More than one has shared his/her orthopedic nightmare with me.
I’ve also learned a lot from having to ‘think outside the box’ about my classes. I’ve come to the conclusion that I am even more opposed to the very idea of online classes. There is no substitute for the interaction of professors and students. It’s good and necessary to have outside assignments, but the best guarantee of getting the point across is being able to look a student in the eye while talking to him and giving that student the chance to ask questions. Plus, there’s learning that transcends the class material, learning that comes from the human connection one can’t make through a online powerpoint presentation or a podcast. A few days ago, after coming to my office to review material, a student said to me, “You made a joke in class about Miley Cyrus—how do you even know who she is?” That brought on a lot of laughter and maybe a confirmation that I am human being who watches TV, not an academic vampire who retreats to her book-lined crypt at night! Our professor/student interactions—the discussions, debates, and ramblings—are part of what makes a small liberal arts college special. I don’t want to know my students only as names on a computer roster, I want to know them as young people who are curious, who are finding their way to a discipline that they love, and who can be just so much fun to be around.
The other major thing I’ve learned is that while we should be open and innovative as instructors, we should also know our own strengths and play to them. It’s OK to try new things, but we should never abandon what we know works. I’m a terrible discussion leader, but I’m a fairly decent lecturer. I probably would not fare well in a ‘flipped’ classroom; call me old school, but that’s how I roll. I’m willing to work very hard and do extra things to help my students (even the one’s who don’t appreciate it), but in the end I think students respond most intensely to their instructor’s strengths. If we do certain things well, I don’t believe that our students are sitting there wishing we would change them. I don’t think a perfect professor, with a brilliant mastery of all types of pedagogy, exists anywhere on this planet. Maybe we need to stop beating ourselves up every time an article appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education or a fancy new technique is discussed at a conference and we haven’t tried it yet. Openness is good, we should be willing to try something new the way we urge our students to—but confidence in solid, proven methods that we can manage with flair is nothing to be ashamed of or abandoned.
I’ll keep some of my new techniques from this semester, even when I can once again throw like a girl with my left arm! But I’ve come out of this experience with the realization that not everything works for me and I don’t have to feel bad about that. So maybe it was worth it all to be a little thawed out.