Monday, September 25, 2017

Brain Videos, IV Bags, and Deadheads: The Most Interesting Teaching Experience Contest

Today's Spartan Stories post was written by Arlen Hansen, a PhD student in History. Arlen worked in Special Collections and University Archives during Summer 2017, assisting with research related to the University's 125th anniversary celebration.
Michael McIntosh

One day in 1998, sitting in the UNCG Dining Services facilities, Michael McIntosh, an Associate Professor of Nutrition at UNCG, would recall the exact moment—on a day twenty-four years earlier, that he knew he wanted to be a teacher. It was the day the new English teacher arrived at the mission school in the small village in Cameroon, West Africa, where McIntosh was a Peace Corps volunteer. A few months earlier, the previous English teacher had had to leave the country suddenly because of a serious illness, and McIntosh, who had been training local farmers in fish farming (to enhance local production and consumption of protein-rich foods), was pressed into service as an interim English teacher at the mission school. The next day he found himself out of the field and in front of sixty French-speaking junior high school students. McIntosh would soon discover that their level of comprehension in English was about the same as his own comprehension in French. Over several weeks, McIntosh and the students learned to communicate with each other by use of hand signals, demonstrations, models of all sorts, and blackboards full of chalk. It was difficult, but at last McIntosh felt that he was making real progress. McIntosh described the following three months of teaching those Cameroonian middle schoolers as some of the most fulfilling of his life. And then the new English teacher arrived, and McIntosh sadly went back to the fields. It was at that moment, he knew he wanted to be a teacher. McIntosh told this story as a part of the “Most Interesting Teaching Experience” Contest held by the UNCG Dining Services in 1998.

McIntosh’s story is inspirational, and thus perhaps fitting for a teacher from a university that started its life as the “State Normal and Industrial School.” A “normal” school was a college with the specific mission of training teachers. While McIntosh’s story was inspirational, many other entries in the contest were mostly humorous, if a little frightening on occasion. William Purkey’s class in Counseling asked him to describe what “encounter group activities” were like in the 1960s. Purkey wrote, “To demonstrate…I asked for 10 volunteers to form a very tight circle in the middle of the classroom, then I asked for a single volunteer to “break” into the circle. In the 1960s the one being excluded would run around the closed circle, looking for an opening. But I forgot [to mention] this…. The excluded volunteer suddenly started from one side of the classroom, ran to the circle. Then vaulted completely over the 10 circled student and landed head first…inside the circle.” Purkey concluded his story by saying that he has never since described that activity again. He did not say if the vaulting student sustained any injuries.

An even more disturbing experience was described by Psychology Professor Kathy Bell. While teaching about electrical impulses in the brain, Bell showed a video segment on how electrical impulses in the brain fire during a seizure. In the video, areas of the brain firing were illustrated with flashing lights. While this “seizure” was being demonstrated on screen, a student in the class had an actual seizure. Wrote Bell, “After depressing the student’s tongue to avoid her choking, I sent another student to call an ambulance. The student was fine by the time the ambulance arrived….” Later in the semester, Bell would discuss a study of children in Japan who were having seizure in reaction to flashing lights. She observed that this “provided a possible explanation for what we had observed in class. Needless to say, I do not intend to show the brain video again.”

But the Grand Prize winner of the contest takes the cake for being both hilarious and disturbing, in nearly equal portions. Bill Tullar remembered a professor from his college days whose name was Hailey. Professor Hailey had a reputation for giving the most difficult tests anyone had ever seen or experienced. Hailey hated giving make-up exams, and made them absolutely impossible if he had to give them. Consequently, students would do anything to avoid missing a regularly scheduled exam. One night during finals, Tullar remembers walking past Professor Hailey’s classroom and seeing a most astonishing sight through the open door. Tullar wrote, “In the front row of the class was a young man. He had his IV stand, a full IV bag hung on the stand, and the IV needle was firmly stuck in his left arm. He was writing furiously. This young man had gotten out of Moses Cone hospital, come to school to take the exam, and as soon as he was done, he went right back to Moses Cone, IV bag and all.”

Adams teaching on the bus in the summer of 1989
UNCG is, of course, no longer strictly a “teacher’s college,” but is classified as a “research university.” Yet, teaching, and the student-teacher interaction, as either transformative or frightening, as the anecdotes above illustrate, remains central to the task of education, here at UNCG, and everywhere that there are students and teachers. “Research and teaching are…inseparable,” wrote Sociology Professor Rebecca Adams in her response to the contest’s question. The entries were mostly hand written on a half-page size entry card that could be picked up at the Dining Services locations. For her entry, Adams submitted an article she had published in which she described teaching a summer class on Field research and Methods and Applied Social Theory to twenty-one undergraduates and then taking them on the Grateful Dead’s 1989 Summer Tour to research the subculture surrounding the band. In the article, Adams describes the close bonds that formed among the students from the experience of class on the road, and how, she wrote, “The students became a part of my life.” Long after that summer tour, Adams and the students she came to call “my deadheads” would meet up again over the years at Grateful Dead concerts. Adams husband and toddler daughter had accompanied the class on the tour, and wrote Adams,
At the urging of the students, my daughter spoke her first sentence: “Go Bus!” They held her, talked to her, and played with her. They sided with my husband when we bickered. The intensity of emotion I felt towards “my deadheads” both surprised and scared me; I had always kept a proper distance from students. Then I realized the benefits of this closeness. Because the students knew me, really knew me, they were more likely to come to me with problems, questions, and ideas. They knew I would respond as a friend, not just to the limits of my bureaucratic responsibility. They respected me more, not less. I now have more insight into the lives students lead. I am a much more effective teacher.
Sounds like a true education, for teacher and student alike.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Thanks to Kathy Crowe for letting me know this article was posted! I do not even remember responding to the request for stories, but my submission was not an exaggeration. Teaching what I still fondly call THE CLASS was an incredibly transformative experience for me. I had no idea how transformative it had been back then, but now, a few days after my 65th birthday I know for sure my life was never the same afterwards. The students taught me more than I taught them, and as a result I have published and taught about music audiences (including aging music audiences with Justin Harmon, Amy Ernstes, and Kelly Lucey), had a life-long experience as a consumer of music, and most importantly have participated in an intergenerational community that continues to support me as I age.
    The students and I have remained friends—close friends. I research “friendship” so I do not use this term lightly. Jeff Ershler, who was an Ohio State student who took the class, now lives in Greensboro and I saw him only last week. He, his wife Mary, who was one of the extended class family, and Aaron Hartnett, whose brother Lee was in the class, came out to Scuppernong, where my boyfriend Jon Walters was playing with Matt Armstrong’s band, Vive La Meurte, to toast my birthday. And this summer, I joined Kristin Huff, Robert Wright, and members of the extended class family at the Lockn' Festival in Arrington, Virginia, after going to the Camden, NJ Dead and Company shows with Robbie Freeman and his wonderful twin daughters. Jon Epstein, who was one of my two graduate assistants, has been around town teaching sociology and playing with his band, Haymarket Riot. He makes the posters for my boyfriend’s solo gigs as a favor. The other graduate assistant, Rob Sardiello, and I edited a book together: Deadhead Social Science. And Emily Edwards, the other faculty member who was “on the bus,” and I have continued to be co-conspirators throughout our careers. Neal Thacker, recently retired from what has been called TLC and many other names, was on the bus as a videographer—I see him at basketball games cheering on the Spartans. And let’s not forget Sarah Dorsey, who called me shortly after she came to work at the Music Library to tell me my students were sitting on the floor with reserved books all over the place. I thought she was complaining; she was rejoicing.
    Other UNCG alums made the class possible. Matt Russ, owner of Tate Street Coffee Shop, is the one who convinced me to study Deadheads before the class was planned and continues to host my musician friends when they breeze through town. David Spencer, now the Senior Curator of the film collection at the UNCSA, did not take the class, but he was one of the four independent study students who inspired it. He and I have attended more rock shows together than I feel comfortable admitting. And the list goes on. This class, and many of the other UNCG students who “followed the bus” are part of my family (and my husband Steve, who is still my best friend, and daughter Hadley MBA ’16, agree).
    Sadly, we have lost two members of the immediate class family--John Young, the inspired Dean of Continual Learning who sponsored the class (and enrolled his son John Young Jr. in it as a gesture of support in the face of critical press coverage), and Bradley Harrell, who was especially special to all of us. Writing this comment has convinced me it is finally time for a class reunion.
    Thank you, Arlen, for an opportunity to reflect on how blessed I have been. It is my wish for junior faculty that they have such an experience sometime during their careers. Teaching has never been the same since. Heck life has not been the same since. Teaching THE CLASS really has made this long strange trip as a university professor worth it.

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