Here’s to My Students: You Make Teaching a Joy

Here’s to My Students: You Make Teaching a Joy June 20, 2012

Part 5 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Yesterday I finished teaching a 5-week online course in sociology of religion. As I remarked in earlier posts in this series, there were many ups and downs. A few things yesterday reminded me that whether I’m teaching online, in the classroom, or a hybrid, my focus needs to be the students. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I’ve taught some amazing students who make everything worth it–all the effort, all the struggles, and even the victories–they are meaningful because of the people I’m serving.

One of the best undergraduate students I have ever taught, Samantha, has been my research assistant for the last 12 months. In the past 2 months, I asked her to meet with me regularly to help me think about how to deliver my material online. As a former student in the classroom version of this class, and a current undergraduate at UNC, I thought she could help me with the course design. She had such amazing ideas that I must say I could not have done it without her help.

Yesterday, when I found out that the water was being repaired in my office building, I thought “Great excuse to meet Samantha at Starbucks.” We exchanged texts, and I told her the coffee would be on me. But she beat me to it. She sat in the window at Starbucks on Franklin Street, and when she saw me waiting to cross the street, ran up to the counter and ordered men a double espresso (which she knows is my favorite drink at Starbucks and that I drink it only if it is very hot). When I walked it, she was sitting at a table with my hot espresso and splenda. I was speechless. What a beautiful person and a kind act.

After Samantha and I met, I wrote a personal note to each student in my summer class with their final paper grades and final course grades. The two heartfelt replies I got were both rom non-traditional/transfer students, who had really done the most work out of anyone in the class. One of them, Angelique, sent me this video interview with her about her experiences being a single mom and going back to college:

Listening to her story made me cry. Despite all the difficulties she encounters being a mom and a student, she keeps going because she wants to give her daughter a better life. She admits she wasn’t ready for college when she was 18. The difficulties she has had in life have made her more focused and more motivated now that she is in college.

I can attest to her motivation, as Angelique completed every single assignment thoroughly, and with gusto and creativity. She was a big fan of the hybrid online/in-person teaching format since day one, likely because she has to balance so many responsibilities. The day of our final online test, for example, she and her daughter had the flu. Not having to trek to campus to take the test, and find a babysitter for her daughter who can’t go to the daycare center with the flu, certainly was an advantage for Angelique.

In her email to me today, Angelique wrote, “I really enjoyed your class, it was not at all what I expected when I enrolled for this summer course.  I learned so much in such a short time.” Indeed, she did. In her final paper, an observation of Faith Harbor Methodist church, she made the funniest and most insightful comment about Emile Durkehim’s theories about ritual and collective effervescence I have ever read:

“What Durkheim is saying is that to everything in the social world there is an order. When we use symbols (totems) to remind us of this order something simple and mundane can be a sacred reminder and in turn become a real sacred thing. Perhaps at home when making a sandwich for lunch a member of the Faith Harbor church would be reminded of the collective effervescence felt during the communion ritual and would be automatically reabsorbed into that religious moment reaffirming her faith.”

Reading this comment, I felt like such  proud professor. Having grown up receiving communion weekly, and being taught about how sacred the ritual is, I would never have likened taking communion to eating a sandwich. But, in thinking about the history of the communion ritual, Angelique is probably right: using a profane element–the bread–in a sacred ritual is intended precisely as a way to break the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. As one friend commented about this statement on Facebook, “that is a liturgist’s dream!”

Angelique’s email reminded that no matter what format I teach in, motivated students can run with it. She wrote:

“I was amazed by your research, your book, and your overall knowledge of religion and society.  Your passion for the topic is contagious. I listened to your whole podcast interview too, and I was amazed at how you never missed a beat and just answered every question so eloquently.  It was amazing!  You are really an inspirational woman (and I already saw my grade so I’m saying this out of honesty, I’m not really one to fluff egos anyway 😉 )  I was so glad that you took the time to let us rewrite our papers too, and I had never used the writing center until I took this class and I have found it to be such a valuable resource that I’m going to use it for all of my papers in the future.”

I admit that such kind words touch my heart. How could they not? But I’m not posting this for you to think my students adore me. I’m posting this because it answers the question I asked myself when I started this experiment teaching online:  Will students be as motivated as in the traditional format? Will students be able to draw connections between theory and rituals they observe? Will they become better writers? To the extent that my personality and teaching style is engaging, will students get a sense of who I am?

Angelique’s email is a resounding “yes” to all those questions. Thanks to Angelique, to Samantha, and to all my students who make me happy every morning to get up and go to work.

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