“Professor Borins, You’re a Legend!”

Yup, in his own mind. Just like all the others.

The title is an exact quote, including punctuation, from one of the student evaluations for the seminar course I taught last semester. The course’s rubric was “The Art and Literature of Leadership” and I delivered it to 24 first-year students at The University of Toronto’s Victoria College in the elite Vic One program. This course was based on the Narrative and Management course I have given for many years to upper-level undergraduates at The University of Toronto at Scarborough.

A Sally Field Moment

The course went very well and reading the student evaluations provided a personal Sally Field moment. The average numerical scores (instructor enthusiasm, quality of instruction, recommend course to other students) were all between 4.7 and 4.9 on a 5-point scale. The other comments were comparable to the title: “amazing.” “I loved this course.” “Honestly, a great class and discussions were always very stimulating.” “The instructor provided great movies and prompts that were intellectually stimulating and fostered great conversations.” “Having the various narratives about everyone’s lives allowed me to get to know my classmates better.”

What I Learned about Online Teaching

I’ll turn to the real topic of the post, which is not bragging, but what I learned from teaching this course. It’s always important to learn from experience, especially if the experience is pleasant.

I retired shortly after the pandemic began, so this is the first course I taught during the pandemic. The course was intended to be given in person, but when the Omicron wave hit, it was changed to online delivery using Zoom. I taught the first six weeks using Zoom and, when the Omicron wave began to recede, I delivered the final six weeks in person, but with everyone masked.

It turned out that my pedagogy (which I describe in my article “A Narrative about Teaching Narrative” in the journal Public Voices) was well suited to Zoom. We kept changing activities every ten or fifteen minutes, as is recommended. I showed videos, led student discussions, gave students opportunities to make presentations, and used breakout rooms. Up to twenty-five faces (twenty-four students and me) can fit on one computer screen in Zoom’s gallery view. I didn’t disable chat, but I did tell students I wouldn’t be checking it, so invited them to share their ideas with the entire class viva voce. Finally, I found presenting a Powerpoint deck deeply alienating because it takes up so much visual real estate and relegates both presenter and audience to the margins. If I had a do-over, I would give students my presentation decks in advance, and discuss the material in the deck more informally, without using screen-sharing.

I decided not to treat my home office as a two-dimensional backdrop or to use a backdrop photo like the standard bookshelf. When the switch to online delivery was announced last December I tidied my home office and had it painted. On a few occasions, especially in the minutes before class, I stood up from the desk to point out artwork – paintings, glass, sculptures. My message was that I have a life and was happy to provide a glimpse into it.

After the course, I read Dan Levy’s Teaching Effectively with Zoom, and was glad to see he and I are usually in agreement. I strongly recommend his book.

Masked is also Different

After surviving six weeks of Zoom, I was delighted to return to an in-person class, especially in a flat room – my preferred setting – that was large enough to permit a measure of distancing. I quickly discovered that masked teaching is subtly different. Masks make it hard for older instructors to hear muffled voices and they hide facial cues that play an important role in discussions. I couldn’t do anything about the latter, but I initially tried to address the former by asking the students to speak louder. When that didn’t work, I got down from the podium and walked up close enough to the students to hear what they were saying. I was initially afraid this would be considered creepy, but the students seemed comfortable with this approach, as the evaluations make clear. Perhaps the message I conveyed was that I was listening intently.

Eliminating the Exam

I had planned to give an in-class midterm. When we switched to online instruction, I changed the mid-term to a paper. I assigned three five-page personal narrative papers: story of my life, story of my life in an organization, story of my life with Covid. As one of the comments made clear, the students enjoyed writing about and sharing their experiences. And the papers were clearly written, thoughtful, and a pleasure to read. Nonetheless, an exam plays an important role in synthesizing and applying knowledge and teaching students how to cope with stress. I spent the last class leading a discussion of the Covid experience papers and of some exam questions from previous years. Through a back-channel I heard that the students felt the class was “emotional,” which I take to mean moving.

The Fundamental Things Apply

Regardless of the setting, there are three things I have found students always appreciate in an instructor: reliability, knowledge, and enthusiasm. For university instructors, having the knowledge is never a problem, the challenge is to communicate it effectively. Enthusiasm always matters. In my case, I love teaching about films that are relevant to the study of management, which this time included The Social Network, Spotlight, Inside Job, The Big Short, Twelve Angry Men, and Hidden Figures. I usually rewatch them before class to stimulate my visual memory and because I always find something new in them. And I’m equally enthusiastic about personal narratives, and lead by example by presenting my own.

Reliability for me means being available before and after class, responding quickly to emails, posting presentation decks right after class, presenting assignments clearly, and returning graded work quickly with lots of comments. This is second nature to me, but I think the students’ compliments about my doing this show that during a pandemic they especially appreciate a course that runs smoothly.

Two Screw-Ups

I had two screw-ups. I developed a new session with films about First Nations (the NFB documentaries Incident at Restigouche and Honour of the Crown). In that class, I also wanted to say something about my research on docudramas about Canadian politicians. I wanted to illustrate my ideas by discussing the treatment of Pierre Trudeau. When I got to Trudeau, I had 10 minutes left in class, and plunged into a discussion of “just watch me,” the October crisis, and Maggie and Pierre. I’m sure it all made little sense to the students. The lesson: never introduce a new topic with 10 or fewer minutes left in class.

In my second-last class, I decided to give an overview of a top-ten list of great management narrative movies used in previous years of this course that the students might want to watch on their own, illustrated by trailers or famous scenes. One I included was the 2015 British film Eye in the Sky, about drone attacks on people regarded by western governments as terrorists. One student whose political stance is critical of the strategic objectives and military tactics of western governments was deeply offended. Had I used the movie, what sort of discussion would have occurred? The lesson: think carefully about which films to use and how students who approach them with a wide range of backgrounds and political sympathies will respond.

On Balance

I’m glad I returned to the classroom and delighted that, despite the challenges of the pandemic, my teaching was appreciated. I don’t know if I will teach a complete course again. My experience at Victoria College tells me that I haven’t lost the ability. But if I don’t do it again, this was a great finale.

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