“It Was the Least Stressful Teaching Year I’ve Had in Ten Years”: An Interview with Dr. Jamie Crooks, by Sally Cunningham and Alisha Winter
Project Design Fellows Sally Cunningham and Alisha Winter got a chance to sit down with Dr. Jamie Crooks, a professor of Philosophy at Bishop’s University, to discuss his experience with the Online Learning and Technology Consultant program. He joined the pilot program in the summer of 2020 and continues to work closely with his Student Working Group as we head back in-person in 2021.
As the realization hit that COVID-19 would impact the 2020 school year, Dr. Jamie Crooks tells us that he had “absolutely no plan B.” As a professor of philosophy who wears many professional hats, he had taught the same seminar-style course for the past 20 years – a model of in-class lectures and seminars that was not going to work well for online learning. After conducting the end of the Winter 2020 semester entirely through email, Dr. Crooks knew he would need to find a new way to approach teaching in the Fall. Inspiration struck in lockdown as his wife consumed true crime podcasts. “It occurred to me, oh wait a minute, a podcast isn’t a bad thing,” and Dr. Crooks decided to pursue audio-delivery for Fall 2020.
“Really good things just came out of talking through what we could do.”
Although Dr. Crooks had the concept of creating podcasts for asynchronous teaching, he did not yet have the tools to actually develop the podcast. After receiving an invite to participate in the brand new OLTC program, Dr. Crooks quickly volunteered. He admits now, though, that he had low expectations for the experience: “What I thought would happen is you guys would come on and say ‘Hey, Jamie this is how you work a computer program: you do these seventeen things” and be done. He had had experiences in the past with tech support workshops that were overwhelming in both content and speed, and he expected the OLTC program to be the same.
One of Dr. Crooks’s main concerns in his first meeting with the OLTC program was that he didn’t just want bells and whistles added to his class, he wanted something that conserves the power of intimate relationships in teaching and learning. During our initial needs assessment in July with Dr. Crooks, we were inspired by his enthusiasm to pursue podcasting. He knew that he didn’t want to be at the mercy of real-time technology, and we worked in our meetings to find the ideal solution for his style of teaching. He says that “really good things just came out of talking through what we could do.” Just being able to discuss how his class was set up, his teaching values, and the logistics of online classes helped to make the idea of Fall 2020 less uncertain.
Students started getting “worryingly spectacular marks”
As part of the OLTC program, we encourage professors to “dream big” and one of his dreams was to incorporate his passion for music and art into his courses. Adding intro and outro music of his choice to his podcasts and graphic banners to his course Moodles helped to accomplish this goal.
In retrospect, Dr. Crooks says of teaching online that he “cannot believe how good an experience it was… It was the least stressful teaching year I’ve had in ten years.” In addition to his ease with the class, he also saw an increase in engagement, success, and community from his students. Rather than have six or seven students dominate the class discussion, the online platform allowed him to call on each student in-turn. The newly scaffolded lesson plan — where students would read a text, listen to the podcast, write provisional answers, discuss the questions with others in class, then finalize their answers in a written paper – garnered “worryingly spectacular marks” from his students. Dr. Crooks notes that every student arrived to class prepared and continued to do so for the whole year, he also says that discussions unfolded naturally because of this preparation. In synchronous online class, Dr. Crooks would do a tour de table of the camera boxes on-screen and have students build an answer to a philosophical question. He has since adopted this practice – of requiring each student to collaboratively answer a question – to his in-person classes. The classroom was reinvigorated by the new design and so was Dr. Crooks: “Usually in April I say I am exhausted from the year, and I didn’t say that this year. I could have gone on.”
“I feel like they understood me in minute detail in a way they didn’t when they didn’t have access to that technology.”
Reflecting on why the podcast model is strong enough to continue to adapt all fourteen of his rotating courses, Dr. Crooks remembers a conversation with a former student. The student remarked that we are dealing with a podcast generation, and that technology isn’t going away: “students have headphones in all the time, if they’re going for a walk they’re listening to something. It integrates [what they’re listening to] into their lives.” Podcasts are an accessible format for content delivery, they allow for students to easily consume material and they can re-listen anytime. Another reason podcasts work exceptionally well for philosophy is that students could listen in shorter increments, digest the material, then come back with fresh understanding. Rather than intaking an hour and a half worth of abstract concepts at once, this self-driven method of content delivery allows students more time to work with – and come back to – the lectures. Dr. Crooks says of his experience: “I’ve never felt better understood than this year. I feel like people understood me. They always kind of did, but I feel like they understood me in minute detail in a way they didn’t when they didn’t have access to that technology.”
When asked about his overall impression of collaborating with the OLTC program, Crooks says: “If you set up a help system that is direct, simple, effective and… is shaped by the person using it, I can’t see how that won’t turn out well… you just took Cadillac care of me.”