By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Last week Russia invaded Ukraine, unleashing a global firestorm with unforeseeable consequences.
All because of one man’s interpretation of history.
Dr. Robert Rennie, assistant professor of history and resident European specialist, tossed his prepared syllabi to focus his students’ attention on the roots and realities of the war.
His method of choice: TikTok.
Originally a platform for Gen Z memes, the app has suddenly become the go-to for Ukrainians documenting their struggle—and a way for Rennie to connect the past and present in an accessible format.
It’s emblematic of an approach that employs innovative methods to help students understand and shape their world.
Adjusting and adapting
Rennie’s innovation is the creation and use of podcasts to teach European history.
But this innovation was itself the culmination of other steps that are no less novel and important.
One is his re-think of the tried and true “meet students where they are” trope.
Many work the phrase, but Rennie’s approach bends the figurative toward the specific. In his hands, “where they are” means where they work, how many kids they have, how long their commute to campus is, how long their attention span is, and so on.
It means getting to know them personally. Instead of kicking off each class by asking them how they are doing, and being met with a wall of reticence, Rennie created private journal spaces on Canvas that allow students to check in with him informally and confidentially.
“I learned more about my students in those spaces than I would have ever discovered during office hours or classroom discussions,” Rennie said. “I learned about their struggles and challenges, and rather than detract from my work, it provided me with better information that better informed my next lesson plan, my next assignment, and where I needed to adjust and adapt.”
To those who worry that one can go too far in accommodating the off-campus situations of individual students, Rennie is adamant that this is the very raison d’etre of public education.
“Meeting students where they are isn’t about lessening your expectations, it’s about helping your students pull themselves out of the circumstances they are in,” Rennie said. “You are not lowering the bar, you are throwing your students a lifeline.”
Rennie speaks from his own experience. He credits academic mentors with keeping him in high school through graduation, and investing in him through college.
“My college professors made me the instructor I am today by showing me innovative ways of teaching us,” Rennie said. “I want to work with students to help them find the potential that they all possess and help them realize the things they want to do with their lives.”
The portable professor
Rennie’s podcasting was a natural consequence of the foregoing, but still required a dash of serendipity.
When COVID turned the campus upside down, Rennie pivoted to distance teaching. But he was unable to recreate the classroom magic, and his homemade videos of PowerPoint-based lectures were stale, static and felt, in the words of Jeff Spicoli, “totally bogus.” Worse, they consumed enormous amounts of data, which rendered them impractical for students largely attending class on their cell phones.
“None of it worked,” Rennie said. “I felt myself struggling.”
So on one of the first warm days in the spring of 2020, he decided to take a break and go for a run.
For the previous few years, Rennie had been using a guided running app from Nike, essentially a podcast to help runners stay conscious of their stride, breathing, and cadence, but also their mindset and mood.
As he absorbed these lessons, the proverbial light bulb started to flash: Why not adapt podcasts for teaching?
Podcasts solved the dilemmas of time and space: Instead of chaining students to a work station at a given hour, they could be accessed anytime, anywhere, truly matching students’ busy lives.
They also align with the way students use cell phones to access information that is personal and useful.
For Rennie, the moment changed his approach.
As “The Portable Professor,” he began to reconceive–not merely adapt–his presentations to make them more personal and accessible. He reduced the length of the “class” from 55 to 10-20 minutes, the most students have time for. He removed the chit-chat about the weather or current events that relaxes the face-to-face classroom but makes videos dated, thus helping the podcast narrow its focus to the essentials and suggest a one-on-one conversation in real time.
“If we move from stilted recorded lectures and work to help the students feel like they are included in the process–that they are part of the lesson, that it’s just them and us–that experience can be utterly transformative for both the students and the professor.”
The technology helped make Rennie and his students more accessible to one another.
“My lectures now helped students learn while working their shifts at Amazon or UPS, or while stocking boxes at Wal-Mart overnight,” Rennie said.
A very different teacher
Like the proverbial pebble cast into the proverbial puddle, the podcasts have sent ripples through every aspect of Rennie’s approach to his work.
“I’m a very different teacher than I was before COVID,” Rennie said.
Before: Rennie believed in the centrality of the lecture, supported by discussion and activities, and rendered successful by the charisma of the individual professor.
Now: The class spends more time immersed in high-impact activities that stimulate conversation instead of taking notes from PowerPoint slides.
An adherent of object-based learning, Rennie frequently uses art, music and other artefacts to get students thinking and talking. A French Revolution class might encounter unflattering political cartoons of Louis XVI. A class on World War I might look at aerial images of trenches on the Western Front. Students of 20th century European history might enter the classroom to the strains of East German pop music.
“Students get exposed to the material via podcast, books, video scripts, PowerPoint slides and more,” Rennie said. “The message is that I’ve got more than one way to support you in learning this material.”
An immediate impact
Rennie’s innovations have had a noticeable impact: Students handed in assignments in larger numbers, cited and quoted his podcasts in discussions (“which never happened with traditional lectures”), and scored higher on exams. Canvas metrics revealed that students were engaging with the course lectures at levels exceeding his expectations.
“They also applied the concepts from the podcast in ways that were far more sophisticated than when these ideas were simply boiled down on a PowerPoint slide,” Rennie said.
Other improvements were more qualitative.
“[Students] said they felt far less intimidated by the class,” Rennie said. “This shift in style and presentation, though it seems minor, resonates with students on a personal and metacognitive level, helping them feel empowered to complete the work.”
Agents of change
Over the course of his brief teaching career, Rennie has liberated himself—and thus his students—from a deadening classroom orthodoxy.
In the process, he has found deeper connections to his students, and fostered deeper connections between them and the material he teaches.
The last two years, so fallow for so many, have been rife with discovery and growth for Rennie. He has brought his pedagogy in line with the realities of the community he serves, to the benefit of both.
Perhaps most significantly, he came to know and respect his students and the immense challenges so many of them face outside the classroom, be they related to employment, the responsibilities of family or the legacy of social, economic and educational exclusion. Conscious of the burdens they often bear, he is keen to validate the effort they put into their studies, and to help make those studies an instrument of agency.
“Accepting the reality of your students doesn’t diminish the quality of instruction you provide, it improves it,” Rennie said. “It shows you where you need to adapt to their needs.”
One of the hurdles to overcome is the view that history is merely a long series of known and recorded events. Rennie encourages students to look behind the curtain.
“My teaching philosophy incorporates flexibility, innovation, and inclusion,” Rennie said. “In doing so, I work to foster in my students the knowledge that history is constructed and contestable, and not a fixed body of received wisdom.”
Like moving a lecture from the imposing edifice of a university to a device in the palm of your hand, a device that you control, there is a shift in scale and perspective.
“The practice of learning in my class moves beyond merely understanding what happened in the past, or even developing better analytical and critical reasoning skills,” Rennie said. “My teaching empowers students to realize that they are all agents of change, and that they too will influence history in their everyday lives.”