A Higher-Education Rebel With a Cause

October 19, 2016

This is the latest episode of our new podcast series on the future of higher education. You can subscribe in iTunes to hear past and future episodes.

We often think of teaching with technology as something new. But as this week’s conversation with a veteran professor named Sarah Short reminded us, there’s nothing new about college professors’ tapping into their creative side, and the tech tools around them, to keep students’ attention.

Listen to the full audio. Below is an edited transcript of the podcast.

Jeff Young: There’s a nutrition professor at Syracuse University who’s teaching has been called outlandish.

Sarah Short: I painted things on my leg. I had black lights and strobe lights and weird pictures all over the walls.

Goldie Blumenstyk: It’s a story that could be a headline today, actually. The professor, Sarah Short, got fascinated by using multimedia in her teaching. Her university had just unveiled a state-of-the-art classroom meant to be the place to try out the latest technologies.

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Jeff Young: Except, this was back in the 1960s, long before things like TED Talks even existed, and what she was doing was unique. In fact, she was probably one of the earliest instructional designers at a college. She got her Ph.D. in the field decades ago and her teaching stunts made her a celebrity. She was on Good Morning America, the Today show, and she actually traveled all around the world talking about her work.

• • •

Jeff Young: Hello, and welcome to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning Podcast. I’m Jeff Young.

Goldie Blumenstyk: And I’m Goldie Blumenstyk. Jeff, how did you find Sarah Short?

Jeff Young: Of course, I stumbled upon her on Twitter. The Syracuse University student newspaper did a feature about her as this legendary professor who’d been there … she’s been there for more than 50 years. It pointed to an article from The New York Times from 1975. Part of it said, and I quote, "If popping out of a cake or riding on a motorcycle will rivet her students to their seats, Dr. Short does it."

Of course, I had to call her up. I was so curious to hear more about this teacher and the first thing I asked her about was what turned out to be her most famous stunt.

Sarah Short: I was teaching nutrition and the students weren’t coming to class. I heard motorcycles outside and I said, OK, I will go take lessons and get my motorcycle license and ride a motorcycle down the aisle.

Jeff Young: What was the reaction?

Sarah Short: The students loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Jeff Young: Did they cheer? Or what happened?

Sarah Short: Oh, yes. Oh my goodness, yes. I did some national television, Good Morning America, Today Show, and a few others, but the biggest thing was, a writer for The New York Times came and said, "We want to take a picture of you in the laboratory." I said, "That’s never going to go. You come and take a picture of me on the motorcycle." They did and it was a half-page picture in The New York Times. My goodness, that got me and Syracuse University all kinds of publicity. Then I was invited to do national television shows and I was asked to speak in many countries and so, it was different.

Jeff Young: There was a time there where you were, kind of, a teaching celebrity.

Sarah Short: I don’t know about that, but I was here, there, and everywhere.

Jeff Young: What do you think of some of these teaching technologies these days?

Sarah Short: Everybody seems to be texting or on computers or on all their cell phones or whatever. I feel that we are losing our interaction among people. Are we going to lose our voices, or not be able to communicate what is going on? I’d like to have people interact with each other. I feel that we are losing that.

Jeff Young: Hold on one second. I’m so sorry to do this.

Sarah Short: No. That’s all right.

Jeff Young: My wife is having an emergency that she needs an answer to about something. I did the thing that you just said not to do. I feel terrible, actually. My phone was sitting right here and it popped up.

Sarah Short: Well, that’s all right. If you’ve got to go, we can do this another time.

Jeff Young: No, I’m done. I just had to text her back.

Sarah Short: Okay.

Jeff Young: Maybe I just made your point.

Sarah Short: Well, if it’s an emergency then that’s different.

Jeff Young: Technology. What about things like, there are these massive open online courses, or MOOCs, where …

Sarah Short: I like interaction. I don’t like online, and I have done online. I really think that you learn so much more by interacting with people.

Jeff Young: What about a 450-person class or a 420-person class, like you’ve taught? Some people would say that’s distance education, isn’t it?

Sarah Short: I was up and down the aisles asking people what they thought about it and gave them the microphone. I tried to have interactions there.

Jeff Young: What did your colleagues think of these stunts?

Sarah Short: They said, "Do we have to put on a three-ring circus to teach?" I said, "If they’re learning and they’re paying attention, yes."

Jeff Young: What is your advice for professors today?

Sarah Short: First of all, you need to, absolutely, know as much as you possibly can about the subject and then, interact with the students. I feel there’s many people that like to stand up in the front of the room and just blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, without considering that, maybe, students get bored easily. I always have pictures and PowerPoint on the screen of what I’m talking about. Many pictures that I’ve taken all over the world. I then try to get interaction among the students.

Jeff Young: I’m curious about how gender played a role, if any, in this. You were in the STEM fields as a woman when that wasn’t as common as it is now.

Sarah Short: No it wasn’t. My mother was a chemist and the men threw acid at her. I was chemist at Bristol Labs, early on in my career, and the men sent dead rats through the mail to me. I got back at them.

Jeff Young: How’d you get back at them?

Sarah Short: It was times when men always wore long ties, so I said, "Oh, what a lovely tie," and whipped out a pair of shears from my pocket and snipped it off.

Jeff Young: What has been your favorite moment in your 50-plus years of teaching?

Sarah Short: Students coming back and coming down the aisle and hugging. There are students from the past that have been in my class. I’ve taught something like 44,000 now.

Jeff Young: Wow. 44,000 students?

Sarah Short: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Jeff Young: That’s almost as many as in one of these MOOCs.

Sarah Short: Yup.

Jeff Young: Except for that you’ve gotten to see every one of them, I guess.

Sarah Short: Yup.

Jeff Young: Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Sarah Short: Oh, no. Thank you.

• • •

Jeff Young: First off, I just want to clarify that everything is fine. The emergency that’s in the tape there, it was pretty mundane. It was just one of those domestic things of my wife asking for something. But it was very interesting, kind of proved her point a little bit about the reminder of the distracted world we live in.

Goldie Blumenstyk: Yeah, god. She was a hoot to listen to. I have to say, I really loved her reaction to the MOOCs because, frankly, she sounded just as disillusioned about MOOCs as a lot of people are today. Also, if people are interested, that article from The New York Times, we have it on our website right?

Jeff Young: Yeah. We have a link there on our show page. When she described her skeptical colleagues, it also reminded me of the debates that are still raging today about tech in the classroom and whether profs need to spruce up their lectures to keep the attention of students.

Goldie Blumenstyk: This has been the Re:Learning Podcast. It’s part of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s coverage of innovation at colleges. If you like this podcast, please subscribe on iTunes or on the Google Play music app. Take a moment to give it a rating.

Jeff Young: You can sign up for our free newsletter and read our articles at chronicle.com/relearning.

Today’s show was edited and produced by me, Jeff Young. Our theme music was by Jason Caddell who, I’ve long wanted to point out is, actually, the Jason Caddell from the Dismemberment Plan, for you music aficionados. I recommend the band. Check it out.

Goldie Blumenstyk: At this point in the podcast is where we usually say, "We’ll be back in two weeks with more conversations about the new learning landscape." Except in this case, Jeff, you won’t be back, right?

Jeff Young: Yeah. Unfortunately, I am moving on to new adventures, so I am leaving the podcast, but you will be here keeping the flame, and I can’t wait to keep listening.

Goldie Blumenstyk: I’ll be here and we wish you well, and we’ll miss you.

Jeff Young: I will miss this so much. Thank you all for listening.

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