Taught by a Terrible Disease

Elaine Smokewood, robbed of the ability to talk and even travel to class, learned better ways to reach students through technology

Brett Deering for The Chronicle

Elaine Smokewood views her American-literature class via a videoconferencing system at Oklahoma City U. Unable to travel because of Lou Gehrig's disease, she conducts the class over the Internet from her home.
January 03, 2010

Elaine Smokewood says losing the ability to speak has made her a better teacher.

About two years ago, the 54-year-old English professor at Oklahoma City University was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and the incurable malady has taken so much from her. It has stolen control of many muscles in her face, along with her ability to live independently. But ALS has also taught her how to teach more effectively, she argues, in ways that were a complete surprise.

The trick: Use technology to get out of your students' way and listen, really listen, to what they have to say.

Most professors believe they listen to their students, of course, and that they hold vibrant discussions in class. Ms. Smokewood definitely believed that, viewing herself as an "interactive" teacher.

"Highly interactive," she told me when I visited her home office here. "And in some ways I was. But I still saw myself as the most important person in the room." That's pretty common on campuses across the country, and some would argue it's the appropriate role for a teacher.

Now, with her muscles and nerves ravaged by ALS, Ms. Smokewood can no longer stand in front of her class to lecture.

She has turned to computers to compensate. She appears in the classroom on a large monitor that transmits an image from a Webcam in her home, and she communicates with students through typed text or a speech synthesizer. That pushes her off to the side, making her more of a guiding observer than the prime mover.

When I met her, Ms. Smokewood typed into a laptop loaded with voice-synthesizer software, and our interview unfolded at a crawl. I would ask something, then sit quietly for a minute or two as she typed a response and clicked "speak." The computer then read her answer aloud, in a monotone and with all the wrong inflections. She has joked with students that she sounds like a robot, and she truly does. Except that as you watch her listen to the computer voice, you can sense her wincing at how the synthesizer butchers her words. Though she depends on it, Ms. Smokewood has never been a fan of technology, and she used to avoid it.

Now she uses it to her advantage. Before she got sick, her literature classes met twice a week. Now they meet once. In place of that missing class session, students read a lecture written by Ms. Smokewood and participate in an online forum about the readings.

In the classroom, the students tackle duties they've never had before. Each week one of them leads a class discussion, as Ms. Smokewood watches through the video link and takes notes on a legal pad, chiming in via text only when students go astray or when she wants to underline a point.

Learning to Listen

"I became a different kind of teacher than I had ever been—I became a teacher who actively listened," she wrote in a recent essay for the university's alumni newsletter. "I had in the past often confused listening with waiting for my students to stop talking so that I might resume the very important business of performing," she added. "I learned that if I listened carefully, thoughtfully, generously, and nonjudgmentally, my students would delight me with the complexity of their thinking, the depth of their insight, the delicious wickedness of their humor, and with their compassion, their wisdom, and their honesty."

During the final class session of the fall semester in her American-literature course, when I visited, eight students sat in a small classroom on campus, their chairs arranged in a circle around a large monitor with a camera perched on top. From her home office, Ms. Smokewood watched live video of them on her laptop, and when she typed on her screen, that text materialized on the monitor in the classroom. (She finds the silent text more effective than the voice synthesizer, which can be hard to understand at times.)

Students took turns presenting their final term papers, many of them dropping references to Jacques Derrida and other literary theorists into their interpretations of The Sun Also Rises or other assigned texts.

Ms. Smokewood asked at least one question of each student. But before that, she prompted the other students to quiz the presenter. And they did. It sounded more like a graduate seminar than an undergraduate class.

"One of the very good things, on a very mundane level, is that my students are always prepared now," Ms. Smokewood told me after class, using her robotic-sounding computer voice. "They really cannot be passive. There's nowhere to hide, and the discussion periods are more intense and more special."

Ms. Smokewood said she has been surprised by how much the students can do once they are expected to.

"If I regained my voice tomorrow, I would do classes the way I have learned to do them over the past couple of years," she told me. "I just wish there had been an easier way to learn the lesson."

Angry and Honest

Ms. Smokewood has set a goal of learning from what she calls her "affliction," to move past terror and anger to find wisdom and purpose.

Early on, the professor sought out a counselor, but the person was not entirely helpful. "The first thing she said to me was 'I worked with another ALS patient. She was so wonderful. She had such a great attitude. I learned more from her than she learned from me.' And I thought, 'Wait a minute, lady, I am not going to be an inspiration. I am angry and frightened and frustrated. Don't cast me into that role. Let me vent. Let me be bad, you deal with it.'"

Ms. Smokewood switched counselors.

"I don't want to be 'inspirational,'" she says. "I want to get to be angry and frustrated and honest. So I am figuring out how to be honest."

Ms. Smokewood is a published poet, but she avoided writing about her disability until recently. She has devoured blogs by people documenting their struggles with Lou Gehrig's disease, but she refuses to write like that herself, with a focus solely on bodily deterioration and the sheer panic of the experience.

So she wrote the newsletter essay on teaching. And she recently felt drawn to draft a few poems, as well.

"My voice was a cheap Halloween costume / all along—the acetate kind, mass produced, / a make-believe princess or ghoul / prancing / behind a rubber mask / and all for a tub of sugar, garb with only / a passing resemblance to anything real," begins one of them, titled Revelation.

She now feels that her old performances as a lecturer, back when she had a voice, were an act, one that she felt comfortable with and that put some distance between her and students. But it may not have been best for the students, she says now.

Her latest course syllabus begins with an explanation of her new method, telling students about her disability and that she will be typing to them from afar. It contends that students probably learn more now than when she taught using traditional techniques.

"I wouldn't do it if I felt that I couldn't deliver an excellent education and students were learning," she says. "I don't think I'm getting the sympathy vote. I work very hard for that not to be the case."

Ms. Smokewood has taught at Oklahoma City University since 1996, and is the most respected colleague in the English department, according to Marsha Keller, the chair. Known for her diplomacy, Ms. Smokewood is the person many turn to for counsel, and she helped settle longstanding feuds when she served as department chairman several years ago.

"A lot of people would just throw up their hands and give up, but not Elaine," says Ms. Keller. "She has had to work quadruply hard to continue teaching, and to do it up to her particular standards."

Ms. Smokewood's students say the hybrid course format works. "The class felt a bit like a coffee-shop discussion group or a book club," says Andrew Tolly, a senior. "Often the discussion between students would continue the rest of the day and have echoes in other discussions." They do say the format is demanding, and Mr. Tolly says he spent an extra hour or two a week on the class compared with other courses he was taking—"especially if it was my week to do the presentation."

A Model Class?

Her system may not be a perfect model for all situations, Ms. Smokewood says. She wonders whether it would work in a larger class (maybe not). And she ponders whether it would work as well with introductory courses (probably not).

But then again, maybe it would. Perhaps students should become co-teachers, and professors should become co-students.

Ms. Smokewood plans to teach a poetry-writing course in the spring, and worries that the robotic synthesizer voice cannot do any poem justice. She plans to ask students to read poems aloud and she will coach them through their delivery.

The most frustrating part of her malfunctioning body is that it keeps changing. When she first lost her voice she spent hours walking orphan dogs at the humane society, an activity that settled her mind and gave her joy. She adopted one of the dogs, naming him Blake, after the poet. Now Ms. Smokewood needs help when she walks, using a cane in the house and a wheelchair on some outings. She recently started having trouble turning her head, and stopped driving as a result.

But she said her relationships with her students now feel more real than before—more "genuine." Although she uses an artificial voice, she no longer hides behind the artifice of the "teacher voice" she used when she lectured the old-fashioned way. Her robotic voice has helped her find a more open form of communication—more vulnerable but more rewarding.

"I hope that doesn't sound too inspiring," she says, smiling.

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