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  • Writer's pictureC S Marks

“I Share My Life”

Reflections on Teaching and Learning:

I often find myself in the enviable position of teaching Equine Science to people who don’t like science. I used to do the same thing in Biology–I asked for non-majors. Yes, I know, that’s not typical. Most professors dislike teaching students who are there because they have to be. In fact, they love to hand off their sections of non-majors to people like me. As a teacher, one who has been called to the profession, I thrive on turning the tide of indifference, and I love a challenge. Sure, I have to work harder, but the reward is great.

Picture a room full of early twenty-somethings–some football players, some dance majors, some creative writing majors–and all you hear is Yosemite Sam’s voice (OOOoooooooo, ah HATES Science!).

I face the potentially hostile mob with confidence. They only think they hate science. They are going to love science! I rub my hands together. If I had a mustache, I’d twirl it. I have you now, my pretties.

What is the source of this confidence? It’s my job to convey information, even if these students aren’t receptive to that. Well, I have a secret weapon. As with nearly all students, they love a good story, and I tell good stories.

Stories have been used by teachers since ancient times. Fables, parables–many forms of literature–are among the most effective ways of capturing the attention of a group of listeners and driving home a point. Stories don’t just teach, they inspire. They bring many emotions into play. We might forget the marathon note-taking sessions filled with long streams of facts and minutiae, but we probably won’t forget the real-life story in which the information is illustrated and applied. Stories break up the tedium of a long lecture. They allow the students to relax, listen, and learn.

When I was teaching Biology, I regaled my science-hating non-majors with stories like “The time I got chased by a bison,” or “The time the graduate students brought back a deer skull to the lab and a million flies hatched out of it over the weekend,” or “The time I found the silver-haired bat at the base of the science building and kept him alive in a little box in my fridge all winter.” When things get dull, I can liven them up with tales of the Vampire Catfish, or the dreaded Guinea Worm, or the best way to deal with a Grizzly Bear attack as opposed to a Black Bear attack (it’s really important to know the difference). It’s the cure for the dreaded “infodump,” because it brings the facts to life.

This is particularly important when teaching non-science majors, as they will look for any excuse to let their attention wander. No one’s attention wanders during the discussion of the dreaded Guinea Worm, which then leads deftly into an examination of the evolutionary impact of parasitism. I never underestimate the value of entertainment in learning–the more gruesome, the better.

Stories, especially true-life ones, provide the context for the facts and minutiae. Science courses are usually presented in a lecture format due to the very high level of content and the need for memorization of that content, but that content is much less meaningful without context. A student might have an excellent memory, but what good is the ability to recall information without the ability to apply and interpret that information? The student with full recall may ace the exam, but the one who understands the context will perform far better in the long run. Putting the information in context enhances critical thinking and problem solving, and it helps the students in acquiring a personal/professional philosophy. It’s the context that brings ethics into the mix.Think about the parables again.

Now that I am blessed with the opportunity to teach Equine Science, my story-telling has been ramped up by an order of magnitude, because the stories are taken from my own real experiences. I’ve been hip-deep in hippology for more years than my students have been alive; probably more than a few of their mothers have been alive. I’ve lived an interesting life, and I’ve paid attention. I have the knowledge to fully appreciate the context and implications of my experiences, and I can weave that knowledge into tales that illustrate many of the phenomena I’m describing–tales the students won’t soon forget. They don’t just get a story–they feel the emotion behind it. Sometimes I’m outraged, sometimes melancholy or regretful, and sometimes filled with pride or good humor. Some of the tales are rip-snorting adventures, others are tragic, and still others bring a wry smile and a shake of the head. In my opinion, students should laugh out loud at least three times during a fifty-minute lecture, y’know? They learn what I want them to, and might not even realize they’re doing it.

Here’s an example:

“Road founder, or concussive laminitis, is caused by repetitive work at speed on concussive surfaces. It results in severe inflammation of the laminae which may suffer blood deprivation, known as ischemia, and subsequent tissue death. This is likely to result in either rotation or sinking of the bony column. If not properly managed, it can lead to permanent, irreversible damage.” The students dutifully copy this information in their notebooks. One of them asks how to spell “ischemia.”

Now, let’s look at this another way. I can tell the story of a friend of mine:

“Like me, Phil was an endurance rider, but our philosophies were somewhat different. Phil would ride right over you if you got in front of him. He was one of the most competitive, reckless riders I ever knew, and sometimes it got him in trouble. I recall one incident in which he stampeded up a particularly steep, horrific hill in hock-deep mud (the rest of us had more sense), his horse mired down near the top, went over backwards, and slid down all the way–on top of Phil–but today I have to tell you about the best horse Phil ever had.

Rebel was one of those horses who would give everything–and then a little bit more. He was strong, beautiful, affectionate, and he put up with Phil through thick and thin. Phil adored him, and they were well on their way to placing in the top ten in the Midwest region.

We were doing a piddly little twenty-five mile ride in Illinois; it wouldn’t even count toward mileage awards. Phil had set the course record in a mad dash the year before, and he wanted to break it. The trail was hard-packed clay and limestone, as it was a drought year, but Phil didn’t take this into account. He went off like the mad bat he was, pushing Rebel to his limit and beyond in an effort to break his own record. Rebel began to pull up after about ten miles. He tried to tell Phil he was hurting, but Phil didn’t hear. Rebel toughed it out through the whole course, but didn’t even finish in the top ten (though he still finished ahead of me). He did not pass the final vet check–his heart rate was uncomfortably high.”

I look at my students–I see the expressions on their faces. They know the implications of a high standing heart rate, because I have taught them. Now I’m certain they’ve learned it, because their faces tell me. This story will not end well, and they have foreseen the outcome already. I will now finish the story and confirm that their prediction is correct.

“An hour later, Rebel’s heart rate was still high. Phil thought it was “the heat.” It wasn’t. Rebel was in pain–a lot of pain. He went down shortly after, his feet on fire. He had torn the laminae so badly that he would never recover. It was one of the worst cases of road founder I’d ever seen.

Rebel did not survive the experience. Phil managed to get him back on his feet and into the trailer (I still shudder to think of the agony he was in on the long, long ride to the vet clinic), but there was nothing anyone could do. Rebel was humanely destroyed, and so was Phil. At last he realized the folly of recklessness–of putting winning before welfare. He never rode again. For the rest of his life, whenever anyone brought up Rebel, I saw the haunted look on Phil’s face. If I ever need a reminder to put the welfare of my horse before the outcome of the competition, the guilt and pain in his eyes is all I need recall.”

By this time, the students are solemn. They knew this end was coming, but it’s hard for them to hear. In their faces I see grief, empathy, disgust, and resolve. I’ll never let that happen. I will listen to my horse and pay attention to the signs of discomfort and distress. I will not be like Phil.

This is a goal I cannot achieve by merely relating information–information that anyone can find in a book or on a website. This level of learning comes though sharing experiences. It’s the depth of those experiences that makes me the teacher I am–experiences that have taken a lifetime to accumulate. I don’t just share knowledge, I share my life.

We often go to great lengths to update and remain current with the information in our field of study–as we must. We keep developing as scholars so that our students can benefit from our efforts and receive quality instruction. Our knowledge base is essential–it’s the platform that supports our teaching. But it’s our life experiences that set us apart–they bring the lesson home.

This is, in my opinion, the last great argument for face-to-face classroom teaching. The computer screen has far more difficulty relating personal experience, conveying emotional impact, assessing whether the message is “getting through.” In fact, in our present state of technological development, it cannot do any of those things well. While my computer might disagree, arguing that it had a few harrowing personal experiences at the last Book Expo it attended with me, it has never been chased by wild emus, nor has it learned that one should be the first rider past the ostrich farm on the morning of the hundred-mile race. It cannot compete with my fifty years of hard-won equestrian battles.

We don’t just “talk the talk.” In an applied field like Equine Studies, this is what makes us worthy of respect. This is what our students remember. This is what makes us better teachers as we gain experience. I have been privileged, even honored, to have been able to share my life with so many students. If I want to be a better teacher, I must continue to live it…and share it.

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