Faculty Excellence at UMUC
Hear the audio clip on how anthropology is relevant to daily life. (2:21)
Please tell us about yourself—what made you decide to teach at UMUC? What kind of work do you do when you are not teaching at UMUC? Are there any life experiences that have influenced your teaching at UMUC? If so, please share one story.
It was rather by chance that I first started teaching with UMUC. In 1985 I had been teaching for several years at Jeju National University on the island of Jeju-do, the large island off the south of the Korean peninsula. One day I happened to meet Dr. Larry Hepinstall and his wife Hi-Soo, who were traveling around the island on vacation. Dr Hepinstall was the Director of UMUC in Korea at the time and he mentioned that they needed to find someone to teach a course or two at the tiny US Army base at Mosulpo. Shortly after that he signed me up to teach an anthropology class there. And a couple of terms later I was asked to fly over to Busan on weekends to teach a sociology class. The following year my wife and I left Jeju-do and moved to the city of Daegu. I have been teaching regularly with UMUC in Korea ever since.
I am a Professor at Kyungbuk National University, where I have been teaching since 1986. I have been actively involved in the Korea TESOL Association for many years, and I am also a member of the Korean Baha'i Community. My real passion is photography, and whenever I have a bit of free time, my wife and I like to explore the mountains and back roads of Korea. You can see some of my photos at http://sgarrigues.photopoints.com.
How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy? What experiences or person(s) have influenced your style or philosophy?
I see my underlying aim, regardless of the actual subject I am teaching, to be that of furthering cross-cultural and interpersonal understanding. Teaching American students (and others) in Asia provides an ideal setting for cross-cultural observation, experience and reflection. I think we can better understand ourselves when we can see our own society in a broader light. Military students experience many new, unexpectedly surprising, and sometimes perplexing things. Without the opportunity to put these experiences into broader perspective, to share viewpoints and hear positive explanations, such experiences sometimes become barriers rather than bridges to understanding. I firmly believe that one of the best resources that I can rely on in my classes is the background and diversity of the students themselves. Consequently I always try to foster positive discussion, sharing ideas and observations, and open communication in my classes. Learning to listen to each other and to hear what others feel is an essential part of developing critical thinking and a positive worldview.
Teachers teach, and we normally do that by talking (or pecking away at the keyboard, when we consider distance education classes). But I feel that it is equally important for teachers to listen. We need to understand our students, especially when we are dealing with such diverse groups as we have in UMUC classes in Asia. Even when a student asks a question, we need to listen carefully and not just respond with a pat answer. Similar sounding questions can actually be very different from what we assume, and I always want to know what the underlying question really is. As teachers, we need to know if the information we are presenting and the manner in which we are presenting it is appropriate. If my presentation is not effective, I need to adjust myself to my listeners. Furthermore, students have had experiences that I have never had and often view things in ways I have never imagined. I don't think a single semester goes by that I don't gain some new insight from my students.
We all need personal goals, and this is something to which I have given a lot of thought. Quite a few years ago I came to the understanding that I really had two basic goals in my life — to become a better person myself, and to be of help to others. It's as simple as that; everything else is really secondary to me. Both of these are incremental goals, things to reflect on day by day, not something that can ever be "accomplished" once and for all. It is this second goal that I think is most significant here because it has a strong bearing on my approach to teaching. Simply stated, I believe teaching is a helping profession, and this is probably the most personally fulfilling aspect of my work. I think I am doing more than just conveying information — I hope I am helping people to grow.
Finally, I'd like to say that one tool I find indispensable in the classroom is a sense of humor. I try not to take myself too seriously. I find that most difficult situations, and most difficult students, can be handled more effectively with a smile than with a scowl. Teaching for me is a joy and I truly want to show that through my demeanor at all times.
I guess it has been my entire life experience, or at least the early part of my life, that has set me in the direction that I find myself going. No doubt my upbringing as a military brat had a big influence on me. My father was in the Air Force, and we had several tours of duty in Asia, primarily Japan and Okinawa, but also in China. As a matter of fact, some of my earliest childhood memories were when I was 4 and 5 years old in Nanjing, China (1947-1948). My interest in Asian culture no doubt comes from those childhood experiences.
A second thing that had a big impact on me was the civil rights movement of the 1960's. After living in Japan and Okinawa for several years while I was in middle school and high school, we returned to the U.S. in 1960, and I finished my last two years of high school in San Antonio, Texas. That was the first time I actually witnessed the insidious injustice and the brutality of racism. This was something incomprehensible and intolerable to me. It fundamentally violated my feelings of love and respect for all humanity. As soon as I graduated from high school I returned to Japan to attend university. All my life I have consciously tried to work for understanding and compassion among people. I am sure this has had a fundamental influence on my choice of education as a career, and also on my teaching style.
I should also mention that I became a Baha'i while I was a university student in Japan. The principles of independent search for truth, the spiritual nature of human life, the importance of justice, the need to contribute to the wellbeing of others, and the elimination of all forms of prejudice have become integral aspects of my life and my worldview.
What do you think it is about your teaching style that appeals to students?
It may be due to the fact that I always try to see each student as an individual, to respect each individual for who they are, and to help them contribute their own unique part to the classroom dynamics. I cherish diversity and see that as one of the greatest strengths of the UMUC classroom. Perhaps even more importantly, I always try to maintain my sense of humor in every situation.
Do you teach face-to-face, online, or both? Do you have a preference between teaching face-to-face and online? If so, please explain.
I teach both face-to-face and distance education (DE) classes, but as an adjunct, most of the classes I teach for UMUC are online.
If you were to poll a group of UMUC students, no doubt most of them would say they prefer a "real" live class with face-to-face interaction rather than the anonymity of a DE class. I hear this all the time and I'm sure everyone else does too. Of course, I enjoy teaching face-to-face classes (they're easier than online classes), but there is something really unique about DE classes, and I have come to appreciate the special qualities and opportunities, as well as challenges, that they offer.
The challenge is to fully engage the students, to make the best use of the strong points of online teaching, and to minimize those features that are most frustrating to the students. I make sure that I interact with the students individually on a regular basis. I read everything they write, comment on everything personally, and reply to any questions within the day. The main frustration I hear from students about DE classes is that they often feel that the instructor isn't even there. I make sure that I AM there. This does take a lot of time, much more time than would be used for teaching the same subject as a standard face-to-face class, but I feel it is absolutely worth the effort. I emphasize student interaction and discussion in every weekly conference, so it is only natural that I should participate with them as well. I think the results show that this is effective.
Now, let me explain what it is that I have come to especially appreciate about online classes. Let me start with an example of a classroom situation I had not too long ago. I was teaching a face-to-face SOCY100 class with about 20 students. As in most classes, there was a wide range of individuals: an older gentleman who had already retired from the military, a number of young soldiers who were just beginning their university education, a few dependents, and one or two civilian contractors. In that class there were two girls who had just graduated from the DODDs High School. They always sat in the back and they never said a word.
In class discussions there are always those individuals who are ready to comment on anything, even if they don't really have anything to say. Others need to be encouraged to make comments and express their observations. But with these two girls it was like pulling teeth. I could get monosyllabic answers if I asked them something directly, but otherwise they never participated in discussions or volunteered their own ideas. They were young and shy, I understood that. They both did extremely well on their midterm exams, the highest grades in the class, as a matter of fact. So I could see that they understood everything and were full of interesting ideas.
It wasn't until the very end of the term, when they had turned in their essay assignments that I really saw how special they were. I was astonished at the depth of their essays, as well as their perceptive and astute observations. Truly, I was amazed; but I was also very disappointed. They could have contributed so much to the learning environment for all the others in the class and I didn't even know what they were capable of until the term was over.
Now, the point of all this is that in my DE classes this wouldn't have happened. Of course, all the students must contribute something substantive to each weekly discussion in my online classes. This is a requirement so there are no silent ones "sitting in the back of the class." But more than that, I have found that students are much more willing to open themselves up about all sorts of topics online, that they would find difficult to mention in a face-to-face class.
Not only are the students more comfortable talking about touchy subjects, they also show an amazing degree of sensitivity and empathetic support for each other. Recently, in my sociology class, we were dealing with the subject of social factors influencing a person's choices and motivations. Four individuals spontaneously told about growing up in abusive, alcoholic and dysfunctional households and speculating on how that had impacted their own directions in life. The interaction of the other students was very insightful and supportive. Every term I am impressed and moved by the depth of some of the discussions. I have never had anyone in a face-to-face class talk about being a victim of rape, but this does come up in my DE classes. Racism is another subject that the students always seem to handle much more openly online than face-to-face. The students themselves often point out how appreciative they are of the chance to discuss things openly and dispassionately that they seldom ever talk about otherwise. These are some of the reasons I love teaching DE classes.
Please tell us about your chosen discipline-i.e., what made you interested in the area initially? What do you do to stay current in your discipline? What do you like best about teaching in your discipline?
I suppose anthropology was a natural choice for me. As a child (long before Indiana Jones had even been "born") I was fascinated with archaeology. I remember imagining exploring jungles and finding lost cities and temples. But it was my fascination with other cultures that ultimately led me to major in anthropology. My initial love was Asia, and as soon as I graduated from high school in San Antonio, Texas, I left for Japan to enter Sophia University. My undergraduate major there was history, but anthropology was always in the back of my mind. When I returned to the U.S. to continue my studies at Colorado State University, is when I switched to anthropology. Actually, the immediate precipitating factor was a fairly mundane one. I went to the history department to discuss doing graduate studies there, but I found the professors I spoke with to be so very dull and stuffy. As I left the history department feeling rather depressed, I happened to walk out a different way. This hallway was decorated with full-size cave paintings and each of the professor's office doors was painted and decorated in various ethnic and tribal designs. Now this really attracted me. Ah, right, anthropology! I met one bearded long-haired professor wearing beads and a colorful shirt (remember, this was in the mid-1960's), and that's when I had my "conversion experience." That same day I enrolled in the MA program there. Anthropology has been my field ever since.
I am a member of the American Anthropological Association and the Association for Asian Studies. It's mostly through the journals that I keep up with developments in my areas of interest.
I teach both anthropology and sociology courses, as well as Asian Studies. They all have one thing in common: the culture and behavior of people. The focus of our study is ourselves, in its broadest sense, and so it is something that students can identify with quite easily.
There are several things that I have always loved about teaching for UMUC in Korea. First is the size of the classes. They are usually small enough so that I can get to know each student personally, and everyone gets the opportunity to participate fully in class discussions. But even more important to me is the wonderful diversity of each and every UMUC class I have ever had. Where else could you find such diversity of backgrounds in one small classroom? I can't imagine. In the subjects I teach, that diversity is a key component of the learning environment and central to my teaching approach.
One more thing that is particularly gratifying to me about my UMUC classes is the fact that there are almost always a few students in my introductory subjects who are taking their first university class ever. Some of them are the first person in their family ever to take a university class, some come from backgrounds that do not particularly encourage an aspiration for education, and others had tried college before but had dropped out for various reasons. I know that taking one's first step toward higher education can sometimes be a rather daunting thing. I consciously strive to make their experience in my classes positive and stimulating enough so that each individual feels empowered and is encouraged to continue their own educational pursuit.
What is the most challenging to you in teaching in this area? What teaching strategy do you use when you encounter the challenge? Are there any special challenges in teaching this subject matter online? If yes, please explain what could be done to meet the challenges.
I can't really think of any particular challenge in teaching these subjects. Maybe it's not the challenge, but the opportunity of using the diversity of students' experiences and backgrounds to share with each other and reflect on the variety of cultural and social patterns around us.
I suppose the first challenge I have to overcome is the students' natural attitude of preference for face-to-face classes, especially for those who happen to be taking their first DE class. It usually takes a couple of weeks or so before they begin to see the real potential for interaction that online classes provide. Other than that, as for the specific subjects that I teach, the students need to broaden their sphere of observation. Since we are dealing with human society and culture, I ask them to observe things around them on a daily basis. It's not enough just to read the book and sit in front of a computer monitor. They need to look at the real social environment around them. Sometimes I have to remind them, but usually they take to this approach pretty easily.
The biggest challenge for me personally is that I have to really be present for the students: I read everything they post, I give regular feedback in every weekly conference and make comments on everyone's submissions, and I respond to all questions the same day. It takes a LOT more time and effort on my part to teach a DE class than it does to teach the same subject as a face-to-face class, but I feel the effort is well worth it.
What suggestion would you give to students who are interested in majoring or working in your discipline?
I would encourage any student who showed a sincere interest in majoring in any of the three fields I teach. Of course, I'd make sure they understood that they wouldn't find a job "working" in that field, but in a wide range of career areas (human services, business, administration, government service, health, education, etc.) a background in sociology or anthropology would be very helpful. If they particularly intended to find work in or related to Asia, then Asian Studies would also be an excellent background. People who work with people should understand people, and these fields should give a good background for that.
In your opinion, what makes UMUC the college of choice for students?
No one around has as much experience providing quality education to adult learners, especially in an overseas military context, as UMUC. This is something recognized and respected by many.
In your opinion, what makes UMUC the employer of choice for future faculty members?
It may not be the "employer of choice" for those aspiring to a favored niche in the ivory tower, but it certainly should be for those adventuresome souls who cherish diversity in the classroom and a world of new experiences outside the classroom.
What suggestion would you give to new faculty who are interested in teaching in your discipline at UMUC?
Be flexible, be willing to understand and adapt to the needs of military students, and don't take yourself too seriously.