In history professor Liz Regosin's community-based learning course, students of differing backgrounds share their first-hand experiences to contextualize course material and tell a story. Today, the humanizing nature of storytelling at the heart of her pedagogy is more vital than ever.
When the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home and forced an abrupt switch to remote instruction in March, Charles A. Dana Professor of History Liz Regosin was teaching a community-based learning (CBL) course at Riverview Correctional Facility in nearby Ogdensburg. While it was easy enough to continue written assignments as planned remotely with her St. Lawrence students, one critical component was missing.
“We lost that aspect of being in the prison and working with our incarcerated classmates,” says Regosin.
Pre-pandemic, 10 St. Lawrence students accompanied Regosin to the prison every week to learn alongside a group of incarcerated peers. Like many of her colleagues at St. Lawrence, Regosin values opportunities to work closely with her students—weaving together the first-hand experiences and perspectives of those with differing backgrounds to help them contextualize course material.
The school at the prison was promptly closed to outside visitors as a safety precaution, meaning Regosin couldn’t contact her incarcerated students directly via email or Zoom. She was determined to work around the obstacles in front of her and resolved to continue the class primarily by written correspondence while working with the prison’s school director.
“He would deliver all my background information and lessons,” she says. “Students would do their weekly reflections and he would send them to me through the mail. Then I would grade them and send him comments online. It was incredibly time intensive, but it was worth it.”
In addition to building a community, Regosin’s CBL course promotes humanity and empathy between two groups that share a place in the North Country but might never cross paths otherwise. It was important to Regosin that her students stay in touch despite their separation. In addition to passing along course materials, she relayed messages between the two groups. Sometimes, one group would pose specific questions about assignments to their peers. Other times, they just inquired after one another’s health and wellbeing.
“We’re crafting a story together. It's a very collaborative effort,” says Regosin. “I really try to make the students engage with me and work together to tease out the story that we're learning from our readings.”
The humanizing effect of storytelling is a powerful tool when studying the histories of people, places, and movements that may feel distant from individual lived experiences. It’s also of crucial importance during a global pandemic as many battle isolation and must rely on digital mediums to safely interact with others.
"I keep saying to everybody that instead of seeing this as a burden, I see it as an opportunity to improve and to think about my teaching in new and different ways." —Charles A. Dana Professor of History Liz Regosin
Regosin, however, believes that screens don’t have to be barriers to the close, collaborative environment she fosters in her classroom. Even if they were, she’s the kind of person who sees obstacles as chances to overcome.
“I keep saying to everybody that instead of seeing this as a burden, I see it as an opportunity to improve and to think about my teaching in new and different ways,” she says.
In fact, Regosin has found the nature of collectively navigating the trials and errors of learning and teaching from home to be quite humanizing.
“I have better conversations with students when we're Zooming than I might in my office. It changes the dynamic,” says Regosin. “I'm sitting upstairs in my study. I have a picture of Elvis that my kids drew behind me. My dog comes in, the kids walk by. I'm almost more of a human being than I am sitting behind my desk.”
As she prepares for remote and hybrid instruction this fall, Regosin describes the process itself as collaborative and humble, requiring not only hours of learning and sharing new techniques with colleagues over the summer, but also transparent communication with students in the spring.
"I have better conversations with students when we're Zooming than I might in my office… I'm almost more of a human being than I am sitting behind my desk." —Charles A. Dana Professor of History Liz Regosin
“My students were so great about accepting whatever was coming their way. I would ask, ‘Does this make sense? Are you guys getting this?’ They were great about checking in with me and trying to make it work,” she says.
Regosin will be teaching in a hybrid model this fall, which means some of her class periods will take place in person while others will occur remotely. Though she and her students may sometimes be separated by screens and distance, her pedagogy won’t lose its personal touch.
“We'll still connect. I'm still going to be responding to their work the way that I always do. I write students short letters to respond to their papers or even just their weekly reflections,” says Regosin. “That won’t change. So even if we don't get to have the in-person human interaction, we’re still going to have human interaction.”