Instructor Spotlight: Karen Suurtamm

With classes going online late last year, our educators were thrown headfirst into a brave new world. Students and staff alike are so grateful for our amazing instructors here at the Faculty of Information, and so we at Living the iLife are profiling some instructors whose online instruction have truly stood out to our students this term. 

Every instructor discussed in this series has been specifically nominated by you, their students. 

This week we’re chatting with Professor Karen Suurtamm. Professor Suurtaam won a 2018/19 MISC Outstanding Instructor Award, and is an archival practitioner as well as instructor. She has worked and taught in a variety of university settings.

Professor Karen Suurtamm

Is your teaching style very different online versus in-person? How so?

Online teaching has pushed me to slow down and focus on what’s important. I tend to run very busy classrooms. In the summer, I started developing lecture slides that reflected how I planned on ‘pivoting’ my courses online. I recently looked back at those slides and laughed. I wanted to use every technological tool, online course design principle, and busy ourselves with all the bells and whistles, perhaps to compensate for what I was going to be missing from the classroom. I had over-thought everything.

Now, I realize that everything takes longer online, and I’ve (reluctantly) welcomed this year as an opportunity to go back to the basics with my courses – to really think deeply about the kinds of questions they are asking, and then rebuild from there. This has been such a rewarding experience, as I’ve been able to incorporate more diverse perspectives in these new frameworks, and it’s been easier to invite guests who can share their knowledge and experience. I’ve also tried to use this year to invite the students to do more self-study and reflection on how the questions of the course relate to their lives, their families, their communities, and their workplaces. This has enriched the learning environment for us all – especially me – and I’m excited to build what I’ve learned into future iterations of these courses.

[Don’t get me wrong, though, I still probably ask too much of my students – we are very busy!]

How have you surprised yourself in adapting to online teaching?

I spent the summer feeling quite trepidatious about teaching online. I have a pretty strong sense of what kind of teacher I am in a classroom, but I had no clue what kind of teacher I would be in a remote setting. Online teaching separates me from many of the things I rely on – the ability to read the room, to switch things up rather quickly, to move around the space, and to just be with other human beings and be….human together. But this experience has reminded me that I will bring my pedagogical values with me, wherever I go.

The key, for me, has been to explore how I can translate some of my typical methods to this new environment. My classrooms tend to be active learning spaces, so I’ve been doing breakout groups for discussions and activities, using Google Docs and Padlet as collaborative spaces, and making a lot of use of the virtual whiteboard for quick brainstorms and knowledge sharing. Whether in the classroom or online, I really try to decentre myself as an expert, and see myself more as a facilitator, collaborator, and resource for the students. And I’ve actually enjoyed exploring how to do that in this new modality.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned from your students throughout the online teaching process?

I always learn a lot from our students. They are coming with such a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, community knowledge, and work experience. I typically structure my classes so that we are all teachers and learners together. In some ways, this year has provided even more opportunities for the students to teach one another, and me. I expected to find the chat function distracting, but it’s been a pleasure to watch the students answer one another’s questions with ease in that space.

This year, my students have been such good role models – showing up as best they can, giving each other (and me!) grace and kindness, and really making the best of this situation. They’ve been forthright in asking questions, helping me troubleshoot, and giving me insights into their experiences. It is so difficult for instructors to recognize the impacts of what we’re asking of students, when we can’t see them and speak with them more casually. We’re all together in a virtual space, but we’re also each joining from our own place and space, and all the complications that come with this blending of public and private worlds. And during these times, some of our students are disproportionately affected in so many ways. I know how hard it can be for a student to reach out to their professor, so I’ve been so grateful to those who have been able to provide insight into what’s going on at their end of the computer screen, or how I can help them succeed in my courses.

What is your best memory from online teaching?

My favourite part of online teaching is using the virtual whiteboard in our classes. I love starting the class with a whiteboard and an easy prompt: to share strategies for surviving/thriving in a pandemic, talk about our holiday plans, or answer a question connected to that week’s theme. Last week, I asked them to sum up each of the week’s readings with one word. That kind of instant feedback helps me read the room before I begin – and because it’s anonymous, perhaps even more effectively than in person. But my favourite memories will always be everyone’s doodles. Whether it was Pikachu, Bernie in his mittens, or a gorgeous rose, those whiteboard doodles always brightened my day.

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