Appreciative Curiosity: Guest Speakers are Changing the Landscape of Remote Learning - Here's How

It’s close to midterm time for Kent State University at Stark students in the now-online survey course Introduction to World Religions. 

Today, Rabbi Joshua Brown from Akron’s Temple Israel is a guest speaker. Students log in to class prepared with some academic knowledge of Judaism taught by adjunct professor Timothy Temerson. A former pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron, Temerson now teaches the course virtually from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. He covers as much as possible, including the Torah’s kosher laws. Practicing Jews are not supposed to consume a dairy product and meat at the same time. 

Rabbi Brown opens his time by giving students the chance to ask questions – any questions. One student turns on his camera and microphone to ask a rather pressing one: “Rabbi, what do you do when you get a craving for a bacon cheeseburger?”

Rabbi Brown chuckles, responding openly and honestly, knowing that when it comes to world religions, most students are a blank slate. 

The addition of guest speakers, particularly to the virtual classroom, has been an invaluable and welcome change of pace for students, many of whom have been learning remotely since March 2020 when coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdowns began.

‘Appreciative curiosity’

Temerson’s class covers seven different world religions. For five of them – Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity – Temerson usually invites a clergy member from each tradition to host a class Q&A session. 

“It’s a really unique opportunity for the students not just to hear about a tradition from me, from the instructor, but to actually have some time to dialogue with a faith leader or member of that tradition,” said Temerson. “I think that just makes the experience so much richer for the students, so that they’re not just reading about it in a book, not just getting PowerPoint slides from the professor or watching a video. They can have an opportunity to talk to a rabbi, talk to a Buddhist priest, talk to an imam. It’s pretty cool.”

Guest speakers provide a chance for students to learn about an unfamiliar topic from an expert – all within a safe space. This fits in perfectly with Temerson’s “appreciative curiosity” class philosophy. 

“I just try to really create a space where students can just be curious and ask questions and learn and not have to worry about who’s got the final answer, who’s got the absolute truth,” Temerson said. “We’re there to learn together, and we are there to take a journey together.”

Speakers are encouraged to share their own personal stories and experiences with their tradition.

“I think what we want our students to be able to do is connect with the real world, so if the speaker can bring in a real-world experience, I think that’s always more engaging,” said Rabbi Brown. “When speakers are at their best, they tell more of their own personal story and they’re giving you their experiences. That’s the value of it – you’re getting their experience as opposed to knowledge.” 

Advantageous to all

Dale Seeds, Ph.D., adjunct professor and husband of recently retired professor of music, Laurel Seeds, has adopted a similar approach with guest speakers in his Theatre Fundamentals II course. For a course that is normally very hands-on, bringing in guests to fill in some of those gaps was a no-brainer.

“They bring in other areas of expertise and different perspectives that broaden the scope of the material covered in the class,” said Seeds. “It also enriches our understanding of who these authorities are, where race, gender and culture have been historically marginalized.”

This semester, Theatre Fundamentals II, which is co-taught by Loren “Coco” Mayer, focuses on Asian- American playwright David Henry Wang’s “MButterfly”, which Seeds explained is “a script that offers a non-western view on gender, culture, politics and history with rich visual possibilities for costumes, lighting and projections designs for student projects.”

The course has included two guest speakers, Yining Lin, Ph.D., an expert on Asian and Asian-American theatre and Megan Wanderer, a Kent State Stark alumna who is a freelance visual artist and projection designer. 

The student-to-guest-speaker relationship has proven to be mutually advantageous.

“We had a nice discussion and exchange of ideas at the end of the presentation,” said Wanderer of her guest-speaking experience. “For example, a fashion major and I chatted about the use of my projections in runway shows – how fun! I think it was creatively beneficial for all of us.”

Creating opportunities

In Temerson’s class, even pre-pandemic and in-person, guest speakers were a keystone to the course. Now that most courses are online or remote, it seems the impact is even greater. 

LaKaleb Bowen, a McKinley High School senior in Kent State Stark’s College Credit Plus (CCP) program has noticed the difference in Temerson’s class.

“In my other classes, participation is dwindling, yet our class with Mr. Temerson has remained engaged,” said Bowen, “Simply put, when communication is limited and distanced like this, there needs to be some way to keep the class dynamic as opposed to the static that is commonplace. Mr. Temerson has done exactly that by keeping us in anticipation of meeting someone new, an expert on the subject who will bring in the information and the social variety we need in the classroom.”

Seeds echoed Bowen’s statements, emphasizing the importance of being exposed to other worldviews. 

“Under our current remote circumstances, guest speakers connect us to the world beyond the classroom and inspire us with examples of how artists and scholars continue to explore, expand and create within their fields,” Seeds said.

In so many ways, experiencing a topic through someone else’s eyes can solidify and enliven understanding, help otherwise marginalized voices to be heard and provide unique learning opportunities.
“It’s such a good opportunity for students to, in some ways, cross a boundary that they might not otherwise cross, not because they’re biased, they just wouldn’t have the opportunity, and I think that this class with the speakers creates that opportunity for them,” said Temerson. “That’s the thing that I really feel is, in some ways, the most important thing that I do as a teacher – to give them the opportunity to have that experience of crossing a boundary and have the chance to have an encounter that’s open-minded, that’s guided by this appreciative curiosity.”

POSTED: Wednesday, March 31, 2021 - 11:52am
UPDATED: Wednesday, March 31, 2021 - 11:58am
Brielle Loughney, Campus Marketing & Communication