With education rapidly adjusting as institutions across the globe move to remote instruction, college professors are learning to adjust with it. For Auburn professor Adam Jortner, this acclimation has provided a breeding ground for BuzzFeed recognition and TikTok fame.
Jortner tops a list BuzzFeed compiled in late March of “17 Teachers Who Deserve an A++ For Their Efforts to Educate Their Students In Quarantine.”
Jortner is the Goodwin-Philpott Professor of Religion in Auburn’s history department. He specializes in the history of American Christianity, and he teaches a number of history courses.
His Internet acclaim comes from a student-cut clip of a video Jortner made assuring students that he had experience on camera, as he was an extra in the popular 1987 film “Dirty Dancing.”
“You never want to know too much about your professors,” Jortner said. “But sometimes when we’re under strain it’s helpful to share something fun about myself. So that’s what I did.”
Jortner said there’s another TikTok circulating in which a student cut together introductions from various lectures he recorded in his family’s treehouse.
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“For big classes, my lectures are recorded mostly but not exclusively from the treehouse,” Jortner said. “Weirdly enough, it’s the only place where I can be away from my kids.”
Jortner said he loves his children, but it is difficult to avoid interruptions from his five- and seven-year-old sons as they’re out of school, too. He said he discusses things like his "Dirty Dancing" debut and his treehouse isolation in his recordings because he wants his lectures to feel as natural as possible and, in some ways, let students into his home.
“If I’m going to be giving lectures remotely, my students are going to see what I’m doing,” Jortner said. “If I’m giving lectures from my treehouse, they’ll know me a little bit better as a person.”
Jortner said he believes one of the most critical elements in remote instruction is having an abundance of compassion. He said professors and students are both looking to each other for answers, but, more often than not, both parties are doing this for the first time.
“Students who have never done an online class before are now suddenly taking five,” Jortner said. “Professors who have never taught one online person are now teaching 500.”
Jortner said these are considerable shifts, and while he thinks people are doing a good job adapting, compassion is essential in working through it. He said part of compassion is understanding not every student has a webcam or adequate Internet access.
He has other students who are caregivers or first responders.
"Now is the time for me to be able to listen and see what adjustments I can make,” Jortner said. “Because students aren’t going to be able to get around some of those things.”
Jortner said it is important for him as a professor to put himself in a situation where he is still learning. He is an expert in the subject he teaches, but not in all the resources required for remote instruction. He said learning how to navigate those is a good experience for him as he remembers what it’s like to be a student.
“My first job is to try to be a resource for my students and just be a listener,” Jortner said. “I’ve let my students know that I’m available if they want to talk or Zoom and that counseling services are available for Auburn students who are having a hard time. Mental health is a part of health.”
Jortner said he reminds his students that it’s important to keep practicing social distancing, wash their hands, have a critical mind, have patience and be wise. He said it’s okay for students to grieve about things they’re losing and be worried and afraid – just not to wallow in it.
“We have a great opportunity as professors and that hasn’t changed,” Jortner said. “We have the chance to be vectors of good information which means we have the chance for our students to be vectors of good information.”
He said professors can encourage students to practice social distancing, get enough sleep, watch out for their health and call people who care about them, like their parents.
“We’re hearing a lot about how this is all unprecedented,” Jortner said. “And that’s true, but it’s just unprecedented for us.”
Jortner said he did not want to undermine the current situation, but as a history professor, the best parallel he has with the nation’s current situation is World War II.
“It was a shock to most Americans,” Jortner said. “It was a time when, for a very long time, people were asked to put aside their own interests and think about the national and communal interests.”
Jortner said for years Americans were asked to give up certain food products, collect tin, buy war bonds, avoid driving places and make many other sacrifices for the sake of defeating multiple fascist governments.
“This is unprecedented in our lifetimes,” Jortner said. “We’ve been insulated from the idea that our personal lives and activities would need to be curtailed, but it is doable.”
Jortner said WWII shows that Americans have had severe restrictions on their behavior before. They didn’t know how it would end but understood that it was for a greater good.
“What we’re being asked to do is difficult, but people have done it before, and they’ve done it well before,” Jortner said. “We can continue to have a robust civic life, do our best educationally and disagree with each other but also pull together and do the work that needs to be done.”
Jortner said people accomplish this by taking it day-by-day, taking care of themselves and taking care of others.
“Keep a sense of humor and do your best,” Jortner said. “I'm as surprised as anyone else that those TikToks caught on, but it’s great. If I can lift someone's spirits a little bit then I’m happy to have done it, and students can do the same.”
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