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Ben Farrer observes as students in his winter 2020 course, Environment and Apocalypse, as they practice suturing wounds on a banana.

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Environmental Studies Professor Aspires to Make Virtual Learning “Inspiring and Joyful”

Celebrity cameos are just one of Ben Farrer’s strategies for engaging students

Ben Farrer observes as students in his winter 2020 course, Environment and Apocalypse, as they practice suturing wounds on a banana.

The top photo used in this news story was taken pre-COVID.

Here’s the first thing to know about Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Ben Farrer’s online lectures: It’s difficult to predict who might make a guest appearance during any given lesson. Pascal the taxidermied fox. Farrer’s hand puppets/teaching assistants, Ellie and Ollie. Or, perhaps, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, convicted in 2011 on a variety of charges related to his conduct in office and the recipient of a presidential pardon in 2020. 

Farrer hired Blagojevich (via video-on-demand website Cameo) to deliver a brief message about academic integrity and instead received an 11-minute jeremiad touching on the charges that put Blagojevich in prison for eight years, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the slings and arrows of a career in politics. “I thought there was something wrong with it,” admitted Farrer. “I thought he’d accidentally left [the camera] on and recorded too much.” 

In the end, Farrer decided to include only the most relevant section within the main body of his lecture—the portion in which Blagojevich tells students, “The professor wants me to say, ‘Take it from me, crime doesn’t pay.’ But while I’m at it, I want to point this out to all of you … he’s right that crime doesn’t pay, crime is wrong, and people who commit crimes should be held accountable—like the prosecutors who did what they did to me.” In the interest of fairness, however, Farrer also included the unabridged video as an appendix. “If [Blagojevich] ever sees this, I want him to know I gave him a fair shake. And if students want to go ahead and listen to 11 minutes of Rod Blagojevich—be my guest.”

Like most of Knox’s faculty, Farrer had never thought about how he might translate his courses from the real world to the virtual before COVID-19 made it unexpectedly necessary. “Knox—the physical environment—is a place that makes you excited about learning. Seeing all your friends and being able to talk to each other. And when all of that is taken away, a lot of what’s exciting about being in college is gone. I felt like half the battle [of remote teaching] was just getting students excited about something.”

And so, he wrote and recorded an opening theme song for his sessions, warbling, “It’s time for class! En-VI-ron-mental Stud-ies!” as he flipped through hand-drawn credits. He staged dramatic vignettes during lectures on Coase theorem and federalism, including one in which he and his taxidermied fox brawl over an ice cream sandwich and that ends with Farrer wearing a bloody eyepatch. (He crafted the blood from “a combination of tomato puree and raspberry jam,” which dripped onto his keyboard for the remainder of the lecture.) He developed an extensive costume wardrobe: a Stars and Stripes bathrobe, a matching shirt-and-shorts set featuring a tangle of snakes, a polo shirt decorated with hand-drawn faces. “You can make people do quizzes to check that they’re watching the videos, you can give people assignments to make sure that they’re watching the videos. But none of that, in my opinion, works as well as giving them a reason to get genuinely excited about watching the videos.”

A screenshot from a recent Farrer lecture on presidential powers. Like many of his students, Farrer has returned to campus for fall term, mask in tow, though he still records several videos each week. 

Jo Hill ’21, an environmental studies major who took Farrer’s Politics of Climate Change course this spring, agrees that the whimsical style of Farrer’s videos helped make the transition to remote learning easier. “Ben’s theme song and jokes brought me so much joy at a time when I think everybody really needed it. It was like Sesame Street for college students, honestly. It made me feel like I could just pause and take a breath, maybe joke around a little bit in the discussion board.”

For Farrer, making the videos provided him with that same sense of relief. Isolated inside a small studio apartment for all of spring term, he noted, “Things got really strange really quickly. I’m not sure it’s the sign of a healthy, well-adjusted adult to be talking to sock puppets. But I felt like if I hadn’t been doing videos, I probably wouldn’t have spoken a single word all week. Putting more effort into the videos was a survival strategy for me.”

Farrer’s lecture style, he acknowledged, works well because of where he teaches. “I feel like Knox students do best when you encourage their creativity. I think it really resonates with students to see people get creative and to see people get unashamedly enthusiastic about things.” Hill, for example, ended up staging a one-woman dramatization of a hypothetical European Union climate change summit as her final project. “It was thoroughly researched,” she said, “but it was also fast-moving and funny.”

In the closing credits sequence (scribbled on a slowly unspooling paper towel roll) that concludes each of his videos, Farrer cites his inspirations, including the singer-songwriter Mitski. “Mitski is my favorite musical artist working today. I think about the way she makes art a lot when I’m thinking about teaching, because I feel you have to treat teaching as a type of art, something you do because you love it rather than for any kind of external validation. But when you see Mitski play, she’s also really engaged with the audience and cares what they think and treats them with respect. I feel like those are the two things I’m always trying to balance—knowing the material, but also meeting the students where they are.”

Elise Stornello ’22, who is taking two classes with Farrer during fall term, is grateful for that effort. “I think remote learning has made a lot of professors more creative. This is a rough time for everyone, and Ben’s videos definitely make remote learning more intriguing.”

“I feel pretty lucky to be at an institution that encourages a sense of fun, and a sense of creativity,” said Farrer. “And I don’t feel that anyone’s breathing down my neck about, like, you have to look a certain way or behave a certain way.” He shrugged. “I mean, at this point, I am who I am.”

Watch Rod Blagojevich’s passionate indictment of academic dishonesty. Learn about presidential disaster declarations. Or check out that outfit with the snakes.

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Printed on Monday, November 30, 2020