Thea Portier-Young Builds Community in Online ClassroomTeaching the Old Testament with Zoom, dance parties, and blue suede shoes
By Bridgette A. Lacy
Whatever comes to mind when you think of studying and preaching the Old Testament, it’s probably not high heels or dancing. But Anathea Portier-Young, an associate professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity, embraces the boundless possibilities in virtual learning. In March, when in-person classes transitioned to virtual classes around the country because of the coronavirus pandemic, she engaged her students by adding guest speakers, reducing class time, and designing new ways for her students to learn their lessons—including nontraditional activities and props.
“Thea is a really gifted teacher,” says Sujin Pak, vice dean of Academic Affairs. “She researches and looks for ideas; she looks for best practices and implements them.” Pak shared an email in which a student praised Portier-Young for adjusting the course format: “When the transition occurred, Dr. Portier-Young clearly and immediately communicated changes in the syllabus reflecting our new situation. She helped mitigate Zoom fatigue by shortening class time, making it highly structured, utilizing small group breakouts, and allowing students to turn off their cameras whenever necessary. She talked one-on-one with students to help with their final papers, and every week she checked in on our emotional well-being. Yet she didn’t over-correct by watering down the course content.”
Portier-Young is no stranger to online teaching. She has taught for years in the Master of Arts in Christian Practice, a degree program that offers hybrid learning. “For some students, that is the norm,” she says. “It enables us to reach students who you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. Digital learning is not some type of second best—it’s not just the thing we do when we can’t come to class. It has its own benefits.”
Portier-Young admits, though, that online learning requires more preparation on the front end. For her, that has meant recording a lecture several times because the technology may have failed the first time. Sometimes it means trouble-shooting general computer problems.
“Logistically, showing up in a classroom and delivering your message is not as exhausting, plus I get energy from my students,” she says. But she’s had to pivot, using a combination of both synchronous (when she and the students meet together online at the same time) and asynchronous (when students access material in their own time) exercises. Usually she meets with the class together on Zoom for discussion, and she posts her lectures via a learning module for the class to listen to on their own timetable.
She is constantly thinking about how you replicate in-person sessions. How do we achieve the same goals in a digital format?
“We’re all learning how to do this better. I have found it to be so important to ask for feedback along the way. You have to be willing to try new things, meaning some things are going to be duds and some great.”
Bring in the Fun
How do you hold people’s attention when they have to look at a screen? One limitation Portier-Young noted is that faculty can engage fewer physical senses in a digital space. She realized that she would need to compensate online in ways she might not in person.
So from the start Portier-Young gave herself permission to be goofy. “Sometimes I would use props to make me laugh,” she says.
She once held up a pair of her blue suede ankle boots with a four-inch spiked heel as an example of a form that has more aesthetic than functional value. “I wanted them to intentionally bring their whole self to this learning space. I asked them to dance; I gave them permission to turn off their cameras if they wanted,” she says. In my preaching class, we have a little dance party—to remind them they are embodied in their learning environment, and what they do with their bodies matters.”
Another time she invited an actor to her preaching class to show students how to use their faces. “In this Zoom world, we are looking at head and shoulders. How are we going to use what we have to maximum effect? There’s a lot you can do with your face.”
High Marks from Students
Students quickly noticed that Portier-Young stood out among her peers. Pak received comments praising Portier-Young’s innovative and enthusiastic online teaching. One student wrote: “All my professors and TAs this spring did their best to handle the transition, but the results of Dr. Portier-Young’s efforts stood far above the rest. I hope you ask her about her methods and use them to help other faculty make the online transition.”
“She’s does creative things like letting each student choose their own wellness day. They get a free ticket to excuse themselves with no penalty,” Pak says. (She adds that this is not an excuse to miss major assignments!) “She thinks of the whole well-being of the student and has a high standard of learning. Thea understands that students are dealing with racial tension, economic struggles, and child care issues. Students are juggling and struggling! She builds appropriate cushions while supporting their robust learning.”
Student Austin Byerly M.Div.’21 agrees. He took her class “Exegeting Ezekiel: Exile, Trauma, and Vision” in the spring semester. “When things switched, she realized how much Zoom fatigues the class. She reduced class time. It was originally 2.5 hours, and she dropped the final 30 minutes, which helped me focus.”
This fall, Byerly took Portier-Young’s class “From Text to Sermon: Preaching from the Old Testament.” “She was excellent about trying new things,” he says. He appreciated that she supplied learning activities such as blog posts, Google docs so class members could engage with each other, and videos on voice threads. “This help reduce screen time and made me feel less fatigue.”
Byerly says all that was helpful as he figured out his new groove for studying. Like many people, he had to adjust to his new work space, one he shares with his wife. He also realized that online learning takes patience because of technical and internet problems.
“We’re all learning how to do this better,” Portier-Young says. “I have found it to be so important to ask for feedback along the way. You have to be willing to try new things, meaning some things are going to be duds and some great.” “This whole pandemic is so incredibly stressful, and part of how we get through it is to laugh together,” she says.
Thea Portier-Young on Forms in the Psalter
In a lecture on the book of Psalms, Professor Anathea Portier-Young used different categories of shoes—including clogs, flip-flops, rain boots, and her favorite pair of blue suede high-heeled ankle boots—to illustrate the different forms used in the psalms, from lament to worship to beautiful poetry and art.