The Professor Teaching to One Lone Pinocchio Doll

Photo: Steve Exum/UNC School of Law

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent wide-scale shutdown of educational institutions has led to a dramatic rise in remote teaching. Students teleconference with teachers and classmates on video programs like Zoom (or even on livestream sites like Twitch). The sudden switch has even seasoned faculty with decades of experience in an unfamiliar situation, including University of North Carolina Law School professor John V. Orth.

Orth’s lecture went viral on Twitter earlier this week when a student watching one of his pre-recorded lectures posted a screenshot of the 73-year-old teacher speaking (his age is misstated in the tweet) to an audience of one: a Pinocchio doll sitting on a desk in the front row. Orth has been teaching at UNC since 1978, but he’s never quite been in a situation like this. He spoke with Intelligencer yesterday evening about his remote classes.

You have pre-recorded your lectures. Is that in response to the school closings and shutdown procedures that are happening across the country?
Yeah, my lectures in front of a live audience are normally recorded, so that students who have to miss can listen to them or watch them. Some rooms are videotaped, others are audio only. University North Carolina had spring break a couple weeks ago, and then it was extended for an additional week. And then we were told we couldn’t come in and we were to teach using synchronous teaching like Zoom. Well, at my age to try to do that suddenly seemed undesirable, so I recorded a bunch of lectures, which meant that I could dole them out serially, which I just started to do today [March 23], and students could listen to them at any time or watch them at any time they wanted. Then there’s a discussion board on a site called Sakai, where they can send me questions and I can answer. It’s not really like a live class, but it at least replicates it to the extent that everybody can see the questions that are asked and everybody can hear the answers or read the answers that I give.

The law students are extremely tense right now, because they’re facing a few weeks of exams in May, then graduation, and find this apparently stressful — as do my faculty colleagues. I expect to switch to Zoom, but everybody went live today and I knew that the IT people would be swamped. I wanted to postpone that for a few weeks and I recorded half a dozen lectures, and I’ve been doling them out every other day.

So your aversion to Zoom was not necessarily that you didn’t want to do a live thing. You just didn’t want to overburden the IT people?
I told them that if we’re still locked down in August, when 30,000 students are supposed to come back to town, by then I will have learned how to do it. I just didn’t want them to suffer through my learning curve, bumbling around trying to deal with a technology that, frankly, I’ve never used before.

Have you ever had any remote learning scenario like this before?
No. When I have taught the bar review courses, or when I have done continuing legal education lectures for the state bar association, there has been some audience — sometimes small, sometimes large — but they’re always recorded or videotaped, and then shown later to people who want to, couldn’t come, or want to see them again or whatever. And there’s printed materials, but it’s the old technology. It’s recording or videotaping and paper materials. I’ve done that a lot, and I’m comfortable with that. Quite a lot of students liked the idea [of taped lectures]. They found it relaxing that they could schedule it at their own time and see it more than once if they wanted to. So I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from them thanking me for doing it this way.

How did you land on Pinocchio as your stand-in audience?
When I realized I was going to be talking to an empty room, which I’ve never done before, I got the idea to take, from my late beloved wife’s dollar collection, a little Pinocchio doll. This was designed not really to give me an audience but to sort of break the ice and have the students maybe laugh at the beginning of this delivery.

Frankly, I was limited by the doll collection my wife had, and it seemed to be suitable and I made a joke about how Pinocchio keeps telling me he’s understanding everything and his nose is getting longer. I can’t see my students, so I can’t tell if their noses are getting longer or not, so they should tell me. I just started out with a joke. It seems to have worked actually, more than I anticipated.

Do you think your students are sort of adapting to the new learning style?
The remote teaching just started today. My sense is that there’s a tremor in the force out there as both faculty and students are trying to adapt to this. As the building was open, (it’s now generally closed) I went in as many days as I could and recorded these classes, thinking that I could get maybe two weeks of pre-recorded lectures and then see what I do next. Either record more or get a tutorial on Zoom or something.

The feedback that has come like through Twitter — which I don’t use, my son uses it — suggests that there are faculty members out there who found it a helpful technique. Some people were [pre-recording lectures] since it’s easier, particularly us old faculty members.

Yeah, it seems like you were getting a lot of support indirectly, from that tweet. I found people who were tweeting things like, “Oh, that’s my old law professor!” and they seemed proud of you.
I mean, I shouldn’t say this, but I feel like I’ve always gotten very positive student reviews and it doesn’t seem to get any less as I get older. So my sense is that this initial approach has been educationally sound, which is the important thing. They and I are not fumbling around quickly trying to learn something in just a few days for this short time left in this semester. I may try to switch to that kind of synchronous teaching later, but right now, I’m just sticking with what I know and with what seems to work. I’m not the poster boy for remote learning.

I think it’s helpful to see how anyone is adapting to it, because no one’s going to have the same solution.
I’ve always put a lot of information on the whiteboard — key terms or outlines of what I’m going to teach. That way, it guides me and it guides them. When I was going to do this, I asked for a room that had a video recording setup. It turned out that the video didn’t really pick up the whiteboard very well, so I posted in a separate document to all the students what I had written on the whiteboard. But I like to write stuff on the board, I don’t like to read anything, and I don’t like to stand at a podium, I walk around and talk and that seems to work well for me. And they respond well to it. So that’s the best I can say.

How are you doing otherwise with everything?
Now that my wife passed away, I’m here in this large house all by myself and only go out as necessary and wash my hands and all that stuff. In my age, with my high-blood pressure, the worry is I’m in a risk group. I hope to survive this crisis and I would like to teach another year or two, at least until I’m 75, God willing. So I’ll see what happens.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Professor Teaching to One Lone Pinocchio Doll