Leah Geiger, Sociology Instructor at CSM.
LA PLATA, Md.—Leah Geiger is a whirlwind of ideas, many coming forth so quickly she barely finishes a sentence before she's off to the next topic. A conversation with Geiger, a social sciences instructor at the College of Southern Maryland, is as much visual as verbal, with arms moving, fingers pointing and head bobbing to emphasize her points. "I am a tornado when it comes to things I'm really into," Geiger said.
Geiger, 38, the recipient of CSM's Faculty Excellence Award honoring adjunct faculty, would be a commanding presence in any classroom, so it's more than a little ironic that she has been teaching her social sciences classes mostly online since 2007. Geiger's enthusiasm has translated well to the electronic venue, as she has adapted and designed online courses and serves as CSM's institutional representative for Quality Matters, a national program designed to provide quality assurance for online programs.
CSM Faculty Senate President Mike Green formally presented Geiger with the award during the colleges' 53rd spring commencement on May 10. "Leah has been teaching at CSM for 14 years and over this time she has become a leader in online education," said Green in presenting the award. "Ms. Geiger believes that it is critical to make online students feel connected as if they were in a face-to-face situation. She believes her strength is in her ability to convey an open, collaborative relationship in the online classroom right from the start of a semester. Her success is evidenced not only by the number of her online Intro to Sociology students that also take her more advanced SOC-2100 section, but by the words of assurance those who have previously taken her online class post, to first-timers regarding her teaching ability and commitment to learning."
Geiger maintains a connection with her students by drawing on her boundless energy and enthusiasm for her work, checking in with her online classroom discussions daily and often more than once. "I do it from home, do it on holidays. There is some compulsion there. I don't like to go to bed before my classes are checked. That's part of my reputation."
"Teaching online-I want my students not to notice a difference. I want them to have the same quality of interaction with me as they [would face-to-face]," Geiger said. "My life is active listening. I want to make you feel listened to. I want to make sure that [students] feel helped. I believe that teaching is caring for your students, and that your students have a role as the 'cared for.' It's a definite two-way street."
Her personal approach to teaching starts with the little things. "I address every student in every post that I respond to by name. E-mails, too. A human being has a name; it's one of the first things you ever learn about yourself. It's important to you and your identity." Geiger also requires her students to do the same during online discussions.
"Online teaching is still about a human being. There still is intimate contact between the instructor and the student. It's very important to me."
In online education, class participation is accomplished through discussion groups and dialogue between the students with direction from the instructor. "When you're online, you have to interact-in my class at least. You can't go in and be a quiet little student who walks in, says nothing and walks out. You have to participate."
Topics and opinions in a sociology class can be wide-ranging and sensitive, but Geiger says she has had fewer and fewer instances where she has had to rein in inappropriate comments. "I see a good swing toward diversity, which really pleases me, especially in social sciences," she said, and she observes that students tend to be more forthcoming in an online format than they may be in a traditional classroom. "I think people find their voice online, which is a very good thing," Geiger said.
She will also encourage her students to take lead roles in the discussions, and identifies a few early in the semester who show potential in their initial online postings. "I will coach them. I'll say, 'What you're doing is great. Could you make sure that you post early? That way, you set the bar.' And they say, 'ooh, I set the bar.' They feel so good about that."
Josh Pollard, who is studying for a history degree at CSM, is in his second class with Geiger. "I was a history major and had to take a sociology class. I had no interest in the subject going into it. But [Geiger] was so engaging about it. She made an effort to do that from the very beginning. She's very personable, seems to know a lot about people in general, what makes them act the way they do."
Geiger's career, which includes stints as a counselor in elementary and middle schools, started with her secondary education at Salisbury State University. She was interested in psychology, "but my parents always said they would not pay for a psychology major." So she opted to major in education, with a minor in psychology.
While she was student teaching, Geiger liked what she saw from the school counselors. "I loved little kids, loved helping them, and loved helping families." Her master's degree from the University of Maryland is in counseling, and she is a doctoral candidate at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore. Geiger's doctorate study is on instructional leadership in changing populations, and she says she would like to study the effects of demographics on student success. She has a particular interest in minority females.
When Geiger, a California, Md. resident with three children, started teaching social sciences part-time at CSM, she realized she had found what she had been seeking, a way to combine her interests in a classroom setting. "I thrive with adults. I get to deliver content, I get to interact, and I get to watch the little light bulbs going on above. And that's why I love higher ed."
As Geiger honed her online teaching skills, she was asked to coordinate the Quality Matters evaluation program at the college, a role she took on with typical enthusiasm. On a recent weekend, Geiger spoke to other CSM instructors about ways to enhance their online course presentation as part of a regularly scheduled training seminar. "I love interacting with my peers," Geiger said afterward.
The Quality Matters structure emphasizes student-to-student, student-to-instructor and student-to-content elements. Courses that meet Quality Matters standards feature specific learning objectives that students should achieve at completion as well as rubrics that spell out for students what they need to do to be successful in the course. "Rubrics are a great cue" for students, Geiger said. "Read the rubric, you know what's expected."
Courses must feature interactive and collaborative aspects, access to resources and materials, and an assessment that ensures the objectives have been met. "Online learning in society is taking off," and institutions of higher learning need to prove that quality and standards are being maintained, Geiger said. "That's why I love Quality Matters. It is so research-driven and based, with national backing. It is nationally recognized by accrediting agencies and state departments of education, including MSDE, as a sign of quality, which means the world to me."
Geiger's two sociology courses, "Introduction to Sociology" and "Social Problems," meet the Quality Matters standards, and she redesigned the introductory course for online certification. Geiger also developed the Social Problems course from its inception for the online format. She takes pride in her teaching and her abilities. "I can be a little competitive," she said. "I want to be the best that I can be, but I also want to be better than the next guy.
CSM's Faculty Excellence Award recognizes outstanding contributions to teaching, curriculum and professional development, the college community, and the community at-large.
Each year the award is given to a permanent and adjunct faculty. To learn more about CSM's Faculty Excellence and previous recipients, visit http://www.csmd.edu/Faculty/.