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Garnet Apple Award: Shanna Williams

Biomedical sciences professor never asks more of students than they’re capable of giving

Shanna Williams
Clinical assistant professor, biomedical sciences
School of Medicine Greenville
Ph.D., anthropology, University of Florida, 2008
2021 Garnet Apple Teaching Award
Joined UofSC faculty: 2012

I think of myself as a ringmaster, introducing students into this sort of circus of medical school. I'm at the front of the stage and I'm helping guide them through this often-scary overwhelming experience, but I'm also trying to instill in them a sense of confidence that I'm never going to ask more of them than I know they're capable of giving. I set the stage very quickly in the very first lecture — “Here are my expectations in terms of how you conduct yourself, how you approach this material.” I want them to understand that it should be fun, but this is not fun and games — we're here to do a job. I'm going to try to make it as accessible to you as possible, but this is where we need to go. This is where the finish line is, and I want you to cross it.

The most impactful teacher that I had was one of the instructors who taught gross anatomy [at the University of Florida]. He would pepper in his presentations all of these fun stories about things that he had done when he was when in his 20s, how he had traveled the world. And then he would shift back to the teaching. It was almost like a little break for you to catch your breath, hear the fun story, and then jump back into the content. He was really clear in terms of what was important and what was not, so you weren't confused as to what was being asked of you. And then when you kind of started feeling a little tense at the sheer volume of information, he’d stop and tell another story. That learning experience and the fact that it was in gross anatomy, which was one of the most life-changing classes I ever took, is what really inspired me to go into teaching and inspired me to take pieces of that and try to incorporate it into my own teaching.

As a brand-new instructor you're going to say something wrong and that's OK. You're not going to be an expert initially, but you're going to get better every year. Give yourself some grace in mastering that learning curve because it's OK to be wrong — we're all going to be wrong. That doesn't mean that you've lost your legitimacy with the students as long as you go and clean it up and don't hide behind a mistake.

I had a third-year student stop by my office, and he was bragging about how he had gotten an answer right during a surgical procedure. The surgeon had asked a question about a particular anatomical structure, and he had first asked one of the residents and the resident didn't know the answer. My M3 student knew the answer because of something that I had said two years earlier in my course. What I taught him in his first year of medical school was a clinical application of a basic anatomy concept, and that’s important to me because sometimes students don't see that connection. For him to remember that detail two years later, that's a job well done in my mind.

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