Professor Pringle gets inventive with online teaching

Professor Robert Pringle standing in lake teaching class

Article by Julie Levey, The Daily Princetonian

Photo by Robert Pringle, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

For Professor Rob Pringle’s 56 students, joining Zoom to find their professor lecturing from his basement would be a lot more surprising than seeing him discuss biodiversity while knee-deep in a lake.

Students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) face the challenge of engaging in outdoor exploration during this online semester. But Pringle is bringing the outdoors to his students; rain or shine, he delivers every EEB 321: Species Interactions, Biodiversity and Society lecture outside.

Pringle Zoomed in to speak with The Daily Princetonian from his rarely-caught-on-camera basement desk. Behind him, “Nature” science journal posters and a sampling of his electric guitar collection were propped against the wall.

Pringle’s course preceded Pringle, who began teaching at the University in 2012. He virtually redesigned the course, basing it off of his own studies as an undergraduate.

“[It’s] the hybrid of all the things I liked best about my college courses,” he said. “It’s my baby, so I love it.”

The course focuses on understanding natural systems, ecological theory, and the distribution of biodiversity in what Pringle described as an “era of unprecedented human disruption to the environment.”

“A lot of it is about ‘get outside wherever you’re at and explore,’” Pringle explained.

Pringle’s inventive decision to lecture outdoors was motivated by a handful of challenges brought on by the virtual semester.

“Number one was just feeling like the alternative [to lecturing outside] was sitting in my basement with the laptop webcam pointed up my nose,” he said.

“Lecturing has its performative component,” Pringle added. “How am I going to get motivated to bring the excitement and energy to a lecture if I’m doing it from my basement office?”

Pringle’s course has been anything but unexciting. In an email to the ‘Prince,’ EEB 321 student Zachary Sahin ’23 wrote, “Professor Pringle is like a good Stevie Wonder song. His lectures will always stand out even amongst the crème de la crème.”

Sahin is a former contributing Prospect writer at the ‘Prince.’

Of course, lecturing outdoors comes with a myriad of technological difficulties. But a grant from the Dean of the College’s 250th anniversary fund made Pringle’s endeavor possible, enabling him to purchase equipment such as a long ethernet cable, a good webcam, and a tripod.

“I need roadies,” he joked, explaining that with all his equipment, preparing for a lecture requires “up to 90 minutes of prep.”

Despite this extra setup time, Pringle’s decision was a practical one. Teaching outside was a solution to the challenge working at home presents for so many students and professors: finding a quiet place to work.

Pringle’s wife, Corina Tarnita, is also an associate professor in the EEB department. Between the two professors’ overlapping schedules and their “wonderful but also unpredictably noisy” 18-month-old daughter, silence is a luxury. Outside, though, Pringle noted, “nobody’s going to mess with me.”

Most importantly, lecturing outdoors reflects the subject matter of EEB 321. Pringle lifted up the egg roll he was eating for lunch to demonstrate the theme of this year’s course: “Ecology is everywhere.”

“There’s ecology in this egg roll, and there’s also ecology happening on the egg roll as we speak,” he said. 

Egg rolls may be bursting with ecology, but Pringle’s students have been provided with a better alternative to exploring nature than analyzing their lunch.

Each lecture, Pringle attempts to teach from a different part of his yard. As Sahin described, students are greeted on Zoom by “a cheery Professor Pringle, jamming out in a new location outside … to some music that sets the mood of the whole class.”

EEB 321 student Yehuda Sinaga ’21 wrote to the ‘Prince’ that it sometimes feels as if the class is taught “in the plains of Mozambique or some island paradise in the Bahamas.”

Bad weather is not a deterrent for Pringle. Leah Smith ’22 recalled one class where it started raining.

“He whipped out an umbrella and kept teaching,” wrote Smith in an email to the ‘Prince’.

And better yet? Pringle dresses for the occasion … but not the occasion you’d expect.

“I’ve worn a suit and tie every day. I’m going to try to pretend like we’re in a classroom,” Pringle said. He keeps it up “mainly for the contrast.”

But in Pringle’s course, nothing is ever predictable — not even his attire. In honor of election day, he wore an Uncle Sam suit to class. “I believe that election day should be a holiday, so I treat it like one,” said Pringle. His election day lecture was the only one this semester to occur asynchronously.

For a lecture during the week of Halloween, he wore a pumpkin suit, and for what Smith calls the “forest lecture,” “he wore a green suit and kind of blended into the trees and bamboo.”

Some of his students shared a favorite memory: the day Pringle set up his desk in the water outside his home.

Smith recalled, “I didn’t notice until the end of class when his camera dropped and his legs were wet and walking out of the water. In a suit.”

Pringle shared that he was “hopeful but not confident” about how his teaching strategies — for example, throwing out questions to the students — would be received over Zoom.

He recalled his own college years and reflected on the professors and courses that shaped him as a student and later influenced the way he designed EEB 321. “[One professor] would just get up in front of the class with no notes … [and his lectures] would be the most polished lectures you could possibly imagine, all in his head,” he said.

According to his students, Pringle has completed the cycle by inspiring them with his enthusiasm, creativity, and passion. Sahin wrote that he expects to one day share with his children “all the wonderful stories of my memorable time in Professor Pringle’s class.”

In Sinaga’s words, “He is an ecologist I aspire to be.”

This article can be found in The Daily Princetonian.