June 8, 2023

Jesse Stommel: Courageous Conversations

Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies

Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies

When Jesse Stommel interviewed at Mary Washington, he told his husband, “I hope you can fall in love with the university, because I really want to take this job.” Thankfully for UMW, they both did. Now, as executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, Stommel, along with his colleagues, helps professors conceive and implement creative pedagogical approaches in their classrooms.

“It’s easy to see the word ‘technology’ in the name of our unit and think that’s all we do, but the key words for me are actually ‘teaching’ and ‘learning,’” said Stommel, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado Boulder. “Technology isn’t just a means to an end at Mary Washington, but rather something with which teachers and students are actively investigating and experimenting.”

It was this kind of innovative approach to teaching and technology that attracted Stommel to UMW in the first place. For the past four years, he has taught digital studies courses, guiding his students in such projects as creating documentary films and digital journals. He’s also driven home the university’s commitment to graduating digitally fluent students while still retaining its strong emphasis on the liberal arts.

In the classroom, Stommel encourages his students to think critically about the world we live in and how we as humans interact with each other in an ethical and responsible way, especially online, given today’s hyperconnected digital realm. It’s why he makes a case for the digital liberal arts in Courageous Conversations, a new video series featuring UMW faculty discussing timely and significant topics.



Q: Do you have any meaningful Mary Washington memories?
A: The day I decided to take the job at UMW, I met Martha Burtis, director of the Digital Knowledge Center. Martha was practically born at UMW. She is an alumna and has worked at the institution for most of her adult life. Having the opportunity to work with her has been one of the best professional and personal privileges of my life.

Q: You are a proponent of “ungrading.” How did you come to this stance and do you think it’s catching on among educators, particularly in higher education?
A: Grades are a relatively recent technology, invented around 1800 and not popularized until the second half of the 20th century. Schools existed long before grades did. Even as the urge to quantify learning becomes more rampant across higher education, I think asking critical questions about what grades are for, how we should use them and when they’re useful is becoming more common.

Q: Tell us about your new book.
A: An Urgency of Teachers, which I co-authored with Sean Michael Morris (director of UMW’s Digital Pedagogy Lab and Digital Learning) came out last year. It’s about the need to valorize and support the work of teaching. We don’t need to invest in technology to be masters of educational technology; we need to invest in teachers.

Q: How are your students having Courageous Conversations in the classroom and outside of it?
A: I learn more from my students than I could ever teach. There’s just one of me in the classroom and so many of them. Their collective intelligence and bravery pushes me every single day.

Q: What is the best compliment or most helpful feedback you’ve ever received from a student?
A: A student once told me that she did more work for my class than any other but called it “an easy A.” I like the idea that my students work hard without feeling that the rug will be pulled out from under them. Those words have pushed me to find more ways to encourage, and make space for, intrinsic motivation for learning.

Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: My 2-year-old daughter, Hazel. She’s started showing me her drawings with a sense of real pride. She’s way better at drawing than me.

Q: What would you be doing if you were not a professor?
A: I’d be a kindergarten teacher.

Q: Are there any mottos that you live by?
A: I recently summed up my approach to teaching in four words, and those words have become a bit of a pedagogical motto for me: “Start by trusting students.”

Q: What books are you reading right now or have you read recently that inspired you?
A: It’s not a book, but I just watched the Beyoncé concert documentary, Homecoming. I was awed, and it kicked my ass, in the best way.