• August 30, 2015

Teaching Under Fire and Online From 'Mortaritaville' in Iraq

Amid incoming fire and dust storms, an economics professor at war kept her classes in North Dakota going

Teaching Online From 'Mortaritaville' in Iraq 1

Cheryl Wachenheim

Cheryl Wachenheim, an associate professor at North Dakota State U., was deployed to Iraq but decided to keep teaching her economics classes online.

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close Teaching Online From 'Mortaritaville' in Iraq 1

Cheryl Wachenheim

Cheryl Wachenheim, an associate professor at North Dakota State U., was deployed to Iraq but decided to keep teaching her economics classes online.

When Cheryl J. Wachenheim, an associate professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State University, says she taught her courses last year from a remote location, she means a desert nearly 7,000 miles away from her Fargo campus.

A captain in the Minnesota Army National Guard, Ms. Wachenheim deployed to Balad, Iraq, just north of Baghdad, in August 2008, for a 10-and-a-half-month stay. She continued teaching courses in micro- and macroeconomics online, from a fortified trailer crammed with medical supplies, body armor, the M-16 rifle she was required to carry wherever she went, and a computer.

Online courses have long been a boon for soldiers who want to participate in college despite geographic displacement. It's usually a student, however, and not the professor, working from the far-flung location.

Using her personal laptop to run the courses, Ms. Wachenheim posted discussion questions and assignments using the Blackboard course-management system, and even video lectures using the audio and video software Wimba.

During her tour of duty, which included training at Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, in June and July, she taught four courses that enrolled 20 to 75 students—two in the summer of 2008, one in the fall of 2008, and one in the spring of 2009.

To get Internet access, she and nine other soldiers on her base in Iraq chipped in for a satellite dish and dug holes in the sand all over the base so they could run wires underground and into each of their trailers.

Ms. Wachenheim served as a medical-logistics officer of the 834th Aviation Support Battalion of Task Force 34. She worked out of Joint Base Balad, one of the largest American military bases in Iraq, dubbed "Mortaritaville" because of its location in the line of fire. Ms. Wachenheim says that when she walked around the base after hours, C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery, and mortar) weapons would light up the night sky.

In that kind of environment, running her classes was more like rest and recreation than work, Ms. Wachenheim says. Without the teaching duties, she would have felt like an economist at loose ends.

"Some people like to read on the base, some like to watch movies," she said in a telephone interview from Fargo, where she returned to teach this semester. "I like to interact with students. People in the unit didn't want to discuss the idiosyncrasies of the economy. This gave me that outlet."

Helping Her Department

By teaching the courses, Ms. Wachenheim not only gave herself a channel to discuss her passion, she also filled what could have been a major void in her department.

"When she got called for duty, it became a question of 'Gee, who can continue to teach these online courses?' Because we needed [them] available," says David M. Saxowsky, interim chair of the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. Ms. Wachenheim had taught those courses for a number of years, so in spite of the challenges of increased distance, Mr. Saxowsky says, she was still the best person for the job.

From a financial standpoint, Mr. Saxowsky says the decision was easy. The cost of conducting the classes was not substantially different from that of other online courses. What he couldn't be sure about were the X factors that would accompany teaching from a combat zone.

The new teaching territory did present problems Ms. Wachenheim never faced in North Dakota. But despite emergency alarms that sent everyone on the base ducking for cover and occasional mortar explosions nearby, Ms. Wachenheim says, concern for her safety really was not one of them. The most difficult part of teaching the class, she says, involved the inconveniences of war, not the dangers.

In Iraq, there were plenty of obstacles that could keep Ms. Wachenheim from getting in touch with her students. There were the dust storms that knocked out satellite Internet connections and kept her off the base for days, and there were military emergencies that shut down all "nonessential" Internet use.

And then, of course, there was the chain of command.

"As a professor I am much more accustomed to managing my own time," Ms. Wachenheim says. "In a combat environment, the chain of command is absolute. If they asked me to go to Baghdad tomorrow, I would have to go, whether or not students needed my help before a test."

Ms. Wachenheim says this happened more times than she can remember, including finding out 30 minutes ahead of time that she was heading to Basra. That trip ended up lasting five days.

Yet Ms. Wachenheim is quick to say there were plenty of upsides to being far from home, like drawing inspiration from her new surroundings.

"It was especially easy to teach about shortages and surpluses," she says. "When we heard that the base had Diet Mountain Dew, I can't even explain how exciting that was, and I could explain firsthand just what a shortage can do."

Ms. Wachenheim says she would take daily events like that one and work them into her discussion groups as a means of livening up the conversation while also giving real-life examples of how economies work.

Time-Zone Advantages

Unexpectedly, the eight-hour time-zone difference worked to Ms. Wachenheim's advantage. Late-night studying by students in North Dakota coincided with her morning in Iraq. So when a student was stumped by a problem at 3 in the morning, he often got a quick answer from his professor, instead of having to wait until the next day.

"It seemed that any questions I had were immediately taken care of," says David A. Hanson, an economics student who admits that he was initially leery about taking the class. "She was usually better than the professors who were working from town."

Mr. Hanson says that even when Ms. Wachenheim couldn't be in contact easily, she always seemed to find a way.

"Once she let us know in the middle of a three-day dust storm that she was going to be out of touch," he says about an e-mail message she sent the class from base. "I don't know how she did it."

As it turned out, the constant correspondence proved to be just as important to the professor as it was for her students.

"Combat sounds really fascinating in movies," she says. "It's really not. What became most interesting to me was hearing from my students, whether it was about why their [problem-set] curve shifted one way or about someone's sister getting married."


1. citizenship - October 05, 2009 at 01:33 pm

Professor Wachenheim,

Thank you, and your fellow members of the Minnesota Army National Guard, for your service.

Where you ever able to apply your expertise and prior experience to helping the local population in efforts to improve their econmomy?

2. mahirsali - October 06, 2009 at 04:59 am

Professor Wachenheim,

It is gratifying to know that you had the interest of your students in mind even when you served in the US army thousands of miles away from North Dakota, but as a professor first and a soldier second, did you try to make contacts with any of the Iraqi universities while you were there and learn from the Iraqi professors the kind of shortages they have (and I don't mean Diet Mountain Dew!) and the kind of environment they work under these days, such as C-RAM weapons lighting up not only the night sky but being fired all day long? It would have been great if you had volunteered to teach a course at the University of Tikreet, for example, which is just a few miles from Balid (where you were stationed) and you could have shown the Iraqis at least a nicer and kinder side of America, rather than what they see in their daily encounter with your fellow soldiers.


3. queso - October 07, 2009 at 09:13 am

Methinks the professor should have taken a normal leave of absence, done her military duty, and returned. By trying to do both she most likely shortchanged her students, the US Army, or both.

CPT Queso, US Army

4. jaysanderson - October 07, 2009 at 11:41 am

I'll bet the good professor had the complete and undivided attention of her students. Perhaps they even learned a bit more than one might have otherwise learned in a normal econ class. So the professor spent her free time teaching instead of thinking about the danger--we should all think about doing that more.

5. justpassingthrough - October 07, 2009 at 11:42 am

As a parent of three soldiers that have spent a total of over four years in Moraritaville I would like to respond to both mahirsali and queso. I have had phone conversations interrupted with the background sound of sirens and "I gotta to NOW, Mom" and emails or text messages of "no matter what you hear, I am ok".
I doubt that CPT Wachenheim had the freedom to venture any contact with the University of Tikreet...generally the movements of the soldiers "outside the wire" are limited and governed by strict guidelines.
As far as shortchanging her students, while it is possible that they did not receive the standard course presented in the usual way, I submit that thier education was enhanced in an unique way and that the benefits outweighed any negatives.
As far as shortchanging the US Army...methinks that would be difficult to do in a war zone.

6. dogood1776 - October 07, 2009 at 01:02 pm

I retired from the Army in 1994, and I am also a parent of three soldiers (two sons and a daughter) and my daughter is married to a soldier, so I can claim four. All except my daughter have multiple combat tours (she opted to get out a year after her return from Iraq). I have been teaching at the college level since 1996, so I have expereince from both sides.

Contrary to CPT Queso's opinion, I think what Professor Wachenheim is doing is wonderful. One of the problems one faces when deployed is the boredom. Teaching on-line classes, or taking on-line classes would be a great way to pass the time. With on-line courses there is no requirement that the teacher be available 24/7. There is plenty of time to get on-line and answer questions during those down times that occur around the Army's schedule.

7. drtdowney - October 07, 2009 at 02:59 pm

The example that the Cheryl gives us about the convenience of online from the perspective of the instructor demonstrates not only how we will be able to learn any time and any place but how we can teach as well.

I have been at conferences where instructors had to excuse themselves from a reception to teach online but never met anyone who had to listen for "incoming" while teaching online.

There is no room for criticism but only praise for what Cheryl did. She demonstrated; dedication, innovation and professionalism. Anyone who is focusses only on the difficulties about initiating online learning programs should take this as a glowing example of finding solutions in a more than difficult environment.

We need more people like Cheryl who are willing to overcome obstacles and serve their students with creativity and ingenuity. This is spirit is what will bring online to the next level.

8. joberndorfer - October 08, 2009 at 02:11 pm

CPT Queso should re-think his or her statement; then offer an apology! It is so shortsighted and arrogant. I thank Professor Wachenheim for her service and her dedication. God Bless You! I am teaching an on-line class for the first time. I love it! A lot of preparation before the curriculum was submitted... but so very rewarding now.....

9. mssmiley - October 08, 2009 at 09:26 pm

Talk about going beyond the call of duty; both as a soldier and professor. I applaud her dedication and tenacity, not many people can multi-task under such conditions. This also underscores the importance of quality online instruction.

10. laoshi - October 11, 2009 at 05:11 am

Professor/Captain Wachenheim illustrates what's best about the United States. She is responsible to her students whilst staying responsible to her fighting unit. She is innovative in using her situation to teach real-world economics and using the time-zone differences to be available for student conversation. She doesn't complain when the going gets tough. And finally she proves that those who can, teach!

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