Lecturing to about 700 students on subtropical deserts, when many of them have just rolled out of bed, is a tough assignment.
But Bill Shields ’99, M.S. ’01, has done it 32 semesters in a row, waking mostly freshmen with his stories of growing up in the 1800s and hammering shoes on mules. Some of his stories are even true.
The self-described introvert has to take a deep breath and turn it on as he walks up to the podium for a 50-minute lecture. But he has made Principles of Geology one of those classes you just have to take before you graduate, not because it’s a requirement, but because of who teaches it.
“If you didn’t take geology with the iconic Bill Shields, did you even go to ISU?” a recent tweet said.
On social media, he’s called an icon, a god among professors, a wizard, someone you’d like to call dad. “Just saw Bill Shields on the highway and if you go to @IllinoisStateU you know how exciting this was,” Megan McKinnon tweeted.
It’d be hard to miss the man in green Army shorts with a gray beard that reaches his second shirt button. The former personal chef and lineman decided at 36 to start college, even though he was married with two young children. That was 20 years ago. He earned his degree in geology here in 1999, followed by his master’s. Then Department of Geography and Geology chair Dave Malone recruited him for a coordinator role. Shields made it clear he didn’t want to teach because he didn’t know how and he didn’t think he’d be good in front of people.
Two weeks later, he was in the classroom.
“I told him he’d be a natural in front of the younger students and he disagreed,” Malone said. “The students love him. He projects a source of warmth. They can tell he cares deeply about them and he knows what he’s talking about. He is wildly popular. We go for a walk about every day. I get zero hellos and he gets five or six.”
‘He’s a wizard’
That’s because he’s taught more than 30,000 students, filling Capen Auditorium as head of the biggest class taught at the University. From the first day, he walks the aisles, learning names, memorizing faces. Besides his rock-filled office, he holds office hours in the Student Fitness Center and in a virtual space he created on Second Life, chatting with students online on evenings and weekends.
He knows them by where they usually sit and calls on them, maybe not by name but by what they’re wearing, or something that makes them distinct.
“They love getting called on in class. It feels special to them. You have to have that connection or they’re not going to learn.”
“Bearded man” Shannon Hickey agreed. Even in the top row of the balcony, he got called on.
“He’s a wizard, best I’ve had so far,” Hickey said. “I was expecting a lecture with a monotone voice and I got wizard.”
That’s what he named him after seeing a wand in Shields’ office. Students rotate through there the first week, guided by 10 teaching assistants. Shields surprises them by telling them he’s not there to teach them about science. And then he tells them about the time he had to take art history and didn’t understand why.
“A funny thing happened. I started seeing art everywhere and I couldn’t get away from it. A whole new world opened up to me. Geology is everywhere too. There’s so much to see but unless someone trains you, you’re going to miss it.”
If you didn't take geology with the iconic Bill Shields, did you even go to ISU???
— 🍂belly furtado🍂 (@staple_tits) January 20, 2016
Sophomore Rachel Mackinnon heard of Shields through posts about him on Yik Yak, a social networking site. “He has a lot of dad jokes. I feel like he knows his students better than some professors with 20 kids in class.”
Just don’t expect an easy “A.” Until last year, he never gave extra credit. After biking past a Redbird softball game and only seeing seven people watching, that changed.
“It broke my heart,” he said. “I had three students from softball and I told them I’d do something special for them.”
So he offered three extra credit points on the mid-term for anyone who showed up to the next game. More than 300 did.
“I’m going to do more of that,” he said. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?
Fighting for his students
Shields is passionate about helping freshmen find their way. In a large class, he feels they could easily feel lost and lose the excitement they moved in with in August.
“They come right out of high school feeling like an adult, ready for something and they’re not sure what it is but they’re excited about it. And then they come to a class that’s so big they could get lost and feel like nobody cares about them. I want them to know they’re special. I want them to know that there’s somebody watching out for them. I tell them, ‘If you need an override for another class, you come see me. If you need a battle fought, you come see me.’ They know I’m there fightin’ for them.”
Online, he studies their names, photos and majors. If they’re undeclared, he visits them in the lab and talks to them about becoming a geology major. He loves the story of a student who came skipping down the aisle after class one day, saying she might like to be a geologist. Now she’s making six figures working for one of the top oil companies in the country, flying in helicopters to offshore oil rigs.
“I’m so proud of her,” he said.
Over the summer, he teaches field camp in Wyoming and South Dakota. He also advises two registered student organizations and is faculty mentor for two residence hall floors.
Campus is an hour’s drive from his Oglesby home. He’s been known to miss the Normal exit as he thinks about, well, anything. It’s hard for him to turn his mind off, until he gets home. That’s when he reverts to the introvert, working out, hiking, biking and kayaking alone.
On the last day of class, students will hear that familiar cackle once more, maybe even see a tear. Sometimes he turns the tears on for effect in a story, he said. But not on the last day. That tear would be real.
Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.