Nancy Wade

Disciplinary, knowledgeable, strict and caring–they’re just some of the words that describe ODU’s memorable mentor of General Biology

By Steve Daniel

Few Old Dominion professors have made such a lasting impression as Nancy Wade. Wade, who will begin her 40th year teaching General Biology at the university this fall, has evoked both fear and inspiration among the thousands of wet-behind-the-ears underclassmen who have taken her classes and labs during her long career.

A commanding presence in the large-lecture hall, Wade dispenses equal parts discipline, depth of knowledge, brutally honest advice and down-home humor, a formula that, for those students who were able to figure out early on that they needed to provide the final ingredient of hard work, has proven successful year after year.

Love her or hate her, Wade is inarguably a memorable teacher, both for the knowledge she imparts and the manner in which she does so.

Chris Jones ’76 (M.S. ’82), an industrial hygienist at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, still vividly recalls his initial encounter with Wade – fully 30 years ago.

“It was my first day of class – Biology 101 – in the Arts and Letters auditorium. It was packed with students, and here comes this figure slowly walking onto stage in yellow ‘garbageman boots’ and a yellow rain slicker pulled down over her head so that all you could see were her nose, chin and glasses.

“Then she starts pointing to people shouting, ‘ You, you, you – Out!’ In a matter of seconds she had kicked 20 people out for chewing gum.

“The first week or so I was petrified,” Jones admits. “It was a rude awakening.”

But after getting over the initial shock, he began to concentrate more on Wade the teacher than Wade the disciplinarian. “She knows her stuff and delivers it in a way that is interesting. She was probably one of the better instructors I had at Old Dominion, and that includes undergraduate and graduate.

“She lectures aggressively; it’s full-speed ahead. If you were interested in learning biology, you did your best to keep up. She gave you the foundations for a knowledge base from A to Z, but you had to string the letters together.”

Not everyone did keep up. The slackers, Jones noted, bailed out early and sought other majors.

Wade strongly encourages her students to take self-tests, which are part of her meticulously prepared workbooks. She constantly emphasizes that they need to know the many biological terms and how they relate to one another – from anaphase to zygote. If these classroom messages were somehow lost on her students, then chances are they found themselves lost on test days.

Wade has come under fire in some quarters for her grade distribution – she estimates that 40 percent of her students make D’s and F’s – but she steadfastly maintains that she doesn’t focus on the higher achievers.

“Let’s say the high score on a genetics test is an 88 – a low score because it involves math computations – so I give everybody 12 points. The person who got an 88 is getting about 14 percent [extra] of the earned grade, but the person who scored a 36 and gets 12 additional points is getting a much higher percentage.”

While many students – like Jones – had heard stories about Wade before coming to Old Dominion, most were not fully prepared for what awaited them in their first college science class. Wade has softened a bit through the years – but not to a great degree.

A tip to future students: Hang on and hang in. And don’t for one minute let the bib overalls and backroads Carolina accent fool you. While Nancy Wade might look and sound like she just fell off the turnip truck, she is in fact an eminently knowledgeable associate professor of biological sciences and one who puts in long hours preparing each lesson to make it fresh and memorable.

“I get better evaluations from graduating seniors than I did when they were freshmen, and that hurts,” Wade confides. “After they’ve gone on for two or three years, they look back and see I was one of the most organized, I was one of the most caring, and they wish they could do it again. That’s what some of them tell me.”

Wade readily acknowledges that she comes across as intimidating, but she says that students need to look beneath the tough exterior to fully appreciate what she attempts to achieve in the classroom day in and day out.

“I had heard she was mean and hard core. I took her 115 class last semester and got a C-, but I think that was my fault because I didn’t work hard in the lab,” says Asha Shelton, a junior biology major from Richmond. “She wants you to understand everything, not just memorize [the material].”

Leanna Spear, a freshman biology major from Franklin, Va., agrees. “I had heard she was mean, but she’s just strict – really strict. She’s one of those teachers you have to work really hard for to get a good grade. If you put in the effort you learn a lot.”

Spear adds that she has actually come to enjoy sitting in Wade’s classes and labs. “She’s funny and sarcastic – always telling some story.”

Wade’s colleague and longtime department chair for many years, Professor Emeritus Harold Marshall, also is one who appreciates her approach and commitment.

“I consider her one of the most conscientious, knowledgeable and dedicated teachers I have known in our department and at Old Dominion University,” he said. “She has been innovative in her classroom and laboratory teaching, and is always aware of current advances in biology.

“She has consistently set high standards in her courses for her students, and expects them to work to the best of their ability and achieve success not only in the classroom, but in their lifetime activities.”

In addition to devoting long hours to her PowerPoint presentations, which frequently feature original drawings and other graphics, Wade spends a considerable amount of time studying learning styles, from the early days to the present, in an effort to meet her students more than halfway. She says her favorite teaching philosophy is: “Telling is not teaching, teaching is not learning.”

“I like the principles of the Socratic method. I don’t think a person can learn anything unless they can connect the new information with something that already exists.” She becomes energized by the back-and-forth of the questions and answers with her students.

Wade often employs unusual methods to get her students thinking and making connections, such as using nursery rhymes and fairy tales to illustrate biological processes. “There’s no better story to talk about sexual relationships than Jack and Jill,” she asserts.

“If you look at nursery rhymes, fairy tales, even Shakespeare, those words are about biology. I mean, the Big Bad Wolf – he’s nothing but a carnivore.”

During the course of a classroom or lab session, interactions with her students may prompt Wade to laugh uproariously one minute and pound her fists in frustration the next. Depending on her mood at the moment, a student who walks in late may be subjected to a verbal tirade about disrupting the class, and another who comes to lab without his workbook is likely to be the poster child, at least for a few agonizing minutes, for the importance of being prepared.

But Wade also likes to joke around and have fun with her students. During a recent exchange with one of the girls in her lab, she asked what night the student worked at an area nightclub. Learning that it was Thursday, Wade tells her, “I can drink beer on Wednesday night, but not Thursday because I have a class the next day.”

She’s not shy about sharing her opinions and life observations on any number of topics, ranging – in the same lab session on mitosis – from the etymology of the word Ma’am, and why she doesn’t wish to be so addressed, to the merits of a European education.

Wade grew up near Henderson, N.C., on a tobacco farm that has been in the family more than 200 years. She was one of four children raised by strict, Methodist parents. “They always thought I might be a missionary,” Wade laughs. But in truth, her life choice has been a mission of helping others learn about the wonders of life itself.

Wade, who is easy to spot on campus by her trademark bib overalls, didn’t wear such attire as a child – after all, she was a girl, and proper girls didn’t dress like boys. She acknowledges that, if her parents were alive today, they would be appalled not only by her appearance, but also her animated classroom presentations on sperm, eggs and sexual reproduction.

“I think that the strictness of my [upbringing] may have caused me to become such a free spirit,” she says with a laugh. Her parents would also no doubt be shocked by her taste for beer and her penchant for putting the pedal to the floor of her 1972 VW bug.

After high school, Wade went to Meredith College in Raleigh because, primarily, she wanted to get away from home. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, but she would soon develop an interest in biology, thanks to an inspirational professor.

“I had to take a science course, and I took biology because I thought it was the easiest,” she recalls. “I was mistaken.”

She quickly discovered that the subject was far from easy, but it did prove fascinating. She still remembers dissecting a fish, and learning about corn tassels and their role in fertilization, in freshman biology. For someone who grew up on the farm with a pond and cornfields nearby, this was familiar territory.

“I was making contact with something from my background that was coming from an educational view rather than a recreational or farm view,” Wade said. “I wanted to learn more about the observations I had made on the farm as a child. I felt like the world had opened up to me.

“Biology allowed me to understand the nursery rhymes, biology allowed me to understand the Bible, biology allowed me to relate to how my father would look at the sunset and predict what the weather was going to be the next day.”

Wade also fondly remembers her plant physiology class with Professor Graham Davis, who employed a highly confrontational Socratic method in the classroom. “He absolutely picked me to death,” she recalls. “It was the best experience I ever had.”

After earning a master’s degree in biology at East Carolina University, Wade moved to Hampton Roads and signed a contract to teach at Indian River Junior High School in Chesapeake. Shortly thereafter she noticed an ad for a biology instructor position at what was still known at the time, 1964, as Old Dominion College.

On the eve of her 40th year at ODU, Wade is still going strong and has no plans to retire anytime soon. A perfectionist, she devotes up to six hours of research and preparation of materials for each classroom presentation. She doesn’t like notes, preferring to teach from her extensive knowledge of the subject matter. After class, she will spend even more time analyzing what worked well and what didn’t so as to use that information in preparing the next lesson.

She says, half-joking, that she rues the day her sister introduced her to PowerPoint about three years ago. “I got hooked. PowerPoint probably took away my life.” The following summer she attended the Institute of Academic Technology at the University of North Carolina to learn about using media in the classroom, and from then on she’s been obsessed with making her presentations both visually and textually meaningful.

“I haven’t relaxed since I started PowerPoint,” said Wade, who spends her nights on schoolwork in front of her home computer. “I have gained 40 pounds. It’s the worst thing I have ever done because I chose to go the creative route rather than prepackaged.”

In addition to teaching up to 240 students each fall and spring semester in her large-lecture class, conducting a three-hour lab and supervising the work of as many as five teaching assistants every term, Wade religiously teaches summer school.

“One summer I did not teach in the summer and I was absolutely miserable. My sister wants me to retire and for us to go to Australia. She likes to travel. I don’t know whether I’m afraid not to have my work, or what.

“I wish I could relax, I wish I could let go. The doctors have told me if I did not loosen up, I was going to be in the emergency room. I tell them, ‘I’d rather go in a big bang.’ That’s the reason I drive the Volkswagen 80 miles an hour, gas tank in front, motor behind,” she says, letting out a huge laugh.

If you were to ask many of her former students who have gone on to successful careers why she can’t let go, they would probably say it’s because she loves her profession so much and, underneath her formidable exterior, cares deeply for her students – especially the ones who are self-motivated, and in particular the self-motivated rebels, because she sees herself in them.

“There are probably 20 or so a year that really get my heartstrings,” she admits. “Most of the rebels that have a cause have one because they want to achieve and there’s something in the roadway.”

She recalls with fondness one of her favorite students and advisees, Mike Pitchford ’78 (M.P.A. ’81), who she said helped change the biology curriculum because he didn’t want to count fruit flies in the lab. Pitchford, now a senior vice president with Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., holds reciprocal feelings toward Wade.

“Nancy was the best ‘pure teacher.’ She knew how to communicate to a [large] lecture hall. Her nickname for me ... is unprintable. It came from screwing up my first year, flunking out and crawling back to her office to enlist her support in re-establishing myself academically.

“Simply put, she was the catalyst that sparked my academics. For that I will owe her – and ODU – for life.”

While Wade’s General Biology students must successfully wend their way through the intricacies of living systems – everything from cell exchange to human reproduction – to get a decent grade, they might be surprised to learn what, ultimately, their teacher wants them to come away with from her course.

“I want them to question what they see and what they hear,” she states matter-of-factly. “And that’s it. That’s just it. The ability to question everything: what you see, hear and feel. And when I say question, I mean, ask yourself why.”