I miss writing my regular updates about what we’re doing in my classes. Given that I am still teaching, and covering much the same material as usual, I have been puzzling over why it nonetheless feels nearly impossible to talk about it right now–not the process or the logistics of it, which I have written about several times now, but the substance of it. So much is the same, even though we’re online, after all: as I’ve pointed out more than once to my students, we always read the books outside of the classroom, and we always did at least some of our work on them in writing, including sometimes reading journals or discussion boards much like what I’ve asked them to do for the online versions. Why is it that without the actual classroom time, I can’t figure out what to say about the weekly experience of my classes?
It’s nearly a year now since the Big Disruption: this time last January, and in February, and in early March, I was puzzling, not over what to say here, but over how to fix a class that felt like it was really faltering (the British Literature survey). I was also enjoying the usual (ah, usual!) challenges of running discussions in the 19th-century fiction class, working especially on my resolution to wean myself from lecture notes and allow it to be more spontaneous (ah, spontaneity!). Looking back at those posts this morning, it clarified for me that what I’m missing now is the sense of teaching as an occasion, something that is a clear and necessary casualty of the asynchronous model I am using now. Whatever else we were doing, at least several times a week we did something together, and a lot of my thought and energy went into those specific common experiences–what to do in them, what we talked about in them, what went well (or didn’t) in them.
In contrast, our online class discussions, even though we cover the same kinds of topics, are diffuse. Lots of good replies get posted to questions; lots of good comments get made on passages. But these things happen really sporadically, on the students’ own schedules. The earlier someone posts, the more likely another student will specifically reply and so the more conversation-like it feels, but (especially since this term I have relaxed my earlier attempts to micromanage this process) it’s haphazard and unpredictable, and you can never be sure if the original poster will look at the replies or that other students, writing in other threads, will check in to see what is unfolding elsewhere. As a result, there is no common ‘discussion’ for me to write about here: I can’t say “today we focused on X” or “after today’s discussion I realized that the thing I really need to bring up is Y.” Even for me–and of course I’m trying diligently to be as attentive as I can across every thread–it is hard to gather up the various pieces into a story about what, collectively, has gone on. One of my original plans for my own role in online discussions was exactly that: I was going to mostly hover, during the week, and then post something synthesizing the main lines and insights and gaps. It proved much harder than I thought it would, though, and in the spirit of giving myself a break too, I stopped trying.
The other thing that muddles me up about reporting on ‘this week’ is that most weeks I am actually focused on next week in my classes, as I need to get the lectures composed and recorded, the discussion prompts up (when they are my job), the quizzes made up and created in the tedious quiz tool with its endless drop-down menus — everything needs to be ready to go ahead of time, so that when the module begins they actually can do it at their own pace, as the asynchronous model promises. Again, this is very different from a regular term, in which preparations for lectures, assessments, and activities are often done close to (sometimes too close to!) the specific hour in which I’m going to use them. This lets me shape them to our current discussions, and it keeps me mentally right in the moment. Today, though, as an example of what’s different, for Mystery and Detective Fiction I will be creating a lecture about “Chasing Meaning in The Maltese Falcon,” while my students work through materials on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – which I completed almost two weeks ago. (Notice I say “for” this class, not “in” this class, and that’s the key to the difference!) For The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ I just made my slides for next week, our last week on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I already made my slides introducing The Mill on the Floss for the week after that. My mind is all over the place, not here, now, in this week.
I will spend two hours this week with my students, if not in my classes: Thursday mornings I meet for an online but real-time discussion with the students who are taking The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ cross-listed as a graduate seminar, talking about the novel and also about some secondary readings. Then Thursday afternoon I’m having a drop-in office hour, which I’m pitching as a chance to ask questions about the courses or just to come and hang out for a while. I floated the idea of having some actual real-time class discussion, but scheduling presented a lot of obstacles and students’ reluctance to be recorded (so as not to disadvantage those who couldn’t attend) also proved, understandably, another disincentive. So we won’t dig into questions about our reading except, perhaps, incidentally, but at least we can see each other’s faces and infuse a little shared time into the otherwise radically dispersed experience of this online semester–hopefully, possibly, maybe our last one. Also, maybe, hopefully, possibly, we’ll get nice enough weather in April, before this term is over, that we can try holding that drop-in office hour somewhere outside, near enough to see each other’s faces if still distant enough not to put each other at risk.