This Week On My Computer

1015StartHere-cropIf you’d asked me on March 13 of this year (the last “regular” day before we were all locked down!) whether I ordinarily spent a lot of time working at my computer, I would have said “Yes!” without hesitation. It turns out, however, that I used to greatly underestimate the amount of time I spent away from my computer–at least, relative to the balance (or, rather, imbalance) between these two options in my pandemic life. While preparing for class always involved at least some time typing up notes and preparing handouts, worksheets, slides, and other materials, for example, going to class meant gathering up actual books and papers and markers–and sometimes toys!–and moving to a different space, sometimes even going outside to get there! Teaching meant being in a classroom looking at and talking to and listening to other people. Office hours meant sitting in my office talking to other people face to face. Meetings meant sitting in yet another room, talking to yet more other people in person. Lunch time meant going to get food somewhere else and then eating it at my desk … wait, that at least is still exactly the same! Now that all of these activities mean staring at my screen and typing, I find that it is hard to motivate myself to do other things, like blogging or personal correspondence, that also involve screen time: when I finally call it quits on my actual work, I need to get away from the computer, both for physical relief (my eyes and especially my shoulder are not at all happy these days) and to restore some sense of boundaries, of difference, to my days.

NorthandSouthOUPBut here I am now, ready once again to take stock of how things are going in my classes. And the disconcerting truth is that a third of the way through this strange term, I still don’t really know, because I have no base line for comparison, no past experience to check this one against. I’m working pretty incessantly on one teaching task or another, but I get very little feedback compared to the ongoing opportunity, in face-to-face teaching, to “read the room”–which could, of course, be discouraging if you could tell they weren’t with you, but at least there was some immediacy to that input and enough flexibility to the whole operation to let you change things up, on the fly or more deliberately. One of the most disorienting things about online teaching so far, in fact, is the time lapse: because a lot of materials need to be ready ahead of time, I’m usually working on next week’s lectures and handouts while the students are working on this week’s. (Yes, that gets very confusing sometimes!) If I sense that something isn’t clicking this week, it can be pretty hard to figure out where or how to adapt.

CaptureCertainly some parts of this feel easier now than they did at first. The start of term is always chaotic, and this year it was worse than ever before because communicating by writing is just less efficient than talking to people or showing them things directly. (That said, at least when everything is written down there is less chance of details just getting lost or forgotten: the documents are always there for reference! The sheer quantity of written materials becomes its own kind of burden, but there’s still something to be said for having what amounts to a detailed instruction manual for the entire course.) By and large my classes seem to have settled into a rhythm now, though, and as a result the stress has gone down on both sides and the quality of actual work has gone up. It’s clear that the online model is harder for some students who would almost certainly be better off with more external structure and tangible support–but there are also students who find the move away from in-person pressures congenial. At this point I personally feel that, given the option, I would never teach online again: I have not had the transformative experience I’ve heard about from other instructors who ended up wholly converted to this mode of instruction. But it’s early yet, I suppose, and of course right now I don’t have a choice–and in spite of everything, I’m glad about that, as it’s not as if being in the classroom under current circumstances would be a return to the kind of work I loved. I’m also very grateful to have the job security I do, and that, along with my real desire to do the best I can for my students, keeps me pretty motivated and determined to keep trying to do this as well as I can.

conciseBILThe best thing I can say about my courses right now is that I do finally feel as if I am paying more attention to content than to logistics–which means that when I post about them, I might start talking  more about what we’re actually studying in them, like I used to! A trial run: In my intro class (“Literature: How It Works” – a dull title but a pragmatic focus that actually suits my usual approach to first-year classes) we are wrapping up our work on poetry.  This week students get to choose a ‘cluster’ of related poems to discuss, hopefully showing off what they have learned about literary devices and poetic form and interpretation so far; then next week we will turn our attention to short stories. I expect a lot of them will like that change of focus; I just hope I can coach them to keep paying attention to details and form and not relax into plot summary.

oupIn 19th-Century Fiction we start Middlemarch this week! I, at least, am very excited about this! (Honestly, though: isn’t the cover of the new OWC edition dreadful? They could hardly have made the novel look less fun and inviting. Dorothea is supposed to be blooming, not gloomy!) Rereading the novel and working on my slide presentations to launch our discussions of it has been pretty fun, and also very intellectually challenging, because I have had to make a lot of decisions about how to package the concepts and examples and approaches I would usually lay out over the first few class meetings. While I would certainly do some lecturing in a face-to-face course, I always prefer to draw students towards ideas about how the novel works and what it means through discussion, using a lot of open-ended questions and brainstorming on the white board (where I draw lots of what one of my students [hi, Bea!] recently described as “demented stick figures” 😊). This is hard to reproduce asynchronously!

POV

My basic approach this term has been to use my recorded presentations as starting points: I lay out any important contexts then try to set up questions and frameworks that will help them consider specific examples on their own. I think this is actually working pretty well–though, again, I miss being able to read the room, and being able to follow up on their suggestions and questions in a way that involves everyone at once, instead of there being a wide range of contributions diffused across different threads. I’ve been brooding a lot about how to convert this breadth into more depth–but, interestingly (to me, anyway!) when I polled the class about subdividing them into smaller groups so they could engaged with a narrower set of responses, most of them preferred the variety they get from seeing everyone’s posts and choosing where to follow up. (There are 30-something students; the discussion boards are set up with three different headings for each week, and they can contribute wherever they want.) This week’s discussions of North and South have really been very good, so I guess if it ain’t broke, I shouldn’t try to fix it!

Middlemarch 5I do expect a bit of stuttering as we get going on Middlemarch: my experience of teaching it in the classroom, where I can play ‘cheerleader-in-chief,’ has been that even with me absolutely radiating enthusiasm for it, it can be a hard sell at first, and though I am trying to be as enthusiastic as I can this time too, I have to communicate so much more indirectly that I can’t be sure it will come across, much less be contagious! The stumbling block is usually the amount of exposition, which requires a different kind of attention and patience and can muffle, on a first reading, the sharpness and comedy of the dialogue as well as of the narrator herself. I’m also often surprised by how little students like Dorothea: is idealism so out of fashion these days? But there are always some students who love the book, at first or eventually, and of course my job is not to make them like our readings but to help them learn about them.

I really hope that by the end of this term I am not so bewildered about what’s working and what’s not. Some of that should be evident from the results, by which I mean the students’ work as well as their feelings about that work and the course experience. One thing I think I am doing right is what the learning-and-teaching folks who provided so much training over the summer called “teacher presence”: I am as there for them as I know how to be. My biggest regret in this respect is that I haven’t figured out how to have fun the way we do in the classroom, where on a good day we laugh a lot. (I did sneak a crack about Mr. Casaubon’s “low wick” into this week’s Middlemarch lectures.) I suppose under the circumstances, though, if we aren’t crying, that’s good enough.

The Past Two Weeks In My (Online) Classes

Hardy-FAQ-cropIt has been two weeks since my last post. That sounds almost confessional: forgive me, gentle readers; it has been fourteen days since my last attempt to articulate what it is like to do something you usually love in a completely different way than you ever have before, under circumstances that remain (however awkwardly accustomed to them we have become) unprecedented. It’s not a sin, but it certainly is a sign of what those two weeks have been like.

In my previous post I said it was hard to reflect on the online experiment because I had no idea how it was going. Disconcertingly, I still have no real idea, though I have some feelings – not conclusions, yet – about individual aspects. Probably what I am most aware of right now is the gap between ‘best practices’ in theory and what they actually demand of all of us when we attempt to follow all that well-intentioned advice. In particular, I’m thinking about the oft-stressed recommendations about the value of frequent low-stakes (but graded, or else they won’t do them!) assignments, and about ‘overseeing’ but not actively engaging with online discussions. The former creates what feels like an endless barrage of busywork, because for some reason receiving, recording and returning so many bits and pieces electronically feels enormously more burdensome than collecting (as I routinely did) stacks of paper at every class meeting and returning them, marked, the next time we met. And the latter is both more disappointing than I anticipated (I want to participate, especially in the discussions for my 19th-century fiction class) and more difficult: I had planned, for example, to write ‘highlight’ posts after each round of discussions, to draw out the really good stuff and, if necessary, counteract confusions, and so far I have not managed to do that, as the submissions are both so copious and so diffuse. (Note for next time: less is more!)

GE-Help-Icon-cropI think my overwhelming impression at this point (and it may get better as we all get more and more used to doing things this way) is that I am spending a lot more time managing logistics and a lot less time engaging robustly with my classes about our readings. I can understand how online structures of the sort we were encouraged to develop would work pretty well for more mechanical subjects, and I think, too, that there is some good cross-talk going on between the students that does accomplish some of the goals of classroom time. That I feel a bit left out does not mean it isn’t valuable: this is what the experts mean, I guess, when they tell us online teaching “decenters” the teacher. But I don’t think I have so far found the strategy that makes an asynchronous course feel like what a face to face class (at its best) feels like. I don’t see where the energy comes from this way: even if I admit that the best classroom discussion doesn’t actually generate that energy for everyone, it still does it for some of us, and I just really miss that.

northandsouthI expressed cautious optimism when the term began and I do still feel some of that, even if at times over the past couple of weeks it has been challenged by fatigue and frustration and sadness. The students are there and most of them are really trying; in my turn, I am doing my level best to demonstrate “instructor presence” and make them feel that I care and am paying attention, not just tracking submissions. I’ve already made a few adjustments to the requirements, too, to reflect what we are all learning about how long all of this takes. Also, although preparing recorded segments is not my favorite thing to do, I find devising topics and shaping them into what seem (to me at least) like engaging little packages intellectually stimulating and even fun sometimes. 

MOTHThe readings, too, are as good as they always are, and when I have time to linger over them, that really boosts my morale. I reread the first half of North and South this week (a bit hastily, but still all through) and got excited about the many ways it provokes comparisons with Hard Times, which we are just wrapping up. And in my intro class we are doing Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” which was also a tonic to revisit. It’s so beautiful and so sad and so oddly uplifting, in its contemplation of

the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings … Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.

Woolf’s vision of that “pure bead” of life and its inevitable failure against “so mean an antagonist” is, indeed, moving, and it also feels timely, as we all spend so much time staring out of our own windows, confronted by the limits of our own power against oncoming doom but still fighting to retain what we value. It’s life that feels transcendent in her essay, not death, however strong it is,  and that’s where the importance of this whole exercise ultimately remains–in the words and what they offer us, and also in the reminder that art itself is one of our best ways to outwit our inexorable enemy. 

This Week Module In My Classes

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Working from home.

I am starting to draft some concrete plans for my fall courses that combine what I’ve been learning about best practices in online teaching with the goals and priorities that have always motivated my pedagogy. One of the hardest parts of this for me turns out to be rethinking the rhythm of my courses now that they will be almost entirely asynchronous.

The key shift seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of days per week, with each class meeting a discrete opportunity to introduce new content, focus on a new (part of a) reading, raise a different set of questions, or practice a specific skill. Instead, we are supposed to think in terms of modules. These may also be weekly–and in fact I do expect each larger unit in my classes to be parceled out across weekly modules to create and sustain a pattern that sets expectations, provides some structure, and keeps us all moving through the term, if not in sync, then in concert. But the modules will not be (should not be, if I understand the guidance correctly) understood as virtual versions of the thrice-weekly meetings but rather as bundles of activities that help students work towards the same goals in a more self-directed way.

I think (though I’m still figuring this out) that this means sorting my typical course activities so that instead of going through them, as I usually do, once each class meeting, we move through them once each module. A typical class meeting in 19thC-Fiction, for example, would be a bit of logistical stuff to start (reminders, announcements, clarifications); then a lecture segment in which I first briefly review what we’ve talked about so far and then introduce some new contexts or questions (historical, theoretical, formal, interpretive); then discussion in which we take that new material and the new section of the novel we’ve read for the day into account. This discussion might just be me doing my best to engage the whole class in talking about the day’s key topics, or it might involve break-out groups looking at specific passages or taking up particular questions and then reporting back to the group and moving on from there. Occasionally (often on the first day of a new novel, for instance) the lecture part is longer and a bit more formal; sometimes, especially towards the end of our work on a novel, we might move almost immediately into class discussion.

Office
I miss my office!

It’s a simple pattern but, in my now fairly long experience, it works well. The opening remarks catch us all up on where we are in the course; the lecture material gives everyone some common ground for discussion; the discussion models the fundamental process of literary criticism, which is to try out your ideas on other attentive readers, see what they say, and refine, correct, or elaborate as needed. (Hello coduction, my old friend!) The three weekly meetings let me dole out the reading assignments so students aren’t overwhelmed (they “just” have to read X amount of, say, Bleak House by our next meeting), a process which also disciplines me and them into paying attention as we go along. Students who fall behind in the reading at least get regular updates on what’s going to matter when they do catch up. And everyone gets a constant dose of enthusiasm for the work–from me, reliably, and, most of the time, from other students.

In a way it is obvious how to manage a similar structure in a weekly module. Every one will open with some kind of greeting and set of announcements and reminders–maybe, if I can face it (pun intended!), by way of a short video. Then there would be one or two elements that do the job of the lecture portions–probably slide shows with voice-overs, probably keyed to reading installments as usual. But here one of my first puzzles arises: do I still break the reading up across the week the way I usually do? or do I just say that for the first Hard Times module, they have to read the whole first half of the novel? The net result would be the same, but the immediate “ask” seems like a lot more if you put it that way. Maybe I could compromise and give them a “suggested reading schedule.” One plan I have is for them to maintain online reading journals, something I’ve done before as part of face-to-face versions of 19thC Fiction: if I tied the requirements for journal entries to specific parts of the novels (the first entry must address an example from Book I, the second an example from Book II, etc.), that might be a useful way to create and sustain some momentum in their reading.

the_new_novelThen, instead of having three distinct conversations about the reading on three separate days (which, again, has always allowed me to pace us, and to model sorting out specific interpretive elements rather than facing everything that’s going on in the novel all at once), we’ll have discussion boards. Presumably, the topics will reflect the same questions I usually set in class, but I’m not sure if I should try to move us through these topics in some kind of sequence across the week, as I would in person, or think of the module as weighted towards reading at the beginning of the week and discussion at the end of the week. Probably the latter–though they might miss getting input and ideas from each other (and from me) earlier in their reading. I don’t want to be micromanaging participation on the discussion boards too much: I’m imagining how strange this all might feel to them, and ideally I’d like it to feel both easy and sort of natural to contribute. Super-rigid requirements (post once by Wednesday, reply once on Thursday, post again on Friday–whatever) really work against that and give me a lot to keep track of.

OUP MiddlemarchI think the next step for me is actually to back away from the overwhelming amount of information and advice I’ve been contemplating about online teaching and go back to my actual teaching notes. Looking at the topics I usually cover with a modular redesign in mind will probably help me realize ways in which these bundles would actually work and think in more concrete ways about just how different the online experience needs or doesn’t need to be. Precisely because I’ve been teaching 19th-century fiction in such a similar way for so long, it is the one that feels the strangest to mess with, but it’s also the one where I have the simplest overall goal–to have the best conversations we can about our readings–and the most faith in the books themselves to get us talking, one way or another. Even if I don’t get everything right on my first attempt to do all this online, at least we’ll still be working our way through Middlemarch!

I would love to hear from anyone with online teaching experience about this weeks-vs-modules question, especially if they have found good ways to make it work with the inevitably heavy reading load for a class on the Victorian novel. I have already cut one novel (we’ll be doing four instead of my usual five) on the expectation that everything is going to take us longer. If there are any students out there who have taken online classes that really worked (or, I guess, didn’t work), I’d also love to know if there was a rhythm to the course that played a part and what level of structure you think would help you stay engaged without making you feel micromanaged.