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Online Teaching: Summer Session 2, Top of Week 1

July 8, 2008

Both Blackboard shells for my classes are up and running, and I have been getting emails since Sunday evening. Despite my posting the syllabus early so students could buy the textbook, I am still fielding emails from students who, for one reason or another, don’t have the text yet and they want to know “Is there anyway [they] can catch up on the work?”  because “[they] am so concerned with [their] grade.”

I’m trying to remain positive; I really am.  In a F2F (face to face) environment, students sometimes put off buying the book until after the first day of class.  This makes a certain amount of sense.  Sometimes it’s a financial aid hang up;  sometimes it’s to ensure that that the listed text will actually be used.  And sometimes, students want to make sure that the book store ordered the correct book (this happens often with students who survived their first semester.) However, in a F2F environment, the text isn’t typically used on the first day, so it’s not that big of a deal.

But in an online class, there is no first day. I am supposed to have the entire course up and ready by Day 1, and students are supposed to hit the ground running.  Part of me thinks I should respond to these students by telling them that their inability to order the text in time is not my problem.  I suspect that a fair number of the students in my two ENG102 sections are simply trying to catch up on classes so that they can focus on other things during the regular academic year.  However, again for this session I have two or three students, that I know of, who are overseas… this time, as far flung as Thailand.  I also have at least a handful of students, over the two classes, who have never taken an online class and who may not even be digitally adaptive (in the sense that they have not learned to use the technology proficiently.)  On the one hand, I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility to deal with these issues. If a person isn’t comfortable in a digital environment, then he or she shouldn’t take an online class. Likewise, it only makes sense that if a student signs up for an online class, then he or she should be prepared.

On the other hand, I am acutely aware that I am still teaching writing, which is still considered one of the humanities;  and it doesn’t make any sense to me that a teacher in the humanities should act — well– inhumane.

And while there should be a limit to this humanity (there is a difference between being a nice guy and a door mat), I end up feeling guilty when I have to be a hard ass.  When my inbox is filled with mundane questions from students that could be answered if they simply read the syllabus, my first reaction is one of frustration;  but my second reaction is guilt.

One of my primary concerns about teaching writing in online environment is finding a way to maintain appropriate humanity.  It’s so easy to forget that the names in my inbox are real people, because I never see them.  All I see are emails and typed assignments — and the assignments are themselves digital, since nothing is in hard copy. This may seem like a small matter — but I’m a hard copy kind of guy.  When I revise my own work, I always print out a hard copy of every draft;  this is a habit born out of a process that began when I still used a typewriter (and, to be honest, if it wasn’t in storage, I still would be using it.) Hard copy makes the writing more real — I can touch it, mark on it, and leave coffee stains all over it.

This tactile reality is absent in an online environment. Even these blogs suffer from a kind of unreality as far as I’m concerned. But I have realized that this tactile concern is almost always exclusive to me, in the sense that my students and others who I engage with digitally probably don’t have the same relationship with writing that I have; to them, text is text, and being able to email an assignment saves having to pay to print it out.  But I can’t help thinking that some part of us — and this profession of teaching writing — is being consumed in the absence of a tactile humanity.  Because there is no first day, there is no need for anyone to see anybody as — well — a body. We’re all squiggles on a screen. We are embodied by a screen name.  Our voices are typed lines, and in the end, we don’t have to extend ourselves further than the distance between us and the computer keyboard.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 9, 2008 1:41 am

    Wow, Mick, I REALLY can relate to this. For me writing is VERY tactile. Steve and I were talking today about writing as an EMBODIED process– a physical thing that the computer doesn’t quite capture.

    I have not taught online, but trying to conference with students online (either through emails or IMing) is just not the same. As you suggest, “One of my primary concerns about teaching writing in online environment is finding a way to maintain appropriate humanity. ”

    I’m still learning– still trying to figure things out. An electronic environment can be great for some things, but text that you can’t hold in your hand can be awfully cold sometimes.

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