The online teacher as Wizard of Oz: embodiment and social justice

Women have fought hard to get their corporeal lives recognized in the workplace. Whether it’s been about maternity leave, decent bathrooms, or breastfeeding rooms, progress has been frustratingly slow and limited. It’s a sad irony, then, that so many feminists now find ourselves working in the virtual realm. Where do questions about women’s embodied realities go when workers may only rarely visit the institutions that employ them? And what about the other implications of disembodied teaching? Are online teachers exempt from the usual varieties of bias — e.g., racism and sexism — given that students and colleagues may never even see them? Is there a place in online ed for instructors who care about their corporeal identities and responsibilities?

Sure, there all sorts of little ways to inject a semblance of physical presence into online classes, for example, video material and still images of instructors and students. And we can assign work that requires real life engagement so that students must brush up against other bodies and objects at museums, lectures, or one-on-one interviews. Such fixes may soften the edge of unreality that online classes can have. But disembodiment in online ed is, nonetheless, a real and incalculable loss for individuals and institutions, as it is with online shopping and dating. It’s part of the very steep price we pay for this convenient modality.

Isn’t it a shame, for example, that workplaces may be feeling less pressure to increase equity in physical surroundings when there is still so much work to be done? When I helped create a gender neutral bathroom in a science building, I got a clear view of the barriers to basic access that still exist. With students and teachers increasingly shifting to online, will institutions feel such pressure ease? If I didn’t spend lots of time at my university, how quickly would I forget the disparity in facilities across disciplines and colleges — luxury on one side and crumbling stairways on the other? Is the much vaunted universal access provided by online ed to be coupled with less attention to access and equity on our physical campuses?

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And what about the impact our mundane physical presence has on one another? As the only woman professor in my department in the mid 90s, I viscerally understood that the sheer fact of my being there affected students, colleagues and the institution’s ethical self-perception. Of course this proximity wasn’t an unmitigated love fest — there were predictable slights and struggles that left scars — but what if I’d been teaching invisibly?

Of course, in the online realm some symptoms of racism, sexism, xenophobia can be mitigated. Without casual hallway conversations, one is less likely to be looked up and down by a student and told “you’re smarter than you look,” or to be asked for a date by a senior colleague who will oversee one’s tenure case. On the other hand, when one appears only in the virtual world, casual prejudice need not be reckoned with either, not by our colleagues, our institutions or ourselves.

But how disembodied are we really, even in the virtual classroom? Do students do much reading between the lines based on our pictures, language use, and even the disciplines we represent? What assumptions do they make about their teachers’ race, sex, age, nationality, etc., when such characteristics are not obvious? How do students interpret teachers’ embodiment clues in the online environment? How do they fill in the yawning embodiment gaps left by our constructed online presence?

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I’ve considered adding more still images of and details about myself to provide a greater sense of physical presence, but I’ve got mixed feelings. Students would, I guess, develop a clearer picture of me as (probably) a white, cisgender, middle-aged, able-bodied female. But while this might deepen the connection some students feel to me, it is complicated. Wouldn’t I, for example, be capitalizing on an implicit bond with white students? I don’t want to unwittingly reproduce white privilege, but I don’t want to misrepresent myself either, or leave my students utterly at sea about who I am.

The insidiousness of this is brought home to me when I pay attention to the assumptions I make about others’ embodied existence. I’ve been surprised more than once, for example, — and startled by the fact of my surprise — when a student’s apparently white face did not match what I had interpreted to be a black-sounding name. And I was recently jarred to see a Japanese-American face on a podcaster I’ve listened to for years. Only the mismatch I felt at seeing his face forced me to acknowledge my initial expectation that he was a white Californian.

In short, this erosion of embodied presence has consequences for social justice, as well as for individual experiences of difference, prejudice and privilege. This loss is a really big deal that mustn’t be prettied up and glossed over. But nor should we imagine the online environment as totally beyond the usual influences of embodiment. Even if a teacher were to aim for a purely disembodied persona — and what a bad idea! — would students just fill in the blanks with stereotypes? Could it be that, paradoxically, we bloodless online teachers are at an even greater risk of tolerating or reinforcing such pernicious biases?

Shouldn’t We Respect Students’ Right to Fail?

As usual, the vast majority of students in my recent online class did just fine. The grim news, though, is that the handful of them who earned low grades earned very low grades indeed, jawdroppingly low in some cases. It seems that no matter how much I assertively focus on “engagement and retention,” a handful of students fail spectacularly. Some struggle to gain purchase at all, like timid drivers entering a freeway traffic stream. Others exit the interstate after a few miles and then become so enchanted with the roadside attractions that they abandon their travel plans altogether.

The fact that some of the recent failures were such obviously capable students makes this familiar issue loom larger to me. It is a humbling reminder that, though my efforts to draw and hold students’ attention matter, they are not determinative. Choosing interesting, relevant material, sending reminders, and encouraging notes all help, I have no doubt, but they cannot “fix” things. I am far less a ship’s captain than an ice sweeper in a curling match. I can influence the trajectory of this massive object, but only sometimes and only subtly. The curling image is one I repeatedly draw upon largely because I can’t help but see student failures as, in part, my own. In an era in which teachers have been pretty explicitly charged with captivating, motivating, and entertaining students, isn’t this how I am supposed to feel?

And if I’m really honest, I can also see that it is not only in my teaching life that I have tended to assume others’ failures as my own. Like so many of us, my inclination has generally been towards activism, involvement, and control, to imagine that all would be well if only I did a better job, if only I were more passionate in my pleas and explanations. It will surprise no one that I have repeatedly had to face the sobering fact that other people, including student people, are aspects of a stubbornly objective reality that often cares little about the wishes and desires I have cooked up. Whether another’s chosen path has them careening towards prosperity or ruin, the critical point is that it belongs to them and not to me. For me, then, one of the great gifts of working with students is this poignant, ongoing reminder of the limits of my own power to change others’ lives.

I understand that this insight seems to run counter to the rhetoric that’s often used to paint such a romantic picture of teaching, with its emphasis on the magic of shaping young minds and futures. But recognizing the limits of such influence might also be understood as a teaching superpower, one that allows us to better relate to students as individuals with idiosyncrasies, whims, and urges that they have every right to express as they damn well please, even if, to me, their choices smell a lot like failure.

This isn’t, of course, an excuse to give up on my efforts to connect with and motivate students, but it does make it less likely that I will wallow in ruminations over lost student lambs, as if they were extensions or projections of me rather than individuals in their own right. Their failures are not necessarily my failures or, in some cases, really even any of my business. Certainly, being a caring teacher is not a good excuse for me to become a busybody in others’ lives, even if my judgments, regrets, and plans for them are expressed only in my own mind.

To the student who broke my heart

Dear Lenore,

When you pleaded to enroll in my already-full online general education course last year, I welcomed you and walked you through the late registration process. When I noticed a few days later that you still hadn’t done the required preliminary assignments — a syllabus quiz and a personal goals inventory — I sent you a concerned note, reiterating key policy about due dates and grades. Your reply came yet a few more days later, explaining how overwhelmed you were by work and school, but assuring me in the strongest terms that you had found a way forward.

It never happened. For the next month or so you occasionally posted to the discussion board or hurriedly completed a quiz. Your work was so sporadic and haphazard that you barely earned any points. When I reached out to you again, pointing out your poor record and encouraging you to talk to an undergrad advisor to determine a realistic path to graduation, you assured me you would. You said you would do everything possible to earn a passing grade in my class despite your admittedly ragged start. But you didn’t. You made a few more fly-by contributions and sent another pleading note just before the final project was due — there’s nothing I can do at this point, I replied — but still nothing changed. I was haunted by your name on my roster, like the odor from last night’s fish dinner, but you were gone.

I don’t write this letter to make you feel bad, Lenore. As I told you more than once, I know what it’s like to both work and be a full time student. And I meant it when I said there’s no shame in failure, and that the critical point is for you to meet your own goals and not my expectations. In most ways, you are not even that unusual. Every semester a couple of students almost immediately begin to fade away. It’s not even the apparent earnestness of each of your epiphanies, the passion of each new promise, that keeps you foremost in my mind. I’ve known plenty of other silver-tongued, well-intentioned students who failed almost before they began.

What makes you special, Lenore, is that you returned to my same class the very next semester and gave a repeat performance. The very same one. The late enrollment, the late work, the heartfelt apologies and promises. In each message, you were newly reformed. “This time will be different!” you actually said more than once. And I replied with the same urgent missives, expressing concern and restating policy — some emails actually recycled from the previous term — wincing when I saw all your growing line of zeros in my grade book.

Understand, it’s not that I’m angry with you. I was, certainly, irritated at times, but also amused as one gets in the punch drunk hours of a very long flight. It’s not merely that I was disappointed in you either, though, of course, I was. Rather, you proved your power to buy your way into a pedagogical relationship with me — the university will apparently continue take your money — despite your repeatedly erratic, self-destructive performances. I may be the professor, but you remind me of how little control I really have. You may lie to me, string me along, and for some stretch that will always feel too long, I’ll come along for the ride. I’ll do it partly because it’s my job, but also because I still long to believe your pretty promises and to be part of the catalyst that leads you to change your ways.

Instead of saying goodbye, then, Lenore, which is what I’d planned when I began this letter, I’ll stop pretending. I’ll close my letter honestly, in a way that most likely reflects the reality that actually informs both our lives: See you next semester.

Sincerely,

Your professor

Are online classes the fast food of higher ed?

Famous quotes remind us that education is an almost sacred endeavor meant to transform individuals and society, and not merely to reproduce the status quo. When we teachers sit in classrooms generating sparks and watching fires take hold, it’s easy enough to believe in education’s awesome power. Maybe we also get to overhear a student’s conversation about their internship at the youth center, or see “end campus rape” buttons on their tattered backpack. In person, there may be lots of signs demonstrating a student’s commitment to the life, culture and values associated with higher education. Is it possible that online classes are inherently less transformative precisely because of how neatly they fit into students’ lives?

I’m sure that college redrew the lines of my own life largely because of how it disrupted me, intellectually, psychologically, and physically. When my eighteenth summer ended, I packed up my underwear, tennis racket, and paperback thesaurus, and headed off to a new life. The ostensible locus of the move was, of course, books and classes, and many of my courses were excellent, but it was being uprooted and tenuously replanted that rocked my world. If, instead, I had taken Intermediate French at my hometown community college, would I have become friends with a biracial Algerian? And what if I’d taken the class online instead, from the privacy of my suburban Midwestern home? Though I did not, as it happened, study French for long, my love of language and my cultural curiosity took deep root in my college years.

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Of course, online classes are so wildly popular precisely because they fit within students’ existing lives and habits. And this creates access for critical populations, employed parents, those charged with elder care, hungry minds in prisons or on military bases. On the other hand, this seamless fit into students’ lives softens education’s potential to shake things up, to provide students not merely with credits or certificates, but to crack open their very worldview. In this respect, then, online ed skews conservative, which is, perhaps why so many political conservatives are enamored of it. After all, how often does an online class result in Junior hanging out with her new hippie friends on the quad? Instead, she may well remain plugged into a full-time job, tapping out online discussion posts in hermetic isolation. She “makes time” for the class as best she can, squeezing it into the few remaining nooks and crannies of an already structured life.

Obviously, the right online course at the right time can point a student in a new direction. But I think online classes are more likely to really matter if we actively cultivate their disruptive potential in some ways even as we dutifully supply convenience in others. For example, why not foreground the advantages and disadvantages of online ed in our syllabi, early lectures, discussions, or other material? What if we help students ponder the price they may be paying for convenient learning? This will be anathema in institutions that are defensive about the legitimacy of online ed, but if we are confident in its value, as I am, then we can be forthright about its weaknesses.

And what if we also refuse to make classes too convenient? One of my new students shared her decision to take all online classes this term because she knew she would be on the road for several weeks. I explained that, while my class is asynchronous, it is not self-paced. It is, rather, “a loosely choreographed group experience,” not so very different from a face-to-face class in terms of its requirement for consistent “attendance.” In short, I resisted her assumption that online education is meant to be squeezed into one’s schedule as an elective afterthought.

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Like many contemporary college students — especially those with demanding work lives — she saw education as a discrete experience to be molded around her existing life rather than as a journey meant to upend it. For lots of good and bad reasons, college classes are often seen as a mere credential, or as a luxury, to be pursued in one’s leisure. My student’s pushback helped me articulate how and why I value shared group learning. For example, in discussions, students must grapple with the same issues at a similar place in their developing intellectual arc. And my many communications with students as a single group reinforces the notion that we are connected and accountable to real others.

In a way, then, though I appreciate online ed’s convenience, I also aim to cultivate reasonable inconvenience. We often come to value something, after all, by carving out an honored spot for it in our lives. This is a premise of spiritual practice, of course, and helps explain why there are temples and mosques and churches. And it’s why I keep a tidy writing desk and work regular hours even when I am directly accountable to no one. The value work has in my life, then, is established and maintained partly through the space and time I create for it. It is like the difference between thoughtfully cooking dinner at home or grabbing fast food at the last minute and gobbling it down in the car. Can we, I wonder, acknowledge and respect our students’ need for convenience without becoming McTeachers?

Can we learn something from our excuses for not meditating?

Partly because I sometimes write and teach about Buddhism and mindfulness, people are inclined to tell me about their experiments with meditation. And it almost always begins with “I’m really bad at it” or, “My mind just won’t stop,” or, “I tried but I just can’t sit still.” Almost always they volunteer rationalizations that feature guilt, and also imply that they themselves are almost uniquely unsuited to the practice because they are so freakishly impatient and busy headed.

And while they may be claiming to be especially bad at meditation, it’s still an assertion of specialness, and one that may have special appeal for academics. Many professors, after all, adore thinking, and so being bad at meditation can become a kind of boast, proof of one’s insatiable tendency to critically assess. It’s a rationalization, then, that can help shore up one’s mundane, ego-based identity story — a self-understanding that includes personality and profession — the very tale that a consistent meditation practice might eventually lead one to scrutinize.

To be fair, we Western academics also operate in a broader societal context that encourages and prizes constant busyness and endless mental chatter. It will probably surprise no one, then, that Buddhist meditation was long described by Western critics as a form of escapism for lazy quietists. In a capitalist, rationalist milieu that places a premium on constant mental and physical “productivity,” what can it mean to be a faithful meditator except that one is content to sit on one’s ass and zone out? To supply reasons why one doesn’t meditate, then, may function both as a quintessentially intellectualist badge of honor and an implicit endorsement of American capitalist virtues.

Although I disagree (of course) with the tired, colonialist caricatures of Buddhism, I’m not here to sell meditation either. If fact, outside of classrooms explicitly featuring the topic, it’s something I hardly ever discuss. I find that sitting meditation supports my own sense of peace, efficacy, and well being. But partly as a result of meditation, I’ve become unwilling to assert that this is true for others. I notice, though, that many non-meditators themselves describe meditation as something they should be doing, making excuses for avoiding it stand out in sharper relief. What does it mean to offer rationalizations for not doing something that no one is monitoring and that one has no obligation to do? Our relationship to meditation, perhaps especially when we put energy into describing how we avoid it, turns out to be kind of interesting.

Could it be that the real action lies less in meditation itself than in learning to hear the stories we volunteer about why we do or don’t do this or that? After all, if there is a point to meditation, it is probably the promise of increased awareness that leads to greater peace, equanimity and self-knowledge. On this score, it is perhaps more important to become cognizant of the rationalizations we use to fortify our habitual identities — including that of being a “non-meditator” — than to meditate for the sake of being a good meditator. Paradoxically, though, meditation may well be the most efficient path for learning to actually hear the endless verbal storms that ravage our minds and often pour unbidden from our mouths, including, perhaps, the excuses we make for why we don’t meditate.

Refusing to despair: Constructive action in the midst of overwhelm

In an age drowning in gratitude slogans on the one side and cynical knowingness on the other, many of us are struggling to find our voices when it comes to optimism, hope, and the sheer necessity to carry on. As our national catastrophe continues to blossom like blood in a swimming pool, we are called upon repeatedly to turn and face it — for the sake of ourselves, our students, and our world — in ways that are constructive and authentic. It’s a challenge that has many of us rethinking our usual commitments to realism, positive thinking, and social responsibility.

And so I have joined those who insist that despair is not an option, though some have been troubled by this directive. One annoyed Virtual Pedagogue reader wrote to me explaining that, when it comes to depression, “one cannot simply choose to be happy.” I know about depression, but she helped me clarify that the sort of despair I have in mind is mainly of the political and ethical variety, rather than one’s individual, affective life. And if we conflate our individual emotional reactions with the political and ethical responses we choose to enact, then we may well be doomed. So many of us, after all, whether clinically depressed or not, are teetering on the edge of emotional overwhelm.

But isn’t it cheap, unconvincing and dishonest to present a social face that is anything other than an accurate reflection of my private, individual feelings? If I am a bundle of hopeless misery, then doesn’t authenticity require me to move and respond from that place? In a world that has paved over individuals’ feelings of sadness, anger, and grief, especially those of women and people of color, recovering the ability to name and express such emotions is undeniably powerful. And individual feelings bravely shared have, of course, helped foment social change.

But this is obviously only part of the story, and we are no better off fetishizing individual feelings — as if they were sacred and infallible—than we are squelching them. The simple fact that I feel something, even over a long period of time, does not mean that that is the Truth of the situation, or even that it is the fullest picture of my truth. An overemphasis on individual experience, then, especially one suggesting that such feelings are somehow beyond my own cognitive scrutiny, makes slogans like “refuse to despair” sound invasive and false.

But refusing to choose the road of despair is not the same as choosing to be cheerful or to be inattentive to one’s own emotions. I can have many quite unhappy times as an individual but still remain firmly committed to constructive action. I can also choose whether to share my individual feelings so as to encourage isolation or to build connections that help galvanize social resolve. Refusing political despair, as I see it, means refusing to commit to a path of quietistic, narcissistic sadness to whatever degree I am able. And while some aspects of our individual emotional lives may well be beyond our control, for many of us, it is perhaps not so much as we sometimes imagine. Our quite appropriate respect for mental health challenges — our own and those of others — shouldn’t obscure the (sometimes small) ways we can cultivate socially and politically constructive emotional responses.

I recognize the power and integrity of emotions — I love that we are biological and affective creatures — but I think we also have a responsibility to do what we can to shape and influence our own emotional responses, especially habitual ones, to misfortunate and difficulty. We are, after all, social creatures who, like antelope in a herd, respond to and rely on cues from one another. I may hole up from time to time to wail and weep, then, but, even so, I will continue to insist that despair is not an option. Not now. Not ever.

Hard-luck students and the professors who save them

It’s often in the earliest days of the semester that students share some of their greatest tales of woe with professors. Some want to add an already full class and so labor to persuade us of their dire plight. Others, pre-worried about their grades, aim to sock away some sympathy credit for a rainy day. I’ve always found such personal revelations — coming, as they do, from relative strangers — to be jarring. This is, perhaps, partly because I am not inclined to share so quickly, even when it may be in my practical self-interest to do so. But I also think this all-too-common practice of individual student pleading, and ad hoc professorial granting reinforces an unhealthy dynamic.

I appreciate and love that my students are whole people. They’ve got jobs, families and endearing quirks, as well as bad memories, financial trouble, and, often, mental health diagnoses. Perhaps it is not even accurate to identify them as students. They are, rather, richly textured individuals who have temporarily taken on this student role for complicated reasons unique to them. Partly because institutions’ one-size-fits all prescriptions and policies don’t address particularity very well, the power of dispensation and indulgence often falls on instructors and front-line staff colleagues. We surely must, then, take seriously the personal experiences of our students. But how can we do it in a way that routinely avoids the pitfalls of ad hoc favoritism? And how can we keep from being condescending, and ultimately undermining to the very students we seek to help?

For example, in a recent introductory level class, I assigned three small paperbacks to supplement material available online, which, all together, cost about twenty dollars. And, as is typical, I was approached by a student with a list of heart-tugging reasons why she couldn’t afford college text books. I reminded her that there were electronic copies of two of them available through the library and made sure she knew how to access the library website. She left unhappy, though, because, as she explained, “most of my other professors just loan me a copy.” I didn’t want to be insensitive to her life challenges — I have no reason to doubt her account of personal hardship — but nor did I want to support this, for me, increasingly icky, shadow economy in which students with the extroversion and eloquence to share experiences of suffering exchange it for textbooks and other favors.

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This common practice of professors hearing and then reacting to individual students’ accounts of suffering reinforces precisely the very hierarchical power relation that many of us claim we want to challenge. It also risks letting our institutions off the hook at the very moment they should be bending over backwards to address the structural inequities that impact students’ lives. When I feel compelled to pick and choose students to whom I will grant special favors, I am “being responsive” — so far so good — but I am also singling them out for special treatment. This is not at all what compassionate instructors intend when they provide extra advantages — extra time, extra credit, free books, etc. — to a vocally hard luck student. But it seems to be only the students with the wherewithal and skill to recount their personal tribulations (to a virtual stranger, mind you) who receive such favors. It’s a bargain that strikes me as, well, a little creepy, as if instructors are rewarding students for performances of suffering.

With this in mind, I guess I still think the best plan is to focus on providing advance structure to our courses (and our universities) that makes reasonable room for the reality of human suffering and serendipity without routinely resorting to practices that are arbitrary and personal. This is, of course, a goal of offices such as disability services. If we really want to help, we must actively seek structural, systematic solutions to the structural, systematic problems that unfairly limit our students’ lives as individuals. With respect to the textbook example, we can, when possible, assign books with lower prices, put copies on library reserve, petition for lower prices from publishers, and advocate for a university-wide fund to assist needy students.

As so many professors now do, we can, when possible, build in extra time for assignments for all students to avoid having to make a special dispensation in response to a particular personal tragedy. Other mundane practices, such as having students drop their lowest quiz grades, also show respect for the fickle exigencies of everyday life. But given the ubiquity of such pedagogical flexibility these days, instructors may need to explicitly explain to students that these are, effectively, advance accommodations. We need to help sensitize students to the fact that these measures are meant to attend to their individual needs, but in a way that preserves equity.

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Of course, the habit of seeking personal favor and dispensation runs deep so we should not be surprised when students and, perhaps, some colleagues and administrators, resist. Higher education has, quite simply, evolved into an environment in which students have been encouraged to plead and professors have been primed to grant or withhold, often in lieu of the institution meeting its responsibility to address systematic disparities. Perhaps the dirtiest (open) secret is that some instructors enjoy the high of riding in on a white horse to rescue this or that student from the jaws of an otherwise unfeeling, impersonal, elitist institution. Certainly, I know instructors who are proud of being “responsive” to just about any request for dispensation. For them, no “favor” is too great and I get it.

In a university environment in which many professors feel angry and impotent on behalf of both our students and ourselves, it can be satisfying to be the socially conscious, compassionate professor who is “student centered” and pulls strings to advantage those we perceive as disadvantaged. And before professors will be willing to rethink our approach to hard luck students, we will need to tell the truth about this. That being able to ease the pain of individual students feels good, that it’s a rare reminder of our own power and status, regardless of its long-term consequences or viability with respect to our students and universities.