Old Dog, New Schtick, or “Why I Play the Ukulele”

Lots of us who’ve become online teachers did it mid-career or later. We started out as brick and mortar folks and developed teaching personas shaped by our own traditionally charismatic professors. The first time I taught online — a decade ago — it was only because I’d taken a new job late in the year and didn’t want to leave my previous department stranded. I’d never been a student in an online class and, to be honest, never really thought deeply about what it might mean to teach one. Like lots of liberal arts profs, I had a visceral, general critique of online teaching, repelled by its reputation for being impersonal, superficial and just generally inferior.

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When I jumped back into online teaching just a few years ago, it was my choice. I was, of course, aware of the impending wave propelling education into the virtual realm. But I faced no immediate pressure and so had the luxury of making a choice that was connected to my own self-development: I wanted to reinvent myself. Although I’d been a passionate and successful teacher for many years, the sheer repetitiveness, combined with jarring changes in higher education nationally, had conspired to wear down my love for teaching. In fact, I made a foray into administration partly because of my strained relationship to teaching; I was starving to make use of my expertise in a way that felt energizing.

It wasn’t that I thought teaching online would rescue me from burnout in any straightforward way, but, rather, I hoped that the sheer disorientation of it might force me to examine myself, to take my professional identity apart, and then reassemble it. It was precisely because I did not feel myself to be a natural at the online game — in fact, I felt like I’d already failed at it — that I knew it could shake me up. Different enough from classroom teaching, but also building upon strengths I’d developed over decades, moving online was a chance to renew my enthusiasm for work I still fundamentally believed in.

Because I had the privilege of being able to choose the online path, I avoided the resentments and reluctance that plague so many who feel forced to make the shift. I was like a traveler who is free to choose her destination, and then does so not for the location’s promised luxury but its potential to disrupt. My guaranteed discomfort of various sorts, with the technology, the social and ethical backdrop, all but ensured that online teaching would, if nothing else, help wake me up.

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I know that the shift to online teaching will not serve this function for all mid-career folks. The timing or temperaments will be wrong. But it is at least possible that this virtual demon nipping at our tweed covered elbows might become a path to self-reinvention. We might become, like our students, excited about this species of teaching partly because it is unfamiliar and because we’re not yet very good at it. If this makes even a little sense to you, then you’ll also understand why I’ve recently  taken up the ukulele.

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