The Intimacy of Distance

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, I, like many teachers, feel a profound responsibility to support my students. In my field, because race, gender and sexuality are front and center, it is especially urgent to address the shock, fear and loss that so many students feel. This emotional work presents a challenge for all professors, of course, because we are also processing our own feelings about this cataclysmic shift.

For online teachers this can be an especially instructive moment, as we are invited to honestly consider the nature of the relationship we have with these students whom we may never actually see. It’s hard enough to assess our connection to students when they’re sitting across from us in the classroom week after week, but when our most meaningful connections are through e-mail, or a warm comment on an assignment, how can we presume to have a substantive relationship at all?

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I know that I have been surprised by online students’ unnecessarily warm messages, emails suggesting a connection I wasn’t aware had formed. For example, one student found it important to share that “the reason I didn’t do so well on my last exam is because I had to work a ton. This class is important to me and I really like you as a teacher, so I just wanted to make sure you knew the reason.”

Okay, so it’s not much, but given the distance my communications must travel to online students — as if I were flinging a message in a cork-stopped bottled into the sea — it is remarkable to me that any bond is formed at all. The very possibility of such connections inspires me to discover how these tenuous bonds are created and maintained. A couple of quick and dirty insights occur to me:

-Little things matter. The photo of ourselves we select, the biographical details we include, the little asides in our recorded lectures, the sentence of concern or encouragement in our emails or discussion posts, all of these function cumulatively to build up or erode our bond with students.

-Lack of immediacy and physical presence need not be an insurmountable barrier to intimacy. There is, for example, a great history of long and passionate relationships having been conducted through snail mail. In fact, the asynchronous and distant quality is part of what made this species of intimacy possible though, of course, there is a discipline to its practice:

  1. The rhythm of correspondence must be reasonably regular and balanced, drawing both sides in and staying consistent enough to hold them there.
    1. Emotional expression must sometimes be exaggerated, either through emphasis or repetition, to make up for the lack of other, more immediate, forms of reinforcement, e.g., body language.
      1. Both parties must make a healthy variety of different kinds of contributions to the communicative stew. For example, they may share excitement, and hopes and disappointments, along with the usual news and information. There must be a rich enough mix of multiple kinds of expression to convey that each is a multi-dimensional subjectivity.

Of course, when it comes to our students, there won’t be an equal expectation for such contributions and we may even need to generously infer some of it from them when it is not obvious. Also, because of the asynchronicity, we can’t be too quick to judge our success or failure. What they feel when they find the message bottle on a distant shore may be delayed, but the connection still counts.

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In fact, I wonder if the distances, both temporal and spatial, might not be part of what can bring intensity to our relationships with online students. With long distance or virtual relationships, we are both burdened and empowered by being able to carefully curate our identities. We can, perhaps, more reliably give them our very best — the especially thoughtful, compassionate, and dedicated versions of ourselves — as may not be possible in the grind of the typical classroom experience.

I’ll end with my usual disclaimer: I don’t think the virtual student-teacher relationship is better than the physically-based one. There’s no denying that the loss of spontaneity, that alchemy of eyes meeting eyes, is a grievous one. But we probably overestimate the intimacy of the physical classroom; misunderstandings and misreadings of students occur with alarming frequency, whether or not we are aware of it. Similarly, we almost certainly underestimate the depth of connection possible in the virtual realm. It would be a shame to miss out on what is possible in our online world because we are too focused on what has been lost.

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