The loneliness of the online teacher: Is anybody out there?

As another intense summer semester comes to a definitive conclusion, there’s time to breathe and let the reality (and unreality) of my latest online class wash over me. Though I’ve become a skilled practitioner, and sometimes advocate, of online teaching, I am still unsettled sometimes by the physical distance from my students. Here I am about to assign final grades, without ever having developed a strong sense of connection to them. The breakneck speed of the summer semester and the online modality itself have helped nurture a pedagogical loneliness that, like an itch or pain, I reactively want to scratch or anesthetize.

It’s been a while since any of us could gape in wonder at the voices emerging from electronic boxes — radios, TVs, and computer speakers — so it’s not as if my students and I experience one another as utterly mysterious. But though we are all sophisticated enough to know there’s an actual person out there somewhere, how much do we experience each other as really real? I can’t help but compare and notice I feel more affection for and rapport with students I worked with months ago in a face-to-face class than for these I’m finishing up with just now. And this slender emotional connection reminds me of the nearly compulsive tendency to compare online education to brick and mortar classes and find it wanting.

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I am reminded, too, that my online students and I don’t even experience one another’s reality in the same way, partly because of the asynchrony of our interactions and contributions. Much of what I share with them has been prepared in advance, sometimes months ago, including recorded mini-lectures sprinkled with my personal anecdotes and bad jokes. In a way, students experience me like a starship crew trapped behind the horizon of a black hole — or maybe I am in the black hole? — in that communication and intimacy are distorted. I am struck by this each time I see my slightly obsolete profile photo. Do my students still imagine me as that broadly smiling white woman with the super short hair? Do they imagine me at all? Still, despite my own sense of isolation, in communications with me this term, students have been unusually expressive and warm. I have no reason to think that they share my sense of disconnect.

I’m inclined to say that the emotional distance I feel is not necessarily a problem, but this doesn’t mean that I like it or that I rest easy with it. For just a moment, though, I want to focus on my compulsion to try to recreate the (apparently deeper) emotional experience of my face-to-face interactions. As a long-time brick and mortar professor, I have an urge to run quickly back to what I know, to what helps me feel competent, confident, and fulfilled by my teaching work. Whatever pedagogical value connecting emotionally has from the student side — and I don’t doubt there is a great deal — it also helps boost my self-esteem and satisfaction. But I’m not entirely sure I want to rely on my engagement with students to prop up my emotional well being in this way and not only because emotional connection can be harder to cultivate in the virtual classroom.

When soap operas migrated from radio to television, they did it with the conventions of stage and radio firmly in place. Television and movie programming were both made possible and, initially, limited by the basic assumptions of the older modalities, including visceral issues such as what counted as funny or sad. But just as we no longer regard a car as a horseless carriage or require a snare drum “bah-da-bing” to signal a joke’s end, I don’t want to create and judge my online classes primarily by the rules, conventions and rewards of face-to-face. Until we let the newer modalities really stand on their own — and this includes, for me, facing down the demons of virtual loneliness — they will be found utterly inadequate. We will be like the stage actor who moves to the big screen only to find she is paralyzed without the immediate response of a live audience. It’s not that she has failed as a movie actor, but that she never really left the stage at all.

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