A fully credentialed, experienced university professor, I shouldn’t have to play the role of cheerleader in my online classrooms. After all, I respect that my students are adults who freely choose my classes knowing that they are responsible for whether or not they ultimately succeed. It shouldn’t be my job to stand on the sidelines urging them into the game and then on again to victory when their energy ebbs. But the simple fact is that if I don’t encourage and nudge, an unacceptable number will, in the proper lingo, “fail to persist.”
The ease and invisibility with which online students can casually peel off and blow away is one of the greatest challenges of online classes, at least with undergraduate general education courses. So while I never explicitly signed up for the pom pom and ponytail route, because I want more students to succeed, I gamely make the effort anyway, by:
- beginning the semester with a warm up assignment that pushes them to connect to their deepest motives for taking my course
- proactively reaching out very early in the term to fading students to voice my concern and confidence in their ability to succeed
- including encouragement even in incidental email messages to individual students, e.g., “looking forward to seeing more of your good work!”
- sending group messages and virtual “badges” congratulating those who’ve remained plugged in. I also share some of my own struggles and strategies with finding life/work balance and invite them to share their own in group discussion
- signing off with simple, positive messages even in casual news items, e.g., “What a pleasure to work with such smart, capable students!”
It isn’t just cheap flattery. Only rarely do I genuinely doubt a student’s basic capacity to do this mid-level undergraduate work. Rather, like a coach, I’m urging them to access their own wellspring of passion and initiative, to push through the sheer tedium, boredom, isolation and distraction that can make online classes especially rough going for so many.
Yes, I sometimes feel a little silly and resentful during my most rah-rah moments. This really isn’t what I had in mind all those years ago as I wrestled with my comps and navigated my dissertation defense. But as a university professor in the here and now of 2017, it feels increasingly urgent to me that my students recognize and access their own basic wherewithal. And they certainly can’t fulfill their intellectual promise if they don’t learn to show up in the service of their own goals and commitments. I will be a cheerleader, then, not because I think that’s my job — it is not — but because it’s the only way I know to get the job done.