The loneliness of the online teacher

One of the most appealing aspects of the discussions and workshops I’ve facilitated with other online teachers is the sheer power of that face-to-face time. For example, a recent discussion I led called, “Online education, on purpose,” was gratifying as a way to share some tricks and strategies, but even more so for the chance to actually lock eyes with others who spend so much time bobbing around in single-person boats like mine. I like the self-reliance and serenity of online teaching — and know many of my online colleagues do too — but as human animals, we are also nourished by our physical, creaturely time together.

Predictably, one of the great selling points of online teaching — independence and solitude — is also one of its greatest traps. It isn’t just that we may not actually see much of our departmental colleagues, but that even when we do, they are likely not as invested in the online world as we are. In many of our disciplines, teaching online is pretty much a niche affair. This is not, then, just a question of physical isolation for many of us, but of a psychological isolation resulting from this modality still being regarded as specialized. Of course, lots of faculty members already experience some isolation as a department’s sole expert in a content area, but in such cases, face-to-face teaching itself often serves as a source of bonding with otherwise dissimilar colleagues.

In a previous post I noted that some solely brick and mortar professors think I’m a lazy sellout because of my foray into online ed. Meeting up in person with other online teachers, then, is a bit like an AA meeting or a coming out circle. When we connect, it is not just a social nicety but an implicit acknowledgement of one another’s existence and worth. We can freely express our fascination with and commitment to online teaching as Trekkies at their convention can celebrate a passion for the Clingon language. Similarly, we can be honest about our doubts and misgivings — even the deep ones — without fear that this will be used to discredit our future online teaching work or against online ed altogether.

That my analogy combines elements of a coming out circle, a support group, and a fan community is apropos. Too often when online teachers’ need for community is acknowledged, it is oversimplified, with a narrow focus on the straightforward loneliness of laboring by oneself. But it isn’t just any sort of company that will nourish us and ease the ache. Many online professors are pioneers in an endeavor with a still shaky reputation, hovering like tin-foil satellites at the far periphery of their ivy and brick universities. The community we need, then, will provide solace and support, but also help us challenge the very identities we are in the process of establishing.

Gamification: Seductive gold stars and pats on the back

In the third grade, I was rewarded for being the fastest to complete a series of long division problems on the blackboard. My prize, a Flintstone’s eraser, wasn’t even a good likeness of Dino, but I carried it with me for weeks. These days the reward I crave is the happy jingle from my iPad when I’ve completed the daily New York Times crossword. My awareness that I’m only sort of joking when I admit it’s my favorite song helps explain my ambivalence at incorporating similarly trivial rewards into my own classes. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing to be so eager for such superficial affirmations.

Gamification, using elements of reward and friendly competition to encourage effort and engagement, is both simple and intuitively appealing. That it effectively lights fires — at least in some learners — is clear enough. Nudged onward by the promise of leveling up or of earning a virtual ribbon, we do sometimes perform more diligently and enthusiastically with these dangling carrots in sight. And so I created a badge icon for students who improve their quiz scores, one that automatically pops up on these users’ home pages. I plan to add consistency and perseverance badges as I seek more ways to exploit these easily implemented gamification strategies.


I’ve become willing to experiment with such cheap tactics partly because of my own recent experience as an online student; I was surprised by the tiny thrills of satisfaction I came to anticipate as my badges appeared. And I suspect that gamification has a similarly primal effect, not only on millennial video gamers, but on many of us who earned prizes as children: for the number of books read, a class spelling bee, or a math club competition. But I also know that some experts caution against linking worthwhile activities to crass rewards, noting that, for example, children may no longer color for sheer enjoyment when prizes become part of the mix. While this consequence might not be so worrisome for straightforwardly “outcome-based” courses, it would be anathema for teachers intent on cultivating joyfully authentic life-practices such as close reading and thoughtful discussion.

So, even as I create the release conditions for my virtual badges, imagining my students’ pleasure at receiving them, I’m a little sheepish. Is this all just a tawdry gimmick? Am I trying to bribe these precious human companions with trivial ego boosts, coaxing them to learn material that, as it happens, actually has both intrinsic value and relevance to their lives? Am I reinforcing a consumerist, credentialist view of learning as merely extrinsically valuable, with grades and prizes to be collected in exchange for a diploma and job? They are urgent questions for me because I’ve never meant for my students merely, or even primarily, to learn “information” or discrete “skill sets” associated with my “content area.”

As I continue to explore using badges and other rewards, I remind myself that what I’m up to — leveraging behaviorist elements of learning without sacrificing the ethos of learning for its own sake — is a very old pedagogical conundrum. It certainly didn’t arise with online teaching, even if online modalities have made us more self-conscious about the perils and promises of gamification. In online classes, the affinity of gamification to electronic gaming becomes obvious. And, of course, we all know, or imagine we do, how addictive and empty that activity can be. But, again, some of my most enduring memories as an elementary school student in the 70’s, long before Super Mario or Minecraft, also involved “gamification.” And they are memories that, for better and worse, still bring me vibrations of shame and satisfaction.

As a child, I was motivated by the promise and fear of prizes awarded and withheld, but this probably also compromised my ability to take learning risks because I did not want to be a loser. Gamification, then, is complicated and fraught, and it occurs to me that I should use it more thoughtfully. What if, for example, I invited students to explicitly reflect upon their own perceived susceptibility or aversion to gold stars and pats on the back? Could gamification then become a tool for deeper self-reflection and whole-person development? After all, much of life occurs against a competitive backdrop, a humming swirl of conditional, often arbitrary, ego affirmations and insults. A little more awareness of what’s driving the quest for that promotion, that house, or that anti-wrinkle cream is probably not such a bad idea.

Deep Revision or “Why It’s Fun to Play in the Sand”

The Tibetan monks who spend weeks stooped over elaborate sand paintings, perfecting each razor line of crystals, only to suddenly sweep it all away, know what they are dong. Their casual destruction reminds us that our projects, along with life itself, are provisional, like waves rising and falling in the sea. Why then is revision such a difficult skill to teach and such a challenge to fully embrace?

We’ve probably all played the revision game with students, and maybe with ourselves, in which requests for real transformation are diluted into mere tweaking. A submitted work, because it has been submitted, can feel essentially done, even if it was only initially intended to be a first draft. My experience with undergraduates in writing intensive general education courses, in college writing courses, and even with graduate students, is that actual revision is an attitudinal orientation most don’t achieve. My focus here, then, is not on particular strategies for revision — there are many brilliant, readily available ones out there — but on the deeper power of revision per se. My aim is indirectly practical, though, since a great obstacle to fully engaged revision is a lack of will. It’s hard to get too excited about revising when the only apparent payoff is a slightly better grade on a paper that no one will probably ever read again.

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I flesh out a more expansive notion of revision by imagining the difference between making a marble bust and a sandcastle. Eventually, the bust will be declared finished, for all sorts of reasons, including time and material constraints. At some point, further chipping away seems more destructive than creative. There is, then, a more or less natural limit, inherent in the activity itself. With sand as medium, though, the completion point is more arbitrary. I call it a day because of sunburn, or hunger, or because the tide is nipping at my ankles. Sandcastles are fun precisely because of the abundance of material, the low stakes, and the intrinsic and endless revisability of the whole endeavor.

A comparison between digital and film photography also enriches my sense of what revision might be. As anyone who’s done both kinds of photography knows, the difference is much more interesting than one of mere technological means. As when working with marble, part of the joy of film shooting is connected to its material limits. The discipline forced on the photographer by the nature and cost of the film and processing hones artistic vision and technically mastery. On the other hand, the nearly magical flexibility of digital, of being able to instantly and recklessly shoot a zillion frames, is also a creative boon. Although these activities look alike — one is just sculpting or taking pictures — there are interesting distinctions, and ones that mirror academic work.

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Except for some intentionally-focused writing courses — creative writing comes to mind — many instructors suggest that the term papers or other class projects are products meant to result from skills and knowledge gained during the semester. The paper becomes, then, a kind of artifact of the class experience, not unlike a lumpy ashtray made in a junior high shop class. It’s different, though, when, instead, the paper is seen as a kind of excuse for deeply engaging in the processes of revision and reflective thinking. Then, the final “product” matters but primarily as a gauge and heuristic for facilitating careful reading and thoughtful reflection. I could see this more clearly when I realized that many people run in organized marathons not just to achieve the obvious goal but for the rigorous training motivation the race provides.

Just as some especially fit people can successfully complete marathons without really being transformed by weeks or months of training, so too some skillful students can submit technically fabulous term papers, relative to their peers, without stretching themselves intellectually. By focusing on the process rather than the product, then, I am then more likely to help both the best and worst students improve. It’s not that the product doesn’t matter — it is, of course, part of how we measure the effectiveness of the process — but when it becomes the overriding focus, the opportunity to develop an ethos of revision can be missed.

I say “ethos” here, rather than “skill,” because I think the true power of revision isn’t just that it can help students become better academic writers, readers, and thinkers. Rather, the critical self-reflection required for genuine revision is connected to the deeper self-scrutiny associate with living an authentic, examined life. Asking questions of one’s paper — Why did I think that? Could my claim here be wrong? Am I actually saying what I mean? Did I misrepresent that author’s point? — can become a portal into considering one’s way of orienting to others and to the world. In other words, academic revision can become a point of access to the delicious ongoing revisability of our very selves.

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“But it’s too hard!”: the challenge of lazy student readers in an age of distraction

In one my favorite young adult books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the main character, Francie, a girl growing up in an Irish tenement in New York City, cuts her reading teeth on Shakespeare. I was forced to read Hamlet in the eight grade and have always been struck by that image of a little girl being first read to from Shakespeare, and then reading and loving it herself. This past year, I’ve often struggled to muster enough attention to read potboilers, let alone Macbeth. And I continue to watch with curiosity and concern as my students struggle, both with reading challenging material, and with the notion of intellectual struggle as such.

Last week, for example, several students reported flat out that a podcast I’d assigned — in which two graduate students discuss the myth of historical progress — had left them utterly at sea. “Too hard,” one stated. Another said, “I have no idea what they’re talking about it. I hope other students have more luck with this than I did.” All who shared thoughts like this presented them matter-of-factly, as though providing a brief product review. Instead of hearing their remarks as mere complaining and being irritated by it, I’m making an effort to look closer.

First, there’s the students’ self-assigned authority with respect to identifying what does and does not count as appropriately difficult material for a class of this level. Second, there’s the lack of any hint of self-reflection suggesting that the quality of their own efforts might be playing a role. Such blithe student confidence is surely not all bad. I recall being knocked into a tailspin of self-criticism when, as an undergraduate, I was required to read a notoriously cryptic work by Wittgenstein. I don’t want my students to be driven to tears of failure, but I also can’t deny that I was pushed to work harder despite the fact that I wanted to stomp on this little treatise for having insulted my intelligence.

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It’s certainly not that I was smarter or of deeper character than today’s college students — I am sure of this — but, rather, that I had a different relationship to texts than is common today. This shift impacts what we can now expect from student readers and, almost certainly, from one another as well. I notice, for example, that when I need information or insight, whether it’s about communitarianism or cast iron skillets, I search and skim online, not until I find the best source, but until I find one that is good enough, and that also requires little time or effort from me. Exertions of reading and comprehension that used to feel simply normal now feel unreasonable. Like my students, I tend to blame, not myself, for a failure of attention, but the writers of the material.

These challenges of reading in an age of ubiquitous distraction upend our most fundamental notions of reasonable intellectual effort and accountability. Little Francie Nolan read Shakespeare not because she was smarter or more curious than I was, but, in part, because she had few other options. The result was that she developed a particular relationship to these rich texts, and, more importantly, a relationship to the notion of intellectual difficulty itself. How, I wonder, can we work with our students, not just to force feed them complicated texts, but to appreciate this as an opportunity to connect to their own wherewithal? I address the issue with them head on, encouraging humble confidence as they approach work they find daunting, but I am keenly aware that I’m spitting into the wind.

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As usual, then, I am focusing on the one intellectually complacent person I can sort of control: myself. I’m making new efforts to notice when, instead of settling into my comfy chair to digest hearty fare, I reach for the equivalent of intellectual potato chips, snarfing them down compulsively and with little real satisfaction. It is certainly not only my students who have been captivated by the lure of the disposable, easy read and, with it, the lazy delight of pat conclusions and facile critique.

This week I will, as I have done so many times during the past decades, return to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, both to discover new insights from this dense, enigmatic treatise and also to reconnect with the panicked, but exhilarated, undergraduate I once was. Back in the late 80s, I stayed up all night wrestling with that little book. I didn’t win that battle, but I did develop a respect for my opponent and for my own intellectual resources that has shaped who I continue to be as a reader and a thinker.

Guns in schools: The worst best argument for online education?

Most of my current students, I realize, have never ever attended school without the background fear of being summarily mowed down. While they finger painted, practiced their clarinets, or stood at white boards working through math problems, they did so having internalized the entirely plausible threat of being maimed or murdered where they stood. It takes the discourse of trigger warnings to an absurd new level when classrooms themselves have become symbols of PTSD.

It isn’t as if U.S. schools have ever been uniformly safe, of course. For marginalized students in forgotten communities, there is a long history of violence, danger, and uncertainty. And even privileged students at well funded schools may deal with sexual violence and bullying. But this is different, both because of the scale of its impersonal ferocity, and because this murderous fad is so explicitly enabled by our own government. It has, effectively, been open season on schoolchildren for as long as my current students have been alive.

It’s a tragic context that lends a perverted twist to my musings about the power and appeal of online education: Will the heightened fear of campuses on lockdown make students grab even more eagerly for course credits they can earn from the relative safety of their homes? Will concerns about gun-toting classmates further dampen classroom conversations about social injustice, politics, or ethics, making it less and less important to address one another face-to-face?

How many of our students, already destabilized by financial and mental health issues, not to mention nagging worries like climate change, the rollback of LGBT rights, and a potential war with Korea, will lean more towards online classes as a way to hold some anxiety at bay? And how many parents, having wearily sent their kids into potential killing fields for years now, will encourage their adult children to attend college from their bedrooms? It is certainly easy enough to imagine online education increasingly becoming a refuge from intolerably unsafe campuses.

Such a possibility points to the true size of the horror because, of course, it is not just schools that have become government sponsored abattoirs, but also public gathering spaces as such. We are murdered at gay nightclubs, outdoor concerts, peaceful protests, and in churches while we pray. We die in parking lots, theaters, and on softball fields. The precipitous erosion of safety in public schools, then, is merely part of a broader trend in which public spaces are desecrated, made uninhabitable by white male violence so banal it is rarely even identified as such.

How shameful that the burden to create change has been left to children who are fed up with being murdered and mutilated at their desks. And how glorious if, under their fierce leadership, we might begin to reclaim not just our schools, but the vitality and intimacy of our shared public lives.

Beyond (merely) mindful teaching

I hesitated when I first chose “mindful college teaching” as the subhead for this blog. On the one hand, it’s a great virtue of Buddhism that many of its most powerful insights can serve people of myriad spiritual, cultural and temperamental leanings. On the other hand, though, is the sense that terms like “mindfulness” pale and weaken when applied to every imaginable situation, much as “addiction” has lost force over the years. It may be useful sometimes to describe people as addicted to love, failure, and shopping, as well as to nicotine and OxyContin, but the term loses some diagnostic specificity and therapeutic power when applied so broadly.

Similarly, it has proved irresistible to describe nearly any effort to focus or pay attention as an exercise in Buddhist mindfulness. There is mindful dieting, mindful parenting, mindful weightlifting, mindful communication, mindfulness for stress relief and even, of course, mindful college teaching. Probably each of these applications is more or less salubrious. Certainly, I have found lots of mindfulness self-help books to be insightful and helpful. I wonder, though, about the ultimate impact of so many different mindfulness books ostensibly applicable to subjects of every shape and size. My concern is partly about missing the point and has been well illustrated for me by tussles I’ve had with my backyard bushes.

When I moved into my century-old house seven years ago, I inherited a yard that was some combination of a Tudor garden and Jurassic Park. What was, I think, originally supposed to be a sort of hedgerow around the periphery had long since become a jungle thicket, choking out the yard’s open center and pushing upwards with such tenacity that many of the so-called bushes could pass for spindly trees. Taking control of the situation — which is, when I think about it, exactly the wrong way for me to describe my haphazard process — has taken years of unceremonious lopping, selective pruning, and a tenacity that ebbs and flows. Still, I have reclaimed some open yard space, and am now mostly in maintenance mode.

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What I had not understood when I began, though, was that bushes are not discrete, individual, well contained entities — though they appear to be so in carefully groomed yards and when they’re bundled neatly for sale at garden nurseries. As I learned from the green shoots venturing well outside the boundaries I had arbitrarily settled upon, some bushes are more like viruses or mushrooms or schools of fish in that their identity is communal, diffuse, and unbounded. It’s as if my bushes, having tasted the frenzy of unrestrained growth, are permanently feral. At any moment, I can still find dozens of new tendrils pushing up through the earth like a zombie’s fingers. While it’s an impressive demonstration of pure life force, it’s also unnerving, as it was when an ivy vine slithered and nosed its way under a window frame and into my living room in the snowy dead of winter.

But I digress. My point is that while the swamp of mindfulness-in-context material — including my own “mindful college teaching” blog — may be useful, one risks becoming forever caught up in addressing only the scattered symptoms of an unfocused life and consciousness, while ignoring the heart of the matter. For several years, I just mowed over my bushes’ insistent new growth, even after I’d recognized my bandaid approach to the problem. It was so temptingly easy to merely push my mower along and make these visual reminders disappear for a while — usually just a few days — but overwhelming to face the full extent of a challenge (this yard! this old house! these bills! this job!) that I would never, could never, really control.

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In short, my yard work, like many so many of my “life changes,” was mostly cosmetic, often superficially focused on the most unsightly, or easily addressed, issues rather than the most important ones. Like the guy searching for his lost car keys under the street lamp simply because the light is better there, I was busily, sometimes comically, missing the point. What I wonder, then, is if it may be too easy to get distracted by the idea of mindfulness in this or that particular, sometimes superficial, context such that the truly awesome power and life-altering efficacy of mindfulness is bypassed. I feel a bit guilty as I write this because mindfulness is such a hot topic I’ve been able to exploit the term to attract people to my work. But perhaps it’s not as crassly self-serving as it sounds. As I’ve also acknowledged from the beginning, this blog, the Virtual Pedagogue, is only sort of about college teaching.

In the end, I am quite happy to lure people into the dark thicket where, it seems, there is only one question to be asked, the question that most of us, simply by virtue of being frightened, distractable, voracious humans, try so hard to avoid. It’s the Buddha’s question, of course, and that of many other psychological/spiritual explorers, and it has both everything and nothing to do with teaching, trimming bushes, or elaborate meditation practices. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we come to this big question by way of teaching or praying or tending the garden, so long as we come to it somehow. What a tragedy, though, if we become so enamored of and distracted by the “little” practices of mindfulness that we overlook the deeply transformative question that stands just behind them, right under our very noses.

Why I don’t promise my students “information” or “material”

Despite many of our longstanding efforts to discourage it, lots of students relate to their education in tangibly consumerist terms. If they’ve been absent, we might be requested to “please send me what I missed” with the expectation that we will be able to hand over the “material” as if it were dry cleaning or a chunk of Costco cheese.

As a liberal arts professor grounded in women’s studies and philosophy, I have never really been a purveyor of information. Of course there are facts to be learned: the historical eras of particular thinkers, the relative order of politically and intellectually critical events, and so on, but my classes are less informational than intellectual and aesthetic. As with most liberal arts courses, my overarching objectives are to understand, appreciate, contextualize, analyze and empathize. “Getting the information” is important, sure, but in the way that removing one’s clothes before showering is important.

Perhaps partly because of test-centric K-12 histories, though, many students struggle to make the leap to work that focuses more on the relationships between events and ideas than (merely) on the discrete data points that define them. In tried and true liberal arts fashion, I make efforts to model holistic thinking, for example, by demonstrating how a concept’s meaning depends on its relationship to other concepts. And, more generally, I give the process and values of thinking itself center stage sometimes, especially in upper level classes.

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Of course, at least some of this attachment to “getting the information” reflects a consumer mindset. Students want to get their money’s worth and “information” or “material” sounds like a quasi-tangible consumer good as the mere experiences I’m hawking probably do not. I confess that I loved leaving my college economics class each day with an increasingly hefty binder of tidy notes. It was a stark contrast to my philosophy or poetry class where we might spend 65 minutes wrestling with the notion of free will or the fear of death. Then my notes tended to be sparse, cryptic, and laced with doodles.

In online liberal arts courses, the challenge to move beyond the information dump expectation is especially acute partly because intense, freewheeling discussions can be hard to create virtually. Even well-constructed, well-facilitated online undergraduate discussions can turn out to be faint approximations of the “real thing,” though, of course, it’s important not to overestimate the quality of the face-to-face versions. So if students aren’t leaving the classroom, pulses raised, deep questions haunting them as they walk away, then what are they leaving with? What “goods” are they meant to be taking away from their online classes? If it is mere “information,” then can’t they get that on their own?

The temptation to think of online classes in more “informational” terms may be greater than in face-to-face courses precisely because “information” feels (sort of) objective, quantifiable and concrete. When we buy things, online or in brick and mortar stores, we are used to, well, getting things. We might not be as happy with them as we’d hoped, but at least we know what we’ve paid for. Contrast this with the purchase of an experience or service, say, admission to a baseball game or a massage, where we might be left with nothing more than a bad memory.

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This bias in favor of tangible purchases, combined with the ephemeral nature and ready access to online information, underscores why many online liberal arts classes should probably be explicitly and conscientiously connected to deeper, more ineffable educational and intellectual values. We might, for example, be especially diligent about:

  • modeling the thinking that brings us to conclusions, rather than merely emphasizing conclusions. For example, instead of a lecture, we might record or film a conversation with a colleague about a key point;
  • putting basic information and facts in a pre-module, emphasizing them as the raw materials to be worked with and not the real stuff of the unit;
  • replacing passive, consumer-oriented verbs such as “absorbing,” “taking in” or “assimilating” with active verbs like “digest,” “wrestle with,” engage with,” and the like.

The internet is busting at the seams with easy facts so mere information had better not be the primary value that online classes purport to add. What we are offer, then, must be explicitly, proudly and loudly marked as being of a different order altogether.

It kind of makes sense that many students initially regard college as if it were a trip to Target for Q-tips and laundry soap. After all, our institutions sneak in requests for money at every turn, and the national conversation about higher ed has been largely ceded to corporatist consumerism. In this milieu, a student’s emphasis on bang for the buck may even be healthy. But maybe we can shift the analogy just a bit, from, say, a big box shopping excursion to a (slightly less crassly consumerist) tour, artistic performance, or field trip. An emphasis on experiential value rather than the acquisition of more “material” is, at least, a step in the right direction. Otherwise we online teachers are likely to be seen as hucksters, trying to sell expensive glasses of sea water to people who are already happily wading in the ocean.