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.

In Praise of the Lowly Multiple Choice Quiz

One of my online students had to take my ten-question multiple choice syllabus quiz 17 times before getting all the answers correct. Seventeen. She must have cursed me as she whackamoled her way through it, changing one answer only to have another pop up as incorrect. Such a quiz can feel tedious and maddening, I know, but I’m not ashamed to admit that the objective quiz has recently reentered my life and stolen a little piece of my pedagogical heart.

I liked taking rote quizzes when I was a kid. The challenge was clear and, unless the questions were badly formed, I could count on being rewarded with a puzzle-solving jolt of satisfaction. As a young teacher with a kazillion students, I relied on multiple choice quizzes as a matter of sanity, but later denounced them as a lazy, reductionist substitute for real education. Despite their shortcomings, though, I’ve regained some respect for objective quizzes, especially in the online realm. The multiple choice syllabus quiz, for example, because of its clear purpose, ease of implementation, and hefty payoff has been recalled to active duty.

One of the main benefits, of course, has to do with encouraging good reading. Having trained in a discipline that prizes close reading, I’m fetishy about it. And I don’t mind publicly grumping about how the conflation of skimming with reading, always a problem, has only worsened. Multiple choice questions don’t teach students to read well so much as help them quickly see when they are not already reading well. When the document at issue is as simple as the course syllabus, their own deficits in genuine reading — for example, reading that includes comprehension — can leap out in brilliant, irritating clarity.

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The multiple choice quiz, then, is a humble litmus test. In contrast to short answer or essay questions, there’s no fudging, which is critical when the aim is to cultivate scrupulous honesty about whether one has really read. And, at the same time, the syllabus quiz helps to seal a contract: “By having succeeded at this quiz, I acknowledge my understanding and acceptance of the terms therein.” And, perhaps most importantly, the pact implicitly includes an acknowledgement of what is to count as good reading. It is not to be a skittering, impressionistic fly-over, but, rather, a deep dive that sharpens the senses.

Quizzes are attractive in other ways, too, of course. For one thing, the online multiple choice quiz is graded automatically and immediately. Ideally, students who miss questions are quickly pushed back to the text with new, more specific questions and greater focus. Though, of course, perfect scores don’t mean they have mastered the material — that requires higher order activities too — the quizzes fill an important gap. And when questions are carefully constructed with conceptual objectives in mind, students can’t easily complete them by hunting piecemeal through the readings. For example, they need to understand the purpose of class discussions in order to reliably answer my syllabus quiz question about it.

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Of course, objective quizzes bring some pain. It takes me forever to create a decent, fair objective quiz up front. But the automatic quality of their implementation seems magical later, during the harried weeks of the semester. And because the quiz takes care of itself, I can better focus on authentically connecting with students, and may even use poor or excellent quiz scores as a springboard for reaching out to them.

Though quizzes have been abused by indifferent or overwhelmed teachers, they’ve also been unfairly maligned. Like blood glucose strips, they function as a quick gauge of where things stand. While more holistic, contextual assignments are critical both for gaining and demonstrating real learning, flexible, open-ended questions also invite us to rationalize, deflect and otherwise pretend. My syllabus may be no more interesting or challenging than the text-filled side of a cereal box, but this is why an objective quiz about it can be so powerful. It’s a clear statement at the very outset of my class, not merely of the difference between “A” and “C” work, but of what reading itself is going to mean.

Do Students Have a Fixed Mindset about the Growth Mindset?

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Like lots of teachers these days, I insist that my students watch a video in which Carol Dweck argues for the virtues of a growth mindset. Her basic claim is that those who believe, say, that math or language ability is a natural talent, something you’ve either got or don’t, are less likely to push through obstacles to learning. Though last semester’s students seemed interested, I knew my plan had gone awry when nearly all of them matter of factly claimed to already possess a growth mindset, as if it were a trendy gewgaw they’d acquired ages ago.

Of course, I don’t believe them. If Dweck is even sort of correct, then more than a few of my students implicitly conceive of themselves in intellectually essentialist terms. The majority, for example, routinely describe themselves as “not a math person,” a dead giveaway. But it’s not as if they’re straight up lying either. Claiming a growth mindset seems to function as shorthand for, “I’m willing to work hard in your class, Teacher!” And because the Protestant work ethic — combined with a belief in original sin, I suppose — is so deeply engrained in many, copping to a fixed mindset must feel like confessing to a deep character flaw. Paradoxically, then, plenty of students have a fixed mindset about a growth mindset: you’ve either got it or you don’t, and if you don’t, what a loser you are!

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It surprises me now that I was ever surprised by how students flocked to the growth mindset label. I mean it’s not as if I was asking them to consider a neutral bit of self-knowledge. Rather, it was a request that they demonstrate vulnerability in a new, unfamiliar environment. My aim had been to set the scene for greater thoughtfulness about education at the outset of the semester. Adrienne Rich’s “Claiming an Education” and a Michelle Obama speech were also on the menu, both of which beautifully flesh out connections between education, personal transformation, and social justice.

Before they slipped into their usual student groove, I wanted to urge deeper thinking about their own power and responsibility for learning. When they came up against a challenging reading or essay question, I hoped to inspire confidence that they could power through to success. But much of the transformative potential of the growth mindset framework is based on learners’ willingness and capacity to see themselves as empowered agents and, of course, some are reluctant. Many of my students, for example, come from underprepared groups in which admitting weakness has probably not been rewarded. Some have, quite understandably, learned that their job is to fake it til they make it.

Keeping this in mind helps me think through my new plan for introducing Dweck’s mindset material. When classes start this week, I think I’ll try to openly self-reflect about the learner I’ve been over the years, to share that, like most academics, I implicitly identified as a “smart one” and so, as Dweck describes, quickly abandoned paths that challenged that self-perception. With some embarrassment, I recall dropping classes in art and astronomy when I didn’t quickly do as well as a “talented person” should. Perhaps modeling honest self-reflection will embolden my students do likewise.

But I also know that such frankness may be interpreted as an admission of incompetence. Like many women academics, I’ve been well steeped in the lesson that I must prove myself as exceptional, and students learn to see women teachers in such terms as well. Now, as a women’s studies professor, I sometimes feel it’s my task to vindicate my entire discipline! Yes, we are intellectually capable and, yes, these are real college courses.

Still, maybe being caught in these double binds of expectation and insecurity can help me better appreciate the complicated motives of and pressures on my students. I can better see, perhaps, that asking them to ruthlessly scrutinize their own intellectual strategies and histories is a big deal. Though it is regarded almost as a law of nature in white bourgeois spiritual circles that vulnerability is a strength — thanks Brené Brown! — it is not so evidently true anywhere else.

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.

How to Grow a Mullet

Because much of my teaching is done online, days can pass when I don’t need to leave the house, swaths of time when my company is limited to my dogs and my partner. As a bona fide introvert who craves and thrives on solitude, I am, nonetheless, aware of the razor thin line between peaceful solitude and hermetic isolation. For most people, even introverts, being with others can serve as a tonic for depression and help repel the formation of undesirable eccentricities. I know that I’ve worried about friends who were in between jobs, both for the financial impact on them and the loss of socialization. It’s just too easy to develop weird habits when we lack some gentle, but compulsory, social accountability.

My current strategy is based on anticipating this danger so that I never have to find the willpower to react to it. And so I now maintain my habit of leaving the house most days, in the same way I maintain the ritual of brushing my teeth. I like having clean teeth, of course, but I also find value in the habitual practice of it. For those who groom mainly as a precursor for going to work — which may well be most people — respecting the disciplined practice of caring for one’s hair and body — and not just the aesthetic benefits — can make all the difference.

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An especially spiritual, disciplined person could follow the model of traditional yoginis who, I’m told, cleanse themselves before their sweaty practice as a demonstration of their commitment and purity of heart. The cleansing becomes a kind of boundary between the profane and the sacred. To this end, maintaining a discrete online workspace — mine is a neat corner desk in a catch-all room of my house — can lend a healthy sense of formality to our home computer work. It’s similar to how avoiding eating and watching tv in bed can apparently support good sleep hygiene. Since I’m not quite yogini material, and can find it hard to ditch the sweatpants if I’m not leaving the house, I usually leave. I pack up my laptop and head for my campus office, the library, or a coffee shop.

The point is that inertia and human nature being what they are, working in isolation can become both addictive and crazy-making. Never mind the bodily damage we do with the typical posture and visual focus required for computer work, the potential psychological degradation is probably at least as profound. In short, I worry some about my capacity to become even weirder and more neurotic than I am, like those teen-aged boys who have reportedly starved to death rather than tear themselves away from their Playstation screens.

We all know about the tonic power of getting up and out, of seeing others and being seen by them, but if you’re like me you’ll be tempted to make exceptions for yourself: “But I’m a genuine introvert without typical social needs, so I’ll be fine.” “I’ll keep my eye on it and adjust my schedule if I start to hole up.” But we can’t rely on our own good sense to know when we’ve gotten too isolated because our judgment is the very thing that becomes damaged by that isolation.

My proof for this erosion of judgment is dramatic. A while back, my partner, not one to critique my style, pointed out that I was dangerously close to rocking a mullet. She didn’t use the m-word, but we both knew what “kind of shaggy in the back” meant. My journey to this new low — I think it’s called bottoming out — had begun innocently enough. I’d simply postponed my haircut because, you know, I didn’t really get out all that much. And then I postponed it again. My journey to a mullet began with a single indolent sigh.

Speaking the Language of Emoticon

I’ve never been one to use emoticons. I used to think this was because of my age — I’m solidly in my middle years — but then I realized that few communication innovations run more counter to my basic nature than the emoticon. A stoic, not traditionally-feminine mid-Westerner, I’ve never gone in for smiley faces, exclamation points or little hearts to dot my “i”s. It’s notthing so serious as a pet peeve (or whatever other term we might use to clothe our grumpiness). I’ve just never liked or felt natural using them.

How strange and disorienting, then, that I am now a frequent flyer in the land of smiley faces. It happened recently, when in the midst of a frenzied summer of preparing a new online course, I announced to my partner: “I’ve just become an emoticon user.” Much to her amusement, I promptly began clumsily experimenting with them, not only in my class materials, but in texts and emails to her about groceries or house repairs.

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It wasn’t that my personality had changed or that my implicit aversion had diminished. Rather, I had decided to embrace advice I’d picked up about the critical importance of engaging warmly and personally with online students. Written communications are easy to misread, experienced online teachers warned, and so small cues (like emoticons) can go a long way toward softening the natural tendency toward defensiveness. In short, I made friends with the emoticon because I desperately I wanted to be an excellent online teacher.

I didn’t stop at emoticons, but also began to make exaggerated efforts to express the positive, for example, beginning messages that contained critical feedback with a statement of my confidence in students’ abilities to succeed. I was also more consistent about ending most messages with a micro-pep talk. The cherry on my communication sundae often became an exclamation point or an emoticon. I’d made efforts similar efforts to be positive with face-to-face students, of course — one learns that early on — but I became a kind of sincere caricature of that positive, encouraging teacher in the online classroom.

Because I am a low affect person — in public, at any rate 🙂 — with a deadpan sense of humor, I already know that my warmth and good will can be difficult for others to recognize. Despite my efforts over the years to connect more warmly and positively with face-to-face students, they still sometimes say they are intimidated by me or seem unable to absorb the positive feedback I provide. Even though I think some of this is explained by plain old sexism — women are unfairly expected to be nurturing as men are not — it can become a barrier to learning.

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I’m not sure how much of a difference the emoticons are making in my online classes — I don’t have a control group — but it does seem to smooth the way for students to reach out to me (often with their own emoticons!). But the most interesting consequence has been how the spirit of the emoticon, experimenting with cranking up my effusiveness overall, has slipped into my other communications. If I believe that my students might be misreading me in ways that lead to resistance and defensiveness, then why not make the same corrective efforts when communicating with peers?

Like most of the online strategies I explore in this blog, this one’s probably not for everyone. For some it will simply feel too inauthentic to do well, or with integrity, and for others it won’t be necessary, because easy, warm rapport with students will never be an issue. But for many of us, the language of the emoticon is worth playing with, not only for what it can add to our teaching, but also for its power to help us reconsider communication styles we’ve come to think of as basic to who we are.

Telling the truth about online teaching

While I like to identify and combine puzzle pieces, I don’t rest easy for long with what I’ve constructed. I tend to get the fidgets pretty quickly and start deconstructing almost before I’ve finished. As a feminist professor explicitly committed to social justice, part of how I’ve pieced together my rationalization for online teaching is for its potential to support students who might otherwise miss out on college.

And to some extent, online classes do this. At the mid-tier public university where I work, many students have full-time jobs and must also care for their families. They squeeze in their class work at the end of a full day on the job, after the kids have gone to bed. There’s no doubt that, for some, getting a traditional college education would be a logistical hardship, one requiring transportation access, travel time and hours of investment that just just don’t exist.

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So far, so good. We online teachers provide an invaluable service, propping open the heavy door to higher ed so that these unfortunate folks too may have access. We aren’t just teachers, but noble activists!

Except that when I look at the students who are actually taking my online classes, I find that very few actually fall into this category. Many, it turns out, are probably pajama-clad in their off-campus apartments, mere blocks away, skimming classmates’ discussion posts as they gnaw on Rice Crispy Treats.

My carefully constructed rationalizing can’t change the fact that some students picked my class, not from anything resembling necessity, but because of its apparent ease and convenience, like watching Netflix rather than gong to the movies. And while there may be nothing clearly wrong with this — my online course is of very high quality, after all, not less demanding than the face-to-face version — that they are evidently choosing the online class for trivial convenience doesn’t sit well with me.

Though I’m an enthusiastic online teacher and exert myself to create excellent classes in the virtual space, I’m not uncritical of it. Rather, I see online ed as an inevitability and as a potentially effective alternative for some students. But I’m not persuaded that online classes are generally better, or even as good, as the face-to-face experience, at least not for many students. At the very least, I would say that there are strengths and weaknesses of each modality that are incommensurable. Though convenience alone may in fact dictate most students’ choice of modality, it isn’t a very inspiring reason.

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And I’m also confident that basic logistical convenience is only part of what makes online classes more attractive to some students. Online classes are often felt to be “easier,” sometimes because of the workload, but also because of the lack of social demand. Certainly, one need not be immediately accountable for one’s expressed views or feel the discomfort of hearing others’ opposing, or just plain boring, perspectives. We are told that this is why shy students can really shine in online classes — and I don’t doubt this — but I also want my students to practice weathering these difficult, sometimes unpleasant, social exchanges.

Of course these two learning modalities bring trade-offs and I don’t mean to merely rehearse the pros and cons of online ed for developing students’ social skills. I am, rather, bent on reminding myself to be honest about the true costs of the online work I am doing. I can build elaborate rationalizations that make me feel better, or I can reckon and wrestle with the double-edged nature of the path I’ve chosen. And as far as I can tell, there are no unambiguous heroes or villains in sight.

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.