Nostalgia, Fantasy and Telling the Truth

Maybe it goes without saying that the vague sense of longing that most of us experience from time to time is for a home that never really existed. We live with echoes of pleasures and pains from gifts and wounds that we never received, at least not as we remember. It is both poignant and silly — the stuff of tragedy and comedy — that we become so intimately bound to pasts that never were. How much of my own longing and grumpiness about higher ed is based on an idealized past that never really was?

For those who, like me, earned public institution degrees in the 80s and 90s, and have since taught mostly at regional public institutions, the ivy threaded, romantic idea of college life has always been mostly fantasy. While I can actually recall intellectual epiphanies on the grassy quad, and the occasional fire-eyed professor, the bigger picture is more anodyne. There were, for example, buckets of beer, mind-numbing part-time jobs, and more than a few barely-competent teaching assistants. Grad school was an improvement, as was my post-doc at a more elite east coast university, but The Dead Poet’s Society it was not.

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Whatever hallowed illusions about undergrad life I still harbor were born as much from wishful thinking as actual experience. This vague longing I’ve felt, then, this irritating sense of mismatch between my experience of higher ed and what “should be,” is grounded partly in fantasy. And the still larger truth of the falsely rosy picture of higher ed becomes even more obvious after a quick peek at, say, the early days of Harvard Medical School, a grisly, disorganized affair. It turns out that histories of U.S. education are a powerful antidote to the most sentimental fits of nostalgia.

Paradoxically, I find that I’m now best able to resist my tendency to rail against the current state of higher ed when I’m at my most nostalgic. Then I can see that at least some of my resistance — to online teaching, “flipped” classrooms, and the like — reflects my middle-aged crankiness: Students today! Why aren’t they more like we were? The truth, though, is that they are a lot like I was, and in some remarkably annoying and admirable respects. Though I don’t entirely trust online education, nor do I have full confidence in my aversion to it. Of course there are grave problems with higher ed and we may well be in the midst of a genuine crisis, one swirling with questions about its affordability, accessibility, and status as a public good. But this incipient catastrophe is awful enough without our piling on false, sweetly scented memories.

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With this in mind, I try to focus my complaints about higher ed on actual problems and losses, instead of imagined ones. Although this requires an ongoing, ruthless level of self-scrutiny that I’m not entirely capable of, I’m motivated by the fact that the potential rewards extend well beyond higher ed. It is possible, after all, to live the whole of one’s life in worshipful service to bygone pain and resentments. And, of course, the tragedy here has much less to do with the original wound than with one’s dedication to suffering over what are, effectively, mere memories. Obviously not all new opportunities should be embraced, and even the best ones promise disappointment as well as delight. But at least the pain will be honestly earned, the price of actually engaging with contemporary life, rather than making excuses to avoid it in favor of what never was.

The Joy of Tedious Planning

Backpackers know that the trip begins long before the hike starts. Depending on factors like a trail’s length, popularity, and degree of isolation, planning may begin weeks, or even months, before the big day. Casual campers make fun of those whose fetish for low pack weight impels them to saw off toothbrushes and leave luxuries, like deodorant and clean underwear, behind. As a partially brainwashed lightweight backpacker, I’m immune to such ridicule. For me, the pleasure of intricately planning my precious load is part of the point.

Parallels between backpacking and online teaching became clear to me early on. As I began to design an online gen ed course fully seven months in advance, there was a level of choreography and previsualization I had not experienced with my teaching before. It was as if I were preparing to lead 25 inexperienced, trusting companions through a dark and remote wood, to facilitate adventure, sacrifice no one’s safety, and to complete the mission on time. By contrast, teaching face-to-face was often more like car camping, with its cushy sleep pads and five pound cook stove, all sorts of just-in-case luxuries tossed into the trunk at the last minute.

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Backpacking demands that each necessity and comfort be accounted for in advance, including each meal, each liter of water, each layer of clothing and each bandaid. How well spaced are the streams and creeks? Do I have rain gear, a plan for storing food safely at night, backup battery power for the smartphone that will also serve as GPS? Have I accurately estimated each day’s distance, or will altitude or sandy soil slow me down? Backpacking invites the imagination into the future, to previsualize the faulty lighter, the leaky water pouch, the angry blister as it emerges on the left big toe.

With online classes, too, the journey must be meticulously planned and paced, with assignments and topics nesting neatly into larger course objectives and goals. There’s little room for excess, spontaneous tangents or last minute route changes, since our students — some of whom are a few steps ahead or behind — utterly depend on our map or trail of crumbs. Even the opportunities for spontaneity must be coordinated — not so spontaneous after all — and must obey the established course rhythms. It’s not impossible to find one’s way after straying from the syllabus, but the process for doing so — the burst of ad hoc communications, special dispensations and improvisations — can make for grueling backtracks and, worse, shake students’ confidence.

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It’s easy enough to feel oppressed by all this regimented planning and to want to rush through it to get to the good stuff. In the traditional classroom, the promise of face-to-face magic often becomes the motivating carrot for the tedium of planning. But, obviously, there’s no such dessert waiting at the end of the online buffet. In fact, in online classes, the good stuff must often be coaxed into removing its disguise. It is often overlooked altogether.

I sidestep the misery of online preparation only when I manage to embrace the puzzle of it enough so that its creative character begins to emerge. As with crosswords, learning the ukulele, or backpacking preparation, whether the process is experienced as a satisfying challenge or as torture depends on one’s point of view. For those who crave the high of a spontaneous face-to-face romp — and this describes some of my most memorable traditional classes — I doubt that the grind of online class prep will be worth it. For such teachers, camping beside a car chock full of equipment, food and beer is probably a better choice. On the other hand, tasting the trials and rewards of backpacking makes the delights of car camping even more apparent.

Can You Hear Me? Martyrs at the Altar of Student Feedback

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I learned that I was supposed to want feedback from my teachers long before I actually wanted it. Like lots of academically successful kids, I had a fragile, “fixed mindset” and so was inclined to interpret anything scented with criticism as a demolition of my very being. I knew, though, that I should want feedback, so as a high school and college student I learned to stuff down my defensive reactivity and nod calmly while the torpedoes landed.

Of course, I learned early on to make changes to my work in response to feedback — enough to show I was paying attention — but the critiques, for better and worse, didn’t really land. I came to adulthood then, and developed into a teacher, on uneasy terms with feedback and having only occasionally been constructively impacted by it. This should be a little shocking given the teacher’s supposedly central role in shaping student learning through skillful critical feedback, but I doubt it will seem strange to most higher ed instructors. How many of us who complete the long road to the professoriate are motivated by praise, and in spite of the occasional critiques?

Why, then, does so much pedagogical discussion about critical feedback assume that students (more or less) want it and that professors (more or less) know how to give it? Discussions I’ve seen about feedback (apart from those of education scholars) are almost always practical in nature, bypassing altogether basic questions about why, when, and if it matters. With this in mind, the online classroom, where all or most feedback is indirect, has become an excellent laboratory for me to explore the issue. In fact, my most recent hypotheses about student feedback arose from my stunning discovery that few of the individualized comments I’d so painstakingly written had ever even been opened. I’ve long known, of course, about the gap between the given and received sides of the feedback loop, but the online set up — I can so easily see when they’ve ignored it — makes some of the lessons more indelible.

Some hypotheses I’ve been toying with:

-Most students don’t really want critical feedback and so the inclination will be to avoid it altogether or interpret it in unintended ways. It may, for example, be understood as merely cosmetic and so barely worthy of attention, or as utterly damning and so too overwhelming to face.

-Even the few who are genuinely open to substantive critical feedback, those who will actually read it, are likely to miss the point. Our weakest areas are magnets for constructive critique, but our lack of expertise in these areas is precisely what makes misunderstandings more likely. If we had an idea of what we were doing wrong, we probably wouldn’t have done it that way in the first place.

-Even as some kinds of individual feedback are probably less valuable than we think — for example, that which relates to specific intellectual competencies, content knowledge, or mechanical tasks — others may be more important. For example, personal notes to students acknowledging their overall intelligence, worth, and belonging in the class can be especially powerful, as can general expressions of concern about their well being when their assignments aren’t done well.

-Offering detailed individual feedback to students is deeply tied to many professors’ sense of themselves as competent and dedicated teachers. It’s common, then, for professors to announce with exhaustion and exasperation how much grading they have, or how much time they spend on each paper. It becomes a badge of both courage and martyrdom, but how helpful this blood, sweat and tears actually is to students sometimes seems to be beside the point.

These tentative conclusions have led me to make several shifts of emphasis in both my online and face-to-face classes:

  • First, I try to more deliberately establish rapport, and a sense of mutual responsibility about grades so that students are more inclined to reach out when real questions arise and to do so effectively. If legitimate concerns come up — and I work with them to distinguish “I don’t like my grade” from “I don’t know why I got this grade” — I need to be confident they’ll reach out to me instead of miring down in resentment and confusion.
  • Second, I rely on increasingly detailed instructions and rubrics (which I’ve despised for decades) to mutually reinforce clear standards and expectations. Since the strengths and weaknesses of student work tend to be more epidemic than idiopathic, providing detailed, but generalizable guidelines makes sense. When students have more specific concerns or complaints, the rubric also serves as shared language between us. For example, when they have questions about a grade, I ask them to take some responsibility for helping me better interpret their work by connecting it directly to the rubric. I’ve come to think that developing such skills of self-evaluation — feedback is no longer merely something I inflict upon them — may be one of the most helpful things I do. It can help transform feedback from a rationalization of a grade I’ve given them to an opportunity for self-reflection about a grade they have earned.
  • Third, I try to keep my own ego and guilt out of it. Inspired by the sign in the janitor’s closet, I aim to work smarter, not harder, and so avoid tapping out “individual” comments that merely repeat what’s in both the instructions and rubric. Above all, as best I can, I fight the temptation to become a feedback martyr, sweating and bleeding over lengthy, individualized comments for no good reason. I will probably never be fully satisfied with what I can give my students, especially these distant souls whom I will never even meet, but I will no longer paper over my anxiety about that under reams of supposedly altruistic feedback.

The Uses and Abuses of Ambivalence

As I grow older, I’m better able to accept that living well requires making choices between imperfect alternatives. This more pragmatic orientation also feels more mature — think of a toddler who refuses any treat that falls short of ideal — and it also helps me appreciate how I’ve misused ambivalence in the past. As valuable and unavoidable as some ambivalence is, I now see that some of what I’d attributed to admirable, intellectually honest uncertainty probably had more to do with fear.

Of course there are different kinds of ambivalence and some matter more than others. For example, because I’m merely a coffee addict and not a connoisseur, when offered the choice between light or dark roast, I usually say “whichever’s freshest.” I’ve learned to say this rather than admit I don’t care because a bald expression of ambivalence can paralyze the cafe staff. Because they know and care about coffee, such naked ambivalence must seem irresponsible or disingenuous. “How can you not care?” they must be thinking.

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Ambivalence like this is pretty trivial unless the choice is thought to be expressive or constitutive of one’s identity, i.e., “I’m the kind of person who only wears black.” This is a kind of lifestyle identity politics that’s based on allying oneself with this kind of music, or clothing style, or football team rather than that one. When identity is, implicitly or explicitly, thought to be at issue then too much ambivalence can seem like a wishy-washy abdication of one’s very self.

Before I uneasily embraced online education, I was swirling in ambivalence that I couldn’t fully articulate. I was, in fact, more likely to voice my really substantive (ethical, political, social) misgivings about it than my more mundane concerns. In retrospect, though, I see that my merely practical worries drove my aversion to online teaching at least as much as my deeper misgivings: Would I be overwhelmed by the amount of work? Was I too set in my ways to master the technology? How would I meaningfully connect with students without the crutch of my charismatic schtick?

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My ambivalence about the substantive issues hasn’t really changed: I am still as deeply troubled by how online education enables an increasingly corporatist higher ed even as it provides invaluable access for some students. I still hate that I am contributing to a more impersonal, interchangeably modular, version of education, even as I am proud of my new efforts to engage with students in this flexible, open-ended virtual space.

My ambivalence is genuine and important, and I live with the tension of it as I more or less happily go about my online work. It is a low grade discomfort that informs my choices and practices but which does not disable me. Clearly, I did not need to wait until I had moved past my ambivalence to embrace online teaching, but nor did I need to pretend that those mixed feelings had been resolved. In fact, I think my ethical discomfort is healthy and points to problems within higher ed, a system with failings that, though I am implicated in them, also need to be reckoned with. It would be a disservice to my integrity and to my vocation if I were to paint my criticisms pink and become a mere cheerleader for online education.

On the other hand, I wonder where I would be headed had I remained aloof from online ed out of respect for my supposedly noble ambivalence. I am reminded of a former senior colleague who, in the early days of email, proudly refused to use it. He had all sorts of important, and probably legitimate, gripes: It was too impersonal, too ambiguous, too informal, and so on. But it was evident that his aversion was also rooted in his fear of being unable to master this new game, and being an anti-email crank came to define him. I’ve always hoped that his righteous confidence turned out to be warm company, because as email continued its inexorable march, he became increasingly isolated from his students and colleagues.

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.