What the ignorant know

The Zen masters warn that when the cup is full the student cannot learn. In the same vein, Socrates described himself as wise only in the sense that he knew that he did not know. Ignorance, like the open space in a photograph, has far more constructive and creative power than we generally acknowledge. Predictably, though, universities, and the knowledge factories of popular culture, place far more emphasis on the acquisition and juxtaposition of facts and data than on expanding the gaps between what we confidently feel we know.

Still, most instructors have probably griped about students with overly full cups. We likely recognize a student’s reflexive confidence in her social, religious or political views as limiting and immature. We may even conclude that such rigid certainty correlates well with the student’s limited critical thinking skills. But, of course, it isn’t only, or even primarily, college students who can be parochially solipsistic. It’s a habit pretty much all of us fall into at least some of the time, though we may develop elaborate self-concepts and justificatory schemes that prevent us from noticing such unearned confidence.

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In my own case, for example, the fact that I have been professionally and chronically focused on epistemological uncertainty — even my decades-old dissertation explored feminist critiques of objectivity — has not kept me from glomming onto paradigms and opinions with a tenacity they do not deserve. Like most people, I often leap from one apparent rock of certainty to another, reflexively avoiding the roiling water between for long stretches. In my case, though, and I think this is partly because I’m a philosopher in (voluntary) exile, I eventually judge my confident perches to be nearly as unsettling as the chasms below. I’m faced with questions, often from generously (or arrogantly) critical others, sometimes from life itself, that I become unwilling and unable to wave away.

It isn’t that I always abandon a cherished position in light of hard questions, but, rather, that such critiques can remind me of the fragility of ideologies as such, and of the intellectual and spiritual potential of epistemological humility. And in such moments of (wretched or blissful) uncertainty, I recall that, like a too-hot sauna or a deliciously assertive massage, uncertainty too is an experience I can sink into and savor. It’s a liminal zone in which my beliefs can come and go like weather, a place where concepts and opinions do not warrant or require my sycophantic allegiance. And it’s when I’m least certain about what I know that I feel myself to be a true intellectual, teacher, and spiritual traveler. Whenever I feel able to genuinely entertain that I may be wrong — and this does not happen as often as I would like — I know that I am on to something.

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Of course, the implications for falling newly and repeatedly in love with ignorance are far reaching, in the classroom, the synagogue, and the cultural milieus of science and politics. It matters if there are gaps in peoples’ attachment to ideas about drugs, immigrants, fiscal policy, or how to interpret that iconic Frost poem. But it also matters in more personal contexts, for example, in relationships with other people. Just as it is a sort of sin against liberal education to stubbornly attach myself to ossified beliefs about reality, so too I am failing if I become addicted to my perceptions, opinions, and judgments about other people.

Once I have committed to an interpretive framework in which someone is stupid, fabulous, deluded, princely, or just plain evil, I will find all the evidence in the world to support my view. Everything that obtuse idiot (or paragon of virtue) says or does will be slotted into the preexisting interpretive boxes I have built. And while it may be a reliable boon to my own ego to have my beliefs about others magically and endlessly confirmed, it also guarantees that I will never truly encounter actual others. Rather, like the narcissist entranced by her own fantasy or nightmare, I will engage primarily with my own mental constructs, repeatedly finding objective proof of another’s sin or saintliness in projections of my own creation.

Professors who aspire to be teachers

Like nursing, teaching implies selfless maternalism. We imagine the underpaid young elementary school teacher, spending her weekends and salary to buy construction paper and flash cards, compelled, like a mother, from sheer devotion to her young charges. “Professor,” by contrast, is a decidedly manly word, and connotes, not service, but authority and expertise. Young people flock to sit at his feet, even if he is quirky and distant, because they admire him and are drawn to his genius. Is it any wonder that many professors balk at being referred to as mere “teachers”?

In a society that has long feminized, denigrated and devalued the teacher and that is now energetically denigrating and devaluing the professor, we have an ever more complicated relationship to these labels. Here on the Virtual Pedagogue, I regularly slip between “teacher,” “instructor,” and “professor,” not from sloppiness (usually), but because I resist solidifying my own self understanding into any one of these labels. I aim to use these terms intentionally, both to call attention to the similarities and differences among all of us who do this sort of work, and to subtly challenge stereotypes that surround them.

“Instructor” is perhaps the most generic and seems to apply to anyone habitually engaged in showing another how to do something, be it to fly a plane or solve quadratic equations. It’s a sterile word, without the ethical import of the other two, but can be useful when emphasizing functional commonalities, say, among teaching assistants, tenured professors, and high school coaches. Despite the trend of diminishing respect for higher ed, “professor” is a status word, weighed down by advanced degrees, heady scholarship, and a workload that may actually include no instruction whatsoever. Though “teacher” is, perhaps, the most common word, I also find it to be the most nuanced, rich and attractive.

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When I refer to those who’ve helped me change my life — for example, the passionate, brilliant women with whom I studied yoga in Minnesota — I call them my teachers. It’s one way I (lovingly) highlight that I didn’t primarily learn facts or strategies from them, but, rather, was supported in developing my whole self. So, when at some jagged point in my own pedagogical career I felt called to work more holistically with my students, I experienced a dramatic shift of consciousness and my labor became both more humble and momentous. It was, I determined, my serious and joyful responsibility to support students on their human journey while disguised as a feminist philosophy professor discussing Kant.

I am, then, both despite and partly because of its feminized humility, quite taken with the term “teacher,” though I appreciate the other ones too. When I get my hair cut at a new salon, I answer the “what do you do?” question with “professor.” I am happy to help dispel stereotypes about women’s work by claiming the full measure of my teetering professional status. But in the realest beating heart of my life, I am happiest and proudest being a teacher, sitting alongside my students, trying to find even one small way that our time together might make us all more inquisitive, daring, and demanding of ourselves and one another.

The undefended professor: the power and limits of vulnerability

The recent revival of the “me too” campaign, in which zillions of women came out as survivors of sexual harassment or assault, was a reminder of the power of vulnerability. The cumulative force of victims breaking silence promised to transform vulnerability and shame, at least for a moment, into collective power and pride. Vulnerability as a pedagogical tool, though less dramatic, also has great potential power, though I remind myself to be scrupulously attentive to my motives and expectations while practicing it.

Maturing into my profession has brought me more confidence and a greater sense of belonging. As a young professor, and a white woman in a white man’s field, I was often insecure, and sometimes suffered from imposter syndrome. Perhaps inevitably, my shaky sea legs sometimes led me to be a bit rigid in the classroom and in my scholarly conclusions. To be sure, my insecurity was justified. Like many young women professors, I was often judged both by students and coworkers more harshly than my male colleagues were. Vulnerability, then, comes at a higher price for some of us than for others.

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As a mature professor, I more naturally experience myself as working with my students on the same plane, framing us all as “class colleagues.” I can explicitly enact strategies of vulnerability, though not with perfect success. For example, on occasions when I’ve given a grade that could be a point or two higher, I’ve humbly agreed to change it at a student’s reasoned request. Sometimes this has produced a deeper connection, as (I imagine) the student comes to better appreciate our shared humanity and my intellectual flexibility. Other times, though, the student has decided I am gravely fallible, and embarked on a semester-long campaign to nickel and dime me for more points. Even very small displays of vulnerability, then, may open the door to opportunistic encroachments.

Of course, students are not really better off on this score. For example, while some underprepared students try to bluster and bullshit their way through discussions and exams, others openly acknowledge their shortcomings and knowledge gaps. Professors and students may appreciate and respect such displays of vulnerability, of course, but they may also see them as confirming stereotypes of incompetence, especially if the student is from an underrepresented group. We may, in the abstract, wish for a world in which students and professors could more courageously and maturely embody vulnerability, but in the real world — based so often on competition, judgment, and systematic hierarchy — the rewards and risks are mixed.

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We all know how it goes. We decide to open ourselves, unprotected and undefensive, to a friend or relative, bravely acknowledging a misstep, hoping they will accept the invitation and become similarly vulnerable with us. Instead, they seize upon whatever mistake we have acknowledged and leverage it as further justification for their own righteously held grievances against us. A display of vulnerability, however sincerely offered, may well be used against us by self-protective others. If I rely on vulnerability instrumentally, then, as a mere tool to get others to treat me more fairly and humanely, I may well find myself dangling from a cross. I’ll probably end up even angrier at them and also feeling like a sap.

I’m not, of course, arguing against our being vulnerable in ways that feel right to us, just reminding myself not to do so hoping to achieve some particular outcome. If we bare our naked breasts to the world, we may well be rewarded with authentic connection and newfound respect. But we may also be run through with angry spears. And this is, perhaps, the true power of vulnerability, not that we can reliably use it to get others to behave better or like us more — they may or may not — but as an ethical expression of our own deeply felt connection to other fragile creatures, beings who may never be willing to embrace their own fallibility and imperfections. Happily, few of the spears are real, and so most of the wounds we suffer are merely to our preciously guarded pride.

Self-reflection, self-deception, and the allure of the enlightened self

If there were one quality I could better cultivate in myself and encourage in others, it would be an enriched capacity for self-reflection. Nearly every rash, petty, or otherwise unskillful thing I’ve done, and watched others do, seems to be rooted, at least partly, in poor self-awareness. Given the raging popularity of all things navel gazingly mindful, I am in good company in believing in the life changing power of this kind of attention.

Still, it can be hard to pin down precisely what self-reflection means, partly because of how diluted and trendy the notion has become. As with our ability to drive a car — pretty much all of us think we’re “above average” drivers — we overestimate our skill and commitment to self-reflection. Discussions about greater self-understanding, then, can easily become focused on what other people need to do and not on one’s own deficits. And, paradoxically, it is this relentless blaming of others that most dramatically reveals one’s own blunted capacity for self-reflection.

As I understand it, self-reflectiveness is an aspect of mindfulness that has us gently, intentionally, and repeatedly turning our gaze inward to non-judgmentally acknowledge and explore our motives, assumptions, and expectations. It’s a practice that has us take some responsibility, not just for our internal feelings and beliefs, but also for aspects of the objective world that we shape and distort through the subjective lenses we bring to it. The unreflective person, then, is a consummate victim of circumstances, always blaming others and the world for wherever she finds herself.

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And, of course, self-reflection demands not just an inward turn, but scrupulous honesty about what is found there. So, for example, several years after a series of catastrophic personal losses — including the death of my mother — I was able to notice and take responsibility for my own developing romance with suffering. What I saw wasn’t a healthy, cleansing grief, but an incipient attachment to a “poor me” (and “why me?”) identity that gradually threatened to become my way of being in the world. When I look inward, I do not always like what I see, and it takes courage I don’t always have to tell the truth about that. It takes even greater courage to, as one of my teachers urges, “tell the truth about whether or not you are telling the truth.”

Human beings lie all the time, of course. We lie to save money, to feel important and to spare peoples’ feelings. But self-deception is not as well explored. A woman lies because she did not take the time, or perhaps even know how, to locate and inspect her feelings. A man fails to promote social justice because he cannot (and will not) acknowledge the actual power and freedom he could bring to bear. The truly perverse part may well be that we also conspire with others to overlook one another’s self-deceptions. We agree, in the language of one of my teachers, “to support one another’s stories” as a condition of friendship. So, for example, we nod in sympathy at the spendthrift friend who complains constantly about lacking money, and also when an astonishingly rude acquaintance complains about other peoples’ manners. Friendly “politeness” turns out to be an agreement to support the self-deceptions most of us rely on to maintain our fragilely constructed selves.

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We professors complain a lot about students lacking the basic wherewithal to critically reflect on ideas, texts, and their own assumptions. For liberal arts teachers, this failure to recognize one’s own limited positionality, and to take responsibility for the assumptions through which one frames the world, is a tendency in students that we love to hate. We cringe as students storm like bulls through the subtle, humbling philosophical invitations our courses present, choosing trite, automatic reactions rather than authentic response.

But surely it isn’t only, or even primarily, students who skim along the surface this way, half asleep and unable to see the boards that fill their own eyes. Practiced and polished professors can, perhaps, more skillfully enact and maintain a persona of mindful self-reflection, a habit of seeing ourselves as more self reflective than we actually are. It’s a persona that is so seductive and satisfying we may never feel compelled to peek behind it. In the meantime we can join the party, regaling one another with stories about those unenlightened others, including our poor benighted students.

At Your (Customer) Service

A few weeks into teaching my first online class I had a disturbing realization. I’d begun to feel like I was working at a big box hardware store. Here’s how my thinking went: The tiling experts or carpenters who apply at Lowe’s are attracted to the job partly because they believe their expertise will be put to use. Sure,  some of it will be a grind — it’s retail after all — but part of the appeal, surely, is the prospect of putting one’s talents and hard-earned skills to use. Imagine the disappointment when it turns out that the workday’s human exchanges consist overwhelmingly of responding to generic customer service questions like: “Where’s the restroom?”

Similarly, once my online class got underway, I had the sickening, humbling realization that every single direct student question I had fielded had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual ideas, concepts, and arguments that made up the heart and soul of my painstakingly crafted course. There were questions about grades and dates, about how to navigate the learning platform — in my case, D2L — but nary a peep about race, gender or science in a course called “Race, Gender, and Science.” I was, evidently, a customer service employee, tasked with ensuring that my patrons had a smooth, pleasant journey through the semester, an imperative intensified by the university’s pressure on faculty to maintain enrollment at almost any cost.

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Of course my content expertise had been leveraged in the initial development of the lectures, introductions, exams and projects that make up my online class. And of course I drew on my years of experience with ideas and information about race, gender and science when I participated in the discussion boards and evaluated student work. But, by and large, and most certainly in my e-mail exchanges with students, my task was one of keeping the train moving along the tracks — removing rocks, lubing the wheels — with little attention to the actual cargo it contained.

While it may be that I’m doing this wrong — I could insert more of my expertise into casual exchanges with students, for example, whether they want it or not — I think the issue may be endemic to online education as it’s now conceived. When we teach in a physical classroom, we are usually not expected to clean the room, provide the chairs, or repair broken windows. When we do find ourselves burdened with such things, we feel put out; we are being asked to do what is not properly our job and does not draw upon our training and credentials.

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But in the virtual classroom, the line between our intellectual expertise and our technical abilities — Can you manage the learning platform? Can you help students successfully navigate the often Byzantine trails between various assignments, feedback, etc. — becomes utterly blurry. Sure, our universities have online learning help centers for both us and our students, but we all understand that our journey is, at bottom, a ruggedly individualist one. Both we and are students are expected, for the most part, to manage by ourselves. Our technical and practical skills are more tied up with our pedagogical success than ever before.

It is true, of course, that face-to-face professors are also expected to succeed at a number of rote, bureaucratic tasks, for example, entering grades. It’s also true that the customer service imperative has increasingly come to define many classroom instructors’ professional lives. But never is this more evident than when those emails start arriving from online students who are only interested in your ability to point out the quickest path to the restroom.

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.