Busy, busy, busy! When a professor’s work is never done….

If you’ve ever used a can of spray insulation, you know how the toxic goo expands to fill every hole and crack. It’s like bread dough rising in a time lapse film, still creeping towards you long after you think you’ve sprayed it in place. As I teetered on a step ladder in the searing heat last weekend, watching the stuff grow like a kitschy movie blob, I knew I’d found the right analogy for this week’s post. I tried not to wipe my sweaty brow with a foul, sticky glove and thought, “This is how work can expand to fill every space if I’m not paying attention.”

It’s understandable, of course, that professors get swallowed up by actual and self-imposed overwork given that we are under the scrutiny of a skeptical public and increasingly out of touch university administrators. With a conspiratorial wink, an uncle informed me decades ago when I got my first professor job that it sounded like a “sweet deal.” And I’ve suffered through countless meetings with administrators who reactively push for higher teaching loads, quite certain that we professors just aren’t doing enough. They clearly do not appreciate the amorphous nature of the job, the pressure we are under to permit it to overlap with, flow over, and otherwise obscure the rest of our lives. To make this more concrete, I made a record of my activities on a typical morning last week — snippets below. The pace of my daily routine is especially striking to me when I keep in mind that, in the eyes of a critical taxpaying public, and, increasingly corporatized career administrators, this is the bon vivant, summer vacation chunk of my calendar.

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Many instructors never really leave their work. Their sense of responsibility to students and to the subject area they love, combined with the almost open ended nature of research and the teaching relationship, guarantees that there is always more to be done. Certainly, if lines and limits are to be drawn between our “work” and “life,” this will not come from the time clock, the setting sun, or the factory whistle. By and large, we must draw them ourselves. Being a professor is not unique in this way, of course — many other jobs share these qualities — and this lack of specialness is worth keeping firmly in mind.

That setting priorities and effectively drawing boundaries is hard for most people is clear from the glut of self-help books on this topic. I’ve read and appreciated lots of them, especially those that reveal the deeper questions at play, psychological, and maybe even spiritual ones. When deciding how to spend our time, we must, after all, decide what really and truly matters to us. If it turns out, say, that the very burden of work tasks we complain about actually serves to happily distract us from personal or existential woe, then we must be honest about that. It’s obvious that many privileged individuals who complain of being “busy, busy, busy!” are classic workaholics, with little satisfaction or even sense of identity beyond their career. Some don’t like their personal life much, but find it less wrenching and more socially acceptable to complain about their demanding job than about their husband or exhausting tween children.

Ultimately, then, though professor jobs are not the walk in the park that many imagine, they are also not intrinsically more demanding or diffuse than many other other jobs or activities that routinely swallow up peoples’ lives. Saying no or calling it a day is, for those of us with the luxury of managing much of our own time, as much an exercise in honesty, authenticity and courage as of practical time management. We must learn to tell the truth about why we’d rather send just one more email or grade one more paper, now, tonight. And, as one of my great teachers urges, “to tell the truth about whether or not we’re telling the truth about that.”

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Some of us have tried every trendy time management scheme — the hulking Franklin organizer, the Palm Pilot, or the understated iPhone or Moleskine bullet journal — but if I fear what lies behind all the planning (which often becomes an excuse for yet more busyness) — the silence, the uncertainty, the potentially bottomless mysteries of joy and grief — then nothing will ever really change. I’ll busy my life away with this or that VIT (very important task) complaining all the while — the better to establish my importance to others and myself — until a crisis forces me to make different choices. And if, as a relatively independent, privileged, well-employed individual, I focus only on the supposed grappling hooks that others have imposed on my life, I will overlook the agency that I do have.

I am not, of course, focusing here on the many who must work multiple jobs at the whim of others with little claim on their own time. In fact, I write this post partly in honor of adjunct instructors who piece together their livelihoods from scraps discarded by full-time professors, or stolen from professors and reassigned to adjuncts by jaded, penny-pinching administrators. And I write it in honor of the remaining academic collectIve bargaining units that support professors’ struggle to retain some measure of independence and dignity. We must continue to fight against the trends of increasing teaching workloads — for all instructors — even as we resist the temptation to make our jobs a scapegoat for why we never do whatever it is that matters most to us.

Excerpt from a typical summer workday (boring, but requested by a reader!)

I woke at 5:30, fed my dog and cat, and graded the first of four sets of assignments my students do each week (I’m teaching summer school). After 90 minutes of grading, I spent another twenty minutes composing a note summarizing the results of my grading and offering guideposts to my students for what’s coming next. Then I took my dog for a quick walk, showered, and got my books and computer packed up. On the way to the coffee shop where I’d planned to work for a few hours, I stopped to pick up some necessities for later — lemons and chocolate — and then at the hardware store for giant paper lawn bags.

At the coffee shop I ran into a junior colleague who wanted to chat about his upcoming tenure process. After a pleasant half hour with him, I opened my computer and began seeking and skimming articles I’ve collected over the past year for my upcoming LGBT Studies class. As I read, selected and rejected, I tried not to get sidetracked by the mostly fascinating material, but did stop to post one article to a professional social media site I’m responsible for and also emailed it to a colleague at another university. As I sent that email, I noticed an “urgent” message from one of my current students with questions about an assignment that’s due tonight. I responded to her and then returned to culling articles.

About the time the lunch crowd began to arrive, I went to a nearby park to eat outside and enjoy a quick walk while listening to a chapter from an audiobook version of a text I’m teaching in the fall. Next I went to my campus office to finish my morning grading, sort through some student papers from last semester and meet with a graduate student who’s doing an independent study. About 4:00 I raced off to a dental appointment I’d nearly forgotten and then went home to mow the front yard — the back can wait — and put out the trash, recycling, and lawn waste…..

Are online teachers lazy sellouts?

More than a few people who hear I’m teaching online think I’m a lazy sellout. No one says so directly, of course. Instead, they emit the same squealing “ohhhhh” I heard so often when I first got a super short haircut, a vaguely sympathetic noise meant to buy them time to formulate a more or less polite reply:

-“Really? Good for you! I teach x, so, of course, I can’t teach online, but great! Really.” Translation: Online ed may be fine for some lesser subjects, but not for very deep and important ones.

-“Oh? Do you just love being able to work in your pajamas whenever you feel like it?” No translation necessary.

-“Good for you. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a Luddite….still clinging to the old chalk!” Translation: Traditional is better. It denotes taste and quality in educational methods as surely as in vinyl records or heavy stainless steel toasters.

-“Hmmm, Wow! Well, we certainly are getting a lot of pressure from the top to shift to online, aren’t we?” Translation: The only compelling reasons to teach online are the institutional sticks and carrots which you, apparently, were not strong or principled enough to resist.

Because I know that some online classes really are inferior, cheaply-made products that instructors get lured or duped into peddling, I don’t get too defensive when such left handed comments are directed at me.
Too often, online courses are hawked by institutions for the wrong reasons, offered by the wrong instructors, and foisted onto the wrong students. And while there are obviously quality control issues with face-to-face classes as well, online education is more susceptible. It is right and healthy, then, that professors remain guarded about the insidious intrusion and seductive opportunity of online ed.

But it is also almost certainly sensible and healthy for many institutions to responsibly develop online ed, with faculty leading the way, of course. Do we instructors who are critical of online education actually imagine a return to all face-to-face campuses? Of course, the online tail should not be wagging the academic dog. Online ed should be appreciated as a modality of education proper to be created primarily by, well, educators. But what if talented, experienced classroom instructors are unwilling to get first-hand online experience? How effectively can seasoned faculty guide our institutions if we are not, ourselves, hands on practitioners?

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When students began to routinely communicate with me by email, it seemed odd and even a little cheeky. I recall, too, being thrown off my game when they started to arrive in class with only electronic versions of the assigned readings. I didn’t adapt to these changes because I fell slowly in love with them, or even because I coolly learned to identify their advantages. I took to them the way I took to cilantro and new car styles. For better and worse, through some combination of repeated exposure and peer pressure, they gradually came to feel normal and necessary.

On a tv drama I watch set in the 1920s, a maid is horrified to learn that her new job requires her to use a telephone. The new technology intimidates her and, because she’s never really used it, it also strikes her as a silly luxury. So too with online ed, we are being pulled into a future that many of us did not ask for. And while it’s sensible for some instructors to avoid online classes altogether, and also critical that traditional education be properly nourished, none of us can avoid how online modalities are changing education as such. After all, even the lives of those who resisted the telephone to their dying day were ultimately transformed by the shiny new gadget, whether they liked it or not.

How the ukulele makes me a better teacher

I play the uke almost every day. I’ve been doing this for almost a year now, but probably not for the reasons people think. I do it because I’m not very good at, because, being not very good at it, I get to enjoy the process of becoming less bad at it. I do it because my typically habile fingers turn into sausages on the clear nylon strings and because this hamhandedness transforms me for a few minutes, into a student, a learner, an eager newbie. I do it as a lark — because my cheap plastic uke is sweet and silly and fun — and because being this bad at something others do with such astonishing ease helps make me a better teacher.

Like so many academics, I have spent time in Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset category, one of those learners who operates as if ability were a set part of identity — natural talent — rather than a new friend to be welcomed in and nurtured over time. For such people, Dweck explains, persistence can be especially challenging. We try something, suck at it, and because it doesn’t come easily, assume we lack the gene for it and move on. For us — and there are lots and lots of us in academe — there is little joy in casual amateurism. If your ego is badly bruised by the inevitable false step or off note of the novice, then why pursue new activities for fun? And remaining so safely competent, we can, of course, forget what it’s like to be unskilled, uncertain beginners.

My relationship with the uke symbolizes and exercises my desire to become comfortable with being inexpert. Of course, we’re all accustomed to leaving things in the hands of more and less capable others — the auto mechanic, the dental hygienist, the jumbo jet pilot — as a matter of survival. But the uke represents my chosen foray into playful amateurism, a place where I must rely on skilled teachers to inspire me and and show me the way. And, just as importantly, I recognize and name my own internal resistance, including my ego’s near constant craving for a quick hit of self-esteem, as I reach for my four-stringed friend. Each day the uke invites me to do something I am not good at, and know I may never be good at it, but to put in the effort nonetheless, simply because this is what I have chosen to do.

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And perhaps most importantly, I come to remember that becoming an expert is not, and cannot, precisely be the point, not of playing the uke, practicing photography, learning Spanish, or of life. There will always be others better at everything I do than I am, except, of course, as Mr. Rogers taught, of being ME. And it is a tonic reminder to face that, contrary to American fantasies of being NUMBER ONE, a WINNER, and a true CHAMP, the point is not for one to be the best at every activity one deigns to undertake. Nor should it be for our students.

Can I embrace mediocrity and failure without abandoning hard work and ambition to improve? I think I can and I have the uke to thank for the insight. In some sense I now engage in healthy magical thinking. I make the commitment to repetition that learning the uke requires. I pick it up each day as a matter of course, give it a quick tune and then ten or fifteen minutes of this or that lesson. I do not, for the most part, stop to ponder my level of improvement, or fantasize either about how I will or will never be a virtuoso. I just pick the damn thing up and bang away at it, trusting, in the background, that the spirit of repetition will carry me through. My real success, then, is in developing a kind of “grit,” much more than becoming a great musician. It is not, in fact, so different from how I go about cleaning my house, maintaining my bicycles, or writing this blog.

I do get better at it, of course, but my improvement is more a byproduct of the mundane habit than the goal. I am not, then, that person who aspires to be good at the uke but simply one with a daily habit that involves this little guy. And it impacts my teaching. These days I focus much more on encouraging my students to develop unsexy, repetitious practices than on fanning the flames of their incipient and erratic brilliance. Some would say that the point is to see life as a marathon and not a sprint, and that is part of it. But for me life has become not even a marathon but a kind of meandering walk in which it is the rhythm of both the steps and stops — and not whether one runs or crawls or even “finishes” — that count. If there is a finish line, then I do not think much about it. The joy these days is in the journey but in the “failed” parts of the journey just as much as the successful ones.

For the first few years I lived in this house, I watched a a rangy, craggy old gentleman inch his way around my block with a walker each day, sometimes followed by an equally arthritic and grizzled black Lab. Their regularity and tenacity were somehow spellbinding. I came to see, not a failing old man, curved and pathetic in his final years, but a living representation of how to persevere. All our talk of objectives, goals and outcomes is well and good — and for teachers there is tons of such rhetoric — but it would be an insult to describe the value of this man’s walk in such terms. He didn’t get better — he just stopped coming one day — but it is with both admiration and gratitude that I remember him now.

May the devil’s advocate go back to hell: The dangerous appeal of “both sidesyness” in the classroom

For about five minutes in high school, I was on the debate team, having been identified as verbal and assertive by a teacher who urged me to give it a try. I hated it. It wasn’t that I lacked aptitude. The teacher was right: my vocabulary and reasoning skills were decent, and I could stand in front of grown ups and say things without bursting into tears. But I loathed researching issues I hadn’t been drawn to, and could muster no enthusiasm for championing positions I didn’t actually believe in or care about.

It was a disconnect that left me stranded miles away from the smart debate kids whose passion for argument seemed genuine. For me, it felt like being on the school softball and basketball teams all over again. I wanted to win, sure, but unlike my teammates, I wasn’t rendered heartbroken by losses or elated by wins. While I enjoyed athletics for the sheer sake of moving my body and perfecting skill, though, I couldn’t relate to argument as if it were a satisfying sport. This wasn’t, I think, because I undervalued it but because I took moral and political persuasion so seriously. I dismissed the debate ethos as a schtick, as a self righteous preacher scorns ministers she thinks are in it for cynical reasons.

Enter the current crisis of objectivity, what Samantha Bee calls “both sidesyness.” This is the inclination to situate urgently important issues in pro-con terms and draw false equivalences between polarized views about them, regardless of how absurd or disingenuously offered. It’s a pseudo objective posture that grants time and space to positions and players that may have done nothing to earn that privilege. At the same time, it erodes the status of reasonable, well founded views. The best, most dramatic, example may be how climate change science has long been framed as locked in debate with climate change denial. It’s almost as if the most fanatical debate kids grew up and founded news outlets. As if the fate of the planet were not about the urgent truth of the matter, but about performing argument.

To be fair, I’ve probably suffered more than most from “bothsidesyness,” having endured the debate ethos in my philosophy classrooms — and frequently with other philosophers — for decades. This has nearly always been in the form of young white men, some of whom were so enamored of their own argumentative prowess that they threatened to deplete the room’s oxygen. When, instead of sparring, I asked these fellas if they actually believed what they were advocating, or even found it plausible, they tended to look surprised. Didn’t I know that that was beside the point? “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” they’d tell me, confident I’d never heard of such a thing. Mastering this skill, they painstakingly explained, was what it meant to be a good critical thinker.

Unfortunately, lots of instructors, too, seem to implicitly agree that the capacity to quickly produce well polished arguments and hurl them at one’s opponent is indeed what it means to exhibit higher order thinking skills. Too often, the ego-focused performance of playing the devil’s advocate in a pro-con arena supersedes thoughtful, holistically logical thinking. Students are rewarded for their cleverness, for a facile ability to backfill with rationalizations, rather than for thoughtfulness, empathy, or capacity for nuance. I know first-hand about such rewards because I relied on them during my razor’s edge walk through graduate school in an overwhelmingly male program. Cleverness, counterfactuals, and contrarianism became some of my very best friends.

To be clear, then, I’m aware that sophisticated rhetoric and reasoning skills are important and grant that debate-like expositions may be one effective means of developing them. I benefitted from such training and am among those who believe that the Sophists got a bad rap. And as an analytically trained philosopher, I didn’t just grudgingly learn to dissect arguments, I came to enjoy it. But the inveterate devil’s advocate — that guy (and, yeah, it’s still nearly always a guy) who argues for the sake of argument, has drifted so far from the relevant social and political context, so far from the argument’s existential moorings, that there is often a kind of cruelty to it. If you’re a woman who’s ever faced a devil’s advocate eager to argue with you about rape, you’ll probably know exactly what I mean.

Exacerbating the problem is that we instructors are often so grateful for students who show any inclination whatsoever to give reasons that we may be reluctant to discourage or assertively redirect the cheaply performative devil’s advocate. Sometimes we’re so desperate for students to talk — say anything at all, please! — that we actual welcome his clever repartee. And, besides, even if the performance doesn’t really deepen anyone’s understanding of the issue, it can provide an excuse for showing off our own logical acumen, right? And, as PhDs who have run the full gauntlet of higher education, who is better prepared than we are to defend the devil himself?

Talking about IT: privilege and politics in the classroom

Lots of college instructors feel the urgency and difficulty of talking to our students during especially troubling social and political times. On the one hand, we are taught that our classrooms, like good newspapers, are supposed to be fair, balanced and apolitical. It’s supposed to be our job to teach students how to think better without becoming overly normative about the particulars. But when we are faced with raging ignorance, gross injustice, and threats to our most basic values, the pressure and responsibility to speak in more clearly values-based terms grows.

The narrow space we occupy is revealed to be even tighter when we consider that our students, primed by gun fever and a white supremacist president, may use weapons or cars to mow us down in the parking lot if they don’t like us. And we must add to the mix that those same angry students may well have parents who have the ear of the provost, the president, or a university regent with the power to strip us of our very livelihoods. We want to do the right thing — to create a space for authentic discussion in the face of evil — and we also want to keep ourselves safe and secure.

Except that, as it happens, safety and security comes only through the embrace of and identification with privilege. For ostensibly white, middle-class, heteronormative instructors, the “politics” question arises in the midst of unavoidably huge, newsworthy events such as “race riots,” anti-immigrant policies, or heedless wars. But for everyone else — for example, the visibly black, brown, foreign, Jewish, Muslim or queer — “political considerations” shape nearly every gesture and choice. When Black Lives Matter was finally deemed worthy of mainstream media attention, many white professors began to wonder earnestly about how to discuss it with students. But, of course, black people had been dying all along at the hands of police officers. It took mainstream media interest to make it classroom worthy because that was when it began to matter to most of us who are white.

It is a tribute to the victims of highly publicized hate crimes that we are moved by their stories to address social issues in the classroom. It would only deepen the tragedy were business to proceed as usual in the wake of their murders. But such pedagogical tributes also threaten to devolve into a one-off performance of social penance by otherwise apolitical instructors. The suddenly concerned professor leverages this dramatically political news cycle to bravely initiate a discussion — understanding full well that silence equals complicity — and then breathes a sigh of relief when the news changes and it’s time to return to the “real” curriculum.

It is a reflection of a professor’s privilege when this turns out to be a temporary, almost seasonal pedagogical question. Our students and colleagues of color, or those who appear to be foreign or queer, never enjoy the escape into apolitical repose from which they can emerge at will. For them, existence itself, as a person, a citizen, and a professor, is always already highly charged. In the eyes of students, parents, and administrators they are, by and large, deemed guilty of political advocacy — and this is treated as a sort of failing to be indulged or monitored — simply because they exist.

Bravely socially conscious instructors have been here all along, maneuvering around perceptions and accusations that they lack objectivity or are mired in “identity politics” — as shameful as being called a feminist or a liberal — fighting for dignity and fairness. It’s just that they are generally too far behind the sexy headlines for the more privileged among us to notice or care. Anyone who wants to be a genuine ally in the struggle for social justice must risk “talking about it” well before and long after Dan Rather has decided it is time to care.

Three Resolutions for More Mindful Teaching

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Anyone who’s tried mindfulness strategies knows that, though though they are trendy, they aren’t very sexy or dramatic when actually practiced. Whatever benefits accrue are usually small and cumulative, revealing themselves like tree buds opening in an unusually cool spring. If life is a roller coaster ride, then mindfulness practices help us notice the feel of the cold steel safety bars across our laps, and the whiff of nervousness and cotton candy in the air. Through mindfulness practice we learn to pay non-judgmental attention to the buzz of expectation in the creaking, ratcheted climb, and to become as curious as we are terrified at the dropping sensation in our guts as the free fall begins.

When it comes to enhancing our lives, mindfulness turns out to be as useful as zippers, can openers, and sturdy boots. If we merely fetishize the idea of mindfulness, though — devouring articles about it and praising it from afar — it sits on the shelf like a curio. As a longtime student of mindfulness who is easily distracted by the abstract, I’ve resolved to more explicitly link basic mindfulness practices to my upcoming semester of teaching. More specifically, the three simple resolutions I describe below are meant to support my attention to some basic inputs and experiences — feelings, really — as they move through me, instead of fast forwarding to habitual conclusions and reactions. Introducing even this tiny gap of attention could lead to teaching that is a little wiser, more effective and creative. But, at the very least, I will be a a little more awake during the journey.

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Resolution #1 expresses my plan to pay better attention to how particular teaching activities impact my mood. Over the years, I’ve tended to accept that certain tasks are intrinsically grueling and must simply be powered through. Grading online discussions falls into this category for me. In fact, my dread of it leads me to try to push through it as quickly and numbly as I responsibly can. This coming semester, though, I plan to pay precise attention to the negative feelings as they arise before my reactivity and avoidance kick in. Is it a bodily tightness? A sense of being trapped? Boredom?

The investigation might not lead me to make any changes, of course. I might simply conclude that grading discussions is a misery to be endured and keep trying to ease the pain; I’m fine taking a little Novocain if that’s the best I can do. But if I can rouse my curiosity about my animus toward this loathsome task, there may be something to discover. It occurs to me, for example, that the poor quality of many of these discussions makes me feel like a failure, a sensation I would definitely prefer to ignore.

Resolution #2 is to notice my feeling responses to informal student feedback, for example, in critical or affirming emails to me or asides made to other students during group work. For most of us much of the time, the leap from a perceived criticism to the arising of defensiveness can seem automatic. For example, I’m sometimes moved to what feels like instant irritation and the need to self-justify when students complain about the reading assignments. Can my feelings point to my implicit, perhaps false, assumptions about what their complaints mean? Am I taking them personally? Why? My goal isn’t to pander to students’ superficial gripes but to be open to real information that can help me either adjust or feel more confident about staying the course. In any case, clues are wasted if I zip blithely past them, supplying my own habitual rationalization as soon as I feel threatened by criticism or puffed up by praise.

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Resolution #3 involves reflecting on my feelings about my teaching work as a whole, about how it fits into my overall ethos, values and life goals. Because I’m a professor of gender and women’s studies, my work is explicitly tied to social justice. But for me too the risk of nihilism and complacency is real, and at times I’ve been unable to see my work making a dent or, alternatively, been a little smug about its significance. My commitment this semester is to better notice the sensations of excitement or flatness that arise when questions of larger purpose arise. For example, in recent months, I felt nervously hopeful at the media emphasis on fake news. Taking my incipient excitement seriously led me to explicitly connect some upcoming course activities to the critical skills our country is clamoring for. The changes, while not dramatic, have been motivated by my awareness and acknowledgement of my own feelings. Whether or not such awareness typically leads to visible changes, being honest about feelings of guilt, pride, and purpose in our work can certainly lead to greater sense of intentionality about it.

When I take the sometimes invisible step of noticing, then meaningful improvement and appreciation become possible. For busy teachers, offering the same classes over and over again, the entire semester can become as routinized as a morning commute. We’re suddenly at the destination without knowing quite how we arrived. And, of course, this isn’t the worst of it. The current hunger for all things mindfulness attests to our fear of passing through the whole of our lives on autopilot. As tempting as sexy, dramatic quick fixes are at the new year, what I describe is both more banal and important, a practice of being genuinely present to ourselves. When all is said and done, I will have piled up a startling number of hours grading student work. If this is how I am to use my life, then, at the very least, I want to take responsibility for having done so, even if I ultimately choose to sleep through some of the most tedious parts.

The Sweet Ego Boost of Teaching

If you ask college professors what they love about their work, they’ll likely wax on about the vibrant intellectual discussion, the synergy of mind meeting mind, and the joy of seeing the lights go on in students’ eyes. What only a handful will cop to is that the performative aspect of owning the room, of being the focus of all of those captive, attentive eyes can be a powerful, addictive ego boost.

Having spent some decades as a quietly performative teacher with a presence that attracted and held student attention, I’m speaking first hand. Although I’m essentially an introvert and even a little shy, I quickly discovered the heady satisfaction of helping my students learn, sure, but also of getting to strut my (hard-earned) stuff.

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For all I know, some ego element might just be endemic to performative activities, whether in sports, theater, politics or teaching. It might even be that some capacity to feel this satisfaction is part of what makes some people great teachers. Perhaps they are who they are, in part, because they derive this ego satisfaction, which does not rule out, of course, the existence of more altruistic motives as well.

What seems clear enough to me, though, is that an online teacher will suffer in  proportion to her or his addiction to this classroom attention. If what you most dig about teaching is the adoration-fest — and it’s good to be ruthlessly honest about this — say, some version of the dead poets society, then you’re out of luck in the virtual world. Here there’s little reward for one’s charisma or spontaneous wit. And those looks we cultivate? The horn-rimmed glasses, elbow patches, or whatever visual markers we have used to cultivate authority and presence? Gone, gone, gone.

And so cutting loose from the physical classroom can be eye opening to the point of burning one’s retinas. If you fall into a full-bodied embrace of online teaching, at least for a little while, you will be dragged out of the cave and forced to notice the degree to which your love of teaching has been grounded in the attention of students who think you’re awesome. It’s an opportunity born of loss, then, as so many are, a stripping away of some of the most addictive, self-serving, trappings of the teaching endeavor.

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None of this is to say that there are not lots and lots of intrinsically good things about a spontaneous, dynamic physical classroom or that enjoying student attention is bad. When done well, in-person dialogue creates a magic that cannot be replicated in online discussions (which, as it turns out, are very hard to do well). But I think we are fools if we fail to explore what the minimalism of online teaching can reveal about how we have relied on teaching to satisfy cravings for acceptance and approval.

Of course, this post may really just be a description of my own experience. For me, the shift to online precipitated a gentle, not entirely unpleasant, upheaval in my own sense of identity and self-worth. In fat, this was how I learned that my sense of self had been, without my really knowing it, anchored partly in the mild student adulation I had enjoyed. How liberating to discover that the power and alchemy of teaching is so much more deeply rooted than the shallow pond of my own ego!