Speaking the Language of Emoticon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Plunging into Online Teaching

The first time I taught online was about a decade ago when I got pulled in like a tug of war contestant into a mud pit. A mid-career philosophy professor, I was a good teacher, a popular teacher, content with my pedagogical approach and buoyed by the energy of the face-to-face classroom.

I approached the challenge of online teaching like a translation problem: how to interpret my existing course into a virtual one. Back then there weren’t many online education resources to save me from this error, but even if there had been, I doubt I would have paid much attention. My real weakness was that I didn’t fully get that my classroom teaching represented a particular modality, one with its own accidental logic and underlying values. I couldn’t fundamentally rethink my strategy — lecture, discuss, exam, repeat — because it all seemed too basic and fundamental to deeply question. It’s no surprise, then, that this first foray into the virtual classroom was less than successful. I left with my ego bruised, feeling bad for my students, and resentful that I’d been nudged into participating.

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Fast forward and I am now deeply immersed in online teaching. Instead of fighting the waves, and tightening my grip on long-standing pedagogical habits and commitments, I am beginning to relax into the unfamiliarity of it. I can accept, at least sometimes, that this is not merely a shadow version of being a “real professor,” but, rather, a fundamentally different enterprise. I had been like the traveler unable to appreciate new vistas until she recognizes the biases she carries with her. I couldn’t see what online teaching had to offer until I could view my traditional teaching values and practices from a distance. At some point, I began to recognize my habitual way of teaching as involving particular, and changeable, assumptions, values and strategies. I still hold onto some of my traditional ways, and there are others whose loss I will probably always mourn. But for all of that, I am moving forward.

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I won’t sugarcoat this. My experiences with online teaching and my feelings about it are complicated. But the project of engaging with it is one that has transformed not just my teaching, but also my relationship to change itself. In ways I painstakingly explore in this blog, I am not only a better online teacher than I used to be, but I think I’m a better teacher period. Certainly, I am less ego-focused, less change-averse, and less nostalgic than I used to be. While I’m not an uncritical cheerleader for online education — I still rail against its worst tendencies — I have warmed to it enough so that it is working for me and my students. And even if I never taught another online class, I would still be enriched from having looked back on my pedagogical values and commitments from the shore of this new virtual land.

Old Dog, New Schtick, or “Why I Play the Ukulele”

Lots of us who’ve become online teachers did it mid-career or later. We started out as brick and mortar folks and developed teaching personas shaped by our own traditionally charismatic professors. The first time I taught online — a decade ago — it was only because I’d taken a new job late in the year and didn’t want to leave my previous department stranded. I’d never been a student in an online class and, to be honest, never really thought deeply about what it might mean to teach one. Like lots of liberal arts profs, I had a visceral, general critique of online teaching, repelled by its reputation for being impersonal, superficial and just generally inferior.

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When I jumped back into online teaching just a few years ago, it was my choice. I was, of course, aware of the impending wave propelling education into the virtual realm. But I faced no immediate pressure and so had the luxury of making a choice that was connected to my own self-development: I wanted to reinvent myself. Although I’d been a passionate and successful teacher for many years, the sheer repetitiveness, combined with jarring changes in higher education nationally, had conspired to wear down my love for teaching. In fact, I made a foray into administration partly because of my strained relationship to teaching; I was starving to make use of my expertise in a way that felt energizing.

It wasn’t that I thought teaching online would rescue me from burnout in any straightforward way, but, rather, I hoped that the sheer disorientation of it might force me to examine myself, to take my professional identity apart, and then reassemble it. It was precisely because I did not feel myself to be a natural at the online game — in fact, I felt like I’d already failed at it — that I knew it could shake me up. Different enough from classroom teaching, but also building upon strengths I’d developed over decades, moving online was a chance to renew my enthusiasm for work I still fundamentally believed in.

Because I had the privilege of being able to choose the online path, I avoided the resentments and reluctance that plague so many who feel forced to make the shift. I was like a traveler who is free to choose her destination, and then does so not for the location’s promised luxury but its potential to disrupt. My guaranteed discomfort of various sorts, with the technology, the social and ethical backdrop, all but ensured that online teaching would, if nothing else, help wake me up.

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I know that the shift to online teaching will not serve this function for all mid-career folks. The timing or temperaments will be wrong. But it is at least possible that this virtual demon nipping at our tweed covered elbows might become a path to self-reinvention. We might become, like our students, excited about this species of teaching partly because it is unfamiliar and because we’re not yet very good at it. If this makes even a little sense to you, then you’ll also understand why I’ve recently  taken up the ukulele.