Is online teaching a path to enlightenment?

My greatest challenge with online teaching has had little do with the obvious difficulty of adapting to the technology. Sure, the first couple of times I bushwhacked my way through, wrestling with features like the maddening grade book set up, drop box restrictions, and feedback release conditions. There are, to be sure, a million and one logistical curve balls to be negotiated, complicated workflows that must be etched into one’s brain because they will never make intuitive sense. But, by far, online teaching’s greatest challenge and opportunity for me has been as a venue for self-scrutiny and reinvention. Perhaps this is just a long way of reiterating that I’m fascinated enough by the link between mindfulness and online teaching to write a blog about it.

So, while my posts are rooted in my practical experience as an online instructor, they are not primarily about online teaching as such. As I explained to a reader recently: “My interests come down mainly to three things: self-reflection, intentionality, and conscious transformation.” Far from being a grueling slog, then, I find online teaching to be tinged with pleasurably narcissistic introspection, like the indulgence of taking a personality quiz in Psych 101. And I’ve learned I must cultivate this kind of curiosity about teaching work if I am to continue to be good at it year after year. Studying my experience of teaching through the lens — microscope, telescope, and kaleidoscope — of mindful self reflection keeps it alive, authentic and interesting to me. This apparently practical business of teaching online, then, is, is, for me, a wormhole into a realm that is satisfyingly and sometimes unnervingly psychological and spiritual.

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I’m Buddhist (and existentialist) enough to see that the bare facts of impermanence and death both sculpt and contort our lives. I accept that, in large measure, we carefully construct our ultimately rickety professional and personal identities to serve as bulwarks against angst and despair. No wonder, then, that the seismic changes in higher education have often felt like assaults against the professor’s very sense of self. Whatever the societal devastation being wreaked by the ongoing devaluation of higher education — and it is catastrophic — it has also deeply rattled those of us who have formed our identities within its walls. It took me ages to develop the expertise and poise of a compelling, effective classroom professor. What an insult to have this stripped from me in the name of progress! Teaching online, then, isn’t just a tech heavy, but otherwise benign, modality shift. For many of us — teachers and students — it can radically displace our basic sense of competence, worth, and purpose.

It’s an open secret, of course, that losing the plush or dreary comfort of one’s identity can become a doorway to richly transformative, previously unimaginable futures. I write these posts, then, not primarily as an online teacher offering practical pedagogical advice, but as a professor leveraging the changes in my profession to nurture personal growth. Online teaching is, after all, merely one potential vehicle to where most of us really want to go, a place of service, sure, but one that also satisfies a deeper hunger. If there are a thousand ways to kiss the earth, then here in this futuristic, sometimes dystopic, present, teaching online is surely one of them. If we overlook this invitation, though, then we are like the guests at a great banquet who, having eaten their fill of appetizers in the foyer, never make it to the feast at all.

Enduring the assault of shallow student discussions

At some point in the endless process of revising my online discussion guidelines, I’ve had to concede that I am particularly fetishy about this activity. I once thought that my reverence/obsessiveness was merely pedagogical, but it turns out that I’m a little weird all around when it comes to discussion. This quality might be endearingly quirky if it didn’t frequently make both me and some of my general education students miserable.

I typically blame my nuttiness about discussion on my PhD in philosophy, since the sprawling edifice of Western philosophy is largely built upon dialogue. And it’s true enough. Thanks to Socrates, passionate human exchange has long animated philosophy, transforming a mere collection of dusty notions into a pulsing organism. For philosophers, then, discussion is not a merely casual vehicle for bandying about thoughts or sharing feelings, but a fulcrum for authentic intellectual growth and movement. It is regarded as the very basis of the meaningful, examined life.

And, for better and worse, it is this ethos that has informed how I facilitate and assess student discussions. It has always felt urgent to me that they approximate a dialogue that at least dimly reflects the dignity of passionate, rational human creatures engaged in genuine meaning-making. In other words, the stakes of some of my discussions tend to be a little high. And while some undergrad students thrive in this milieu — seasoned online students routinely single out my discussion forums for praise — others peel away, intimidated or, perhaps, simply flummoxed. And, increasingly, I acknowledge that it isn’t just that they don’t feel confident enough in their content knowledge, but that they don’t feel capable or willing to have a focused, attentive, genuinely dialectic interchange as such.

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Because I’ve had the good fortune of working with a talented online course designer and some helpful departmental colleagues — thanks especially to Amber and Katrina — I’ve had company in my wrestling match with the discussion component. Although I’ve felt impatient with students at times, I’ve also remained curious about my own frustration. This has motivated me to experiment with discussion strategies that might better reflect the fact that some students have no aptitude for, experience with, or interest in what I think of and treasure as genuine discussion. Typically, I still explicitly teach basic discussion skills and values, but in some units of my general education classes, I abandon the discussion ship altogether and offer a less fraught, more affable exercise.

This may sound like nothing more than a condescending, cranky reflex on my part, as if I’m merely gathering up my precious pearls from the muddy pig sty and going home. And, yes, I have, in some circumstances, sort of given up. But I see this partly as a reasonable compromise born of my own self-reflective maturity: I’ve finally begun to truly accept that my mania to intellectually connect deeply and reciprocally with others reflects a particular aptitude that most people, including most general education students, don’t have. While I can model this way of engaging and offer the opportunity to dabble — some will fall in love with it! — it is foolish to expect that most will come around to it with any real enthusiasm or commitment.

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When I need to reinforce this lesson in humility, I eavesdrop: at coffee shops, in classroom hallways, waiting rooms, parties, anyplace really. Then I am reminded that people generally thrive on lighthearted ping pong exchanges, with no apparent craving for line drives to deep center field. Fortunately, I am socially evolved enough to appreciate that discussion, even pedagogically significant discussion, serves lots of meaningful functions and need not always revolve around DEEP QUESTIONS. I am, then, learning to let go of my very focused notion of discussion and create a greater variety of intellectually stimulating discussion-like experiences with which more undergraduate students can gain traction. And, happily, I can now do this with less self-flagellation and resentment toward them.

I remember the first time someone told me that my sense of humor was “very particular.” Until then it had not really occurred to me that there was anything remarkable about my expressive or cognitive style. The comment jarred me into recognizing my own basic oddness — there is a reason I was attracted to philosophy in the first place! So, though I still aim to encourage and train students in/through discussion, I do well to remember that my own penchant for it runs inexplicably deep. In fact, I was attracted to philosophy and higher education largely because I was already so hungry for deep discussion. In this academic world, with its broad smattering of students, faculty and staff — a motley mish-mash of motives, resources and inclinations — it is the fire-eyed gadflies who are the outliers. If we wish to teach well, then this is the distance we must reach across, and we must do so with grace, respect, and reasonably good humor.

When students wreck my fantasy of how awesome I am

A wise teacher once told me that when we get frustrated or irritated with others it is often because “they have failed to fulfill the function we have assigned to them.” In these waning weeks of the semester, as pressure escalates and tensions rise, I have ample occasion to ponder my own irritation. As the meager weeks tick by, and possibility once again morphs into constriction, it is almost irresistible to blame others and myself for whatever failures have begun to take shape.

Enter an email to me from a struggling student the other day expressing an anger so barely contained, it landed just on this side of civilly. So viscously did it boil with muted rage that I began searching for the previous, more measured, expressions of frustration (or cries for help) that, surely, must have preceded it. But no. Though her message suggested she had been vainly beating her head against my door for weeks, this was her first missive. She had not, in fact, responded even perfunctorily to the multiple concerned emails I’d sent her in the first weeks of the term. Frankly, I found her irritation, both the scale and timing of it, irritating.

In the service of my campaign to avoid empty loops of guilt, defensiveness and resentment, I seek value in moments like this. Can I move past mere venting to something constructive? My approach is both to try to be curious about what is happening and to avoid taking it too personally. It’s a deceptively simple strategy because it first requires that I find breathing room between myself and whatever sparks of emotion are pouring from my ears. If I can’t find at least a little distance between others’ insults and who I think myself to be, then all is lost.

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When I am able to step back, the student’s irritation is easy enough to conjure up and understand. From day one she has found my class to demand more consistent attention than her other online classes, and for weeks now she has been getting grades she does not like. Though its difficulty is carefully calibrated with terms laid out explicitly in the syllabus, she expected my class to be more casual, self-paced and rote than it is. She expected to succeed doing what she’d previously done in similar classes. My class was supposed to further bolster her self-image as a good student for whom learning comes easily. Her irate message to me was actually the latest installment in an internal conversation of deepening frustration she’s been having with me for weeks. What names has she been calling me in her head? I don’t want to know.

But, of course, I imagine that I do know, and it stokes my own internal rant about these struggling students who seem to blame me as they ignore almost every bit of advice or instruction. They add insult to injury, or so I persuade myself, by waiting until the last weeks of the semester to reach out to me. My indignation reveals my own implicit expectations: My students should be polite and appreciative of the opportunity to learn with me, responsible enough to read and follow basic instructions, and willing to take some responsibility for failure. They should make me feel better, not worse, about myself as a teacher. Though most students most semesters meet these expectations, each and every semester — for 30 years now, mind you! — some students never have. Why, then, do I persist in holding them?

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To clarify, there are two senses of “expectation” at play here, one of which expresses something like gentle hope or preference. It’s what I mean, for example, when I say I expect students to address me by something resembling my actual title. But a more pernicious, rigid sort of expectation rises up when we actually come to rely on an unfolding reality to match our already established mental picture of it. Consider the naive picture many of us form at the beginning of the semester: Students will arrive on time and we will complete our grading with clockwork regularity, the scent of newly sharpened pencils filling the air. Often, hapless students and professors do not merely feel disappointed, but duped and disillusioned by a present reality that does not match the previously painted picture of it.

Of course, such fantasy-based expectation all but guarantees that we will assign roles to others that they will inevitably fail to fulfill. Our disappointment, then, will be palpable and deep, for we will not merely have unpleasant situations to deal with but must repeatedly countenance these willful others who wreck our dream of who we are and what our professional lives are supposed to mean. In failing to fulfill the roles I have assigned to them — some of which they did not actually agree to and may not even know they have — students really wreck things for me as I do for them. Small wonder we get angry and irritated with one another out of all proportion to what’s actually happening here and now.

Harnessing the power of peer pressure

Many of us internalized the message about the danger of peer pressure early on. When we asked to get a particular brand of shoes or to go to a party because “everyone else” was, our parents snarked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” The honest answer was probably yes, but the right answer, we knew, was “of course not.” Peer pressure, we learned, was this dark force that, like an evil hypnotist, could lead us to follow silly, self destructive trends, to do what our real selves would not do.

It has taken me many years, then, to recognize peer pressure as a potentially legitimate and useful aspect of classroom life. In fact, the loss of some simple forms of social pressure, including something like peer pressure, resulting from my shift to the online classroom has helped me appreciate its power and utility more profoundly.

First, a few mundane personal experiences that led to some elementary insights:

  • deciding I would shift to a solo yoga practice at home and being astonished at how rarely, and how lazily, I did yoga after that
  • living off the beaten path for a short time and being chagrined to discover how much longer it took me to retrieve my lonely trash and recycle bins from the isolated curb
  • noticing how much worse I would dress on days that online work freed me from having to go to campus or out in the world at all

I used to think of peer pressure — if I did at all — along the lines of the after school tv special. Remember the older kid in the leather jacket urging the middle-schooler to “try it, just one puff”? But it’s easy to find examples of productive social pressure where the threat or promise of others’ eyes pushes us to do better. And so I find myself trying to recreate some basic social accountability structures, especially as many of my students’ appear to ever less motivated by the lure of a good grade.

Studies show that it doesn’t take much social pressure to nudge our behavior. Apparently, even the simple printed and posted image of a pair of eyes results in more people paying for coffee offered to them on the honor system. Surely, then, I can better work positive peer pressure into my online classes?

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Some really simple strategies I already use:

  • requiring students to post some completed assignments to a special discussion board with their name included where others students will briefly comment on them
  • explicitly sharing and emphasizing an anonymous grade distribution after key assignments so that students are more likely to see where their falls
  • having a friendly, low stakes, early assignment that encourages students to include a still image or video of themselves
  • asking students to reflect explicitly on how they think social pressure influences their online performance as compared to their face-to-face classes

None of these rudimentary practices would be worth mentioning if not for the longstanding vilification of peer pressure. And it’s a negative reputation that has been earned, to some extent, given the damage that peer pressure can do, especially to already vulnerable students. But I think it is the potentially shaming aspect of peer pressure that is most noxious. And given that some basic forms of peer pressure are unavoidable, perhaps it is worthwhile to focus on nourishing a healthier version of such pressure while deemphasizing its more damaging aspects? After all, isn’t harnessing the noble power of social pressure part of the point of facilitating group experiences in the first place?

Of course, not all students will perform better against a backdrop of healthy, intentionally structured social pressure. But at least this is a tool that is consistent with the nearly unavoidable human propensity to run just a little farther and faster when we think someone is watching. We can wish it were otherwise, touting our allegiance to a lone wolf ethos that cares nothing for the opinions of others. But the more beautiful, complicated truth is probably that we are social creatures who, for better and worse, can be impelled by the gaze of others into acts of astonishing altruism, brilliance and cruelty.

The loneliness of the online teacher

One of the most appealing aspects of the discussions and workshops I’ve facilitated with other online teachers is the sheer power of that face-to-face time. For example, a recent discussion I led called, “Online education, on purpose,” was gratifying as a way to share some tricks and strategies, but even more so for the chance to actually lock eyes with others who spend so much time bobbing around in single-person boats like mine. I like the self-reliance and serenity of online teaching — and know many of my online colleagues do too — but as human animals, we are also nourished by our physical, creaturely time together.

Predictably, one of the great selling points of online teaching — independence and solitude — is also one of its greatest traps. It isn’t just that we may not actually see much of our departmental colleagues, but that even when we do, they are likely not as invested in the online world as we are. In many of our disciplines, teaching online is pretty much a niche affair. This is not, then, just a question of physical isolation for many of us, but of a psychological isolation resulting from this modality still being regarded as specialized. Of course, lots of faculty members already experience some isolation as a department’s sole expert in a content area, but in such cases, face-to-face teaching itself often serves as a source of bonding with otherwise dissimilar colleagues.

In a previous post I noted that some solely brick and mortar professors think I’m a lazy sellout because of my foray into online ed. Meeting up in person with other online teachers, then, is a bit like an AA meeting or a coming out circle. When we connect, it is not just a social nicety but an implicit acknowledgement of one another’s existence and worth. We can freely express our fascination with and commitment to online teaching as Trekkies at their convention can celebrate a passion for the Clingon language. Similarly, we can be honest about our doubts and misgivings — even the deep ones — without fear that this will be used to discredit our future online teaching work or against online ed altogether.

That my analogy combines elements of a coming out circle, a support group, and a fan community is apropos. Too often when online teachers’ need for community is acknowledged, it is oversimplified, with a narrow focus on the straightforward loneliness of laboring by oneself. But it isn’t just any sort of company that will nourish us and ease the ache. Many online professors are pioneers in an endeavor with a still shaky reputation, hovering like tin-foil satellites at the far periphery of their ivy and brick universities. The community we need, then, will provide solace and support, but also help us challenge the very identities we are in the process of establishing.

To the student who broke my heart

Dear Lenore,

When you pleaded to enroll in my already-full online general education course last year, I welcomed you and walked you through the late registration process. When I noticed a few days later that you still hadn’t done the required preliminary assignments — a syllabus quiz and a personal goals inventory — I sent you a concerned note, reiterating key policy about due dates and grades. Your reply came yet a few more days later, explaining how overwhelmed you were by work and school, but assuring me in the strongest terms that you had found a way forward.

It never happened. For the next month or so you occasionally posted to the discussion board or hurriedly completed a quiz. Your work was so sporadic and haphazard that you barely earned any points. When I reached out to you again, pointing out your poor record and encouraging you to talk to an undergrad advisor to determine a realistic path to graduation, you assured me you would. You said you would do everything possible to earn a passing grade in my class despite your admittedly ragged start. But you didn’t. You made a few more fly-by contributions and sent another pleading note just before the final project was due — there’s nothing I can do at this point, I replied — but still nothing changed. I was haunted by your name on my roster, like the odor from last night’s fish dinner, but you were gone.

I don’t write this letter to make you feel bad, Lenore. As I told you more than once, I know what it’s like to both work and be a full time student. And I meant it when I said there’s no shame in failure, and that the critical point is for you to meet your own goals and not my expectations. In most ways, you are not even that unusual. Every semester a couple of students almost immediately begin to fade away. It’s not even the apparent earnestness of each of your epiphanies, the passion of each new promise, that keeps you foremost in my mind. I’ve known plenty of other silver-tongued, well-intentioned students who failed almost before they began.

What makes you special, Lenore, is that you returned to my same class the very next semester and gave a repeat performance. The very same one. The late enrollment, the late work, the heartfelt apologies and promises. In each message, you were newly reformed. “This time will be different!” you actually said more than once. And I replied with the same urgent missives, expressing concern and restating policy — some emails actually recycled from the previous term — wincing when I saw all your growing line of zeros in my grade book.

Understand, it’s not that I’m angry with you. I was, certainly, irritated at times, but also amused as one gets in the punch drunk hours of a very long flight. It’s not merely that I was disappointed in you either, though, of course, I was. Rather, you proved your power to buy your way into a pedagogical relationship with me — the university will apparently continue take your money — despite your repeatedly erratic, self-destructive performances. I may be the professor, but you remind me of how little control I really have. You may lie to me, string me along, and for some stretch that will always feel too long, I’ll come along for the ride. I’ll do it partly because it’s my job, but also because I still long to believe your pretty promises and to be part of the catalyst that leads you to change your ways.

Instead of saying goodbye, then, Lenore, which is what I’d planned when I began this letter, I’ll stop pretending. I’ll close my letter honestly, in a way that most likely reflects the reality that actually informs both our lives: See you next semester.

Sincerely,

Your professor

I’m not a cheerleader, but I play one in the classroom

A fully credentialed, experienced university professor, I shouldn’t have to play the role of cheerleader in my online classrooms. After all, I respect that my students are adults who freely choose my classes knowing that they are responsible for whether or not they ultimately succeed. It shouldn’t be my job to stand on the sidelines urging them into the game and then on again to victory when their energy ebbs. But the simple fact is that if I don’t encourage and nudge, an unacceptable number will, in the proper lingo, “fail to persist.”

The ease and invisibility with which online students can casually peel off and blow away is one of the greatest challenges of online classes, at least with undergraduate general education courses. So while I never explicitly signed up for the pom pom and ponytail route, because I want more students to succeed, I gamely make the effort anyway, by:

  • beginning the semester with a warm up assignment that pushes them to connect to their deepest motives for taking my course
  • proactively reaching out very early in the term to fading students to voice my concern and confidence in their ability to succeed
  • including encouragement even in incidental email messages to individual students, e.g., “looking forward to seeing more of your good work!”
  • sending group messages and virtual “badges” congratulating those who’ve remained plugged in. I also share some of my own struggles and strategies with finding life/work balance and invite them to share their own in group discussion
  • signing off with simple, positive messages even in casual news items, e.g., “What a pleasure to work with such smart, capable students!”

It isn’t just cheap flattery. Only rarely do I genuinely doubt a student’s basic capacity to do this mid-level undergraduate work. Rather, like a coach, I’m urging them to access their own wellspring of passion and initiative, to push through the sheer tedium, boredom, isolation and distraction that can make online classes especially rough going for so many.

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Yes, I sometimes feel a little silly and resentful during my most rah-rah moments. This really isn’t what I had in mind all those years ago as I wrestled with my comps and navigated my dissertation defense. But as a university professor in the here and now of 2017, it feels increasingly urgent to me that my students recognize and access their own basic wherewithal. And they certainly can’t fulfill their intellectual promise if they don’t learn to show up in the service of their own goals and commitments. I will be a cheerleader, then, not because I think that’s my job — it is not — but because it’s the only way I know to get the job done.