Ghosts, burning houses, and the challenge of exhausted students

As we enter the desperate final weeks of the fall semester, I find myself acting like Patrick Swayze in Ghost as he negotiates the liminal space between earthly and ethereal existence. You may recall his frustration as he tries to force awareness of his presence on the oblivious humans around him, racing against the clock to save the woman he loves. As an online teacher, I too am basically chucking pennies, stage whispering, and madly waving my virtual arms to keep my students from fading away.

As many of us know, the true challenge of teaching, especially online, is helping students stay more or less connected for the entire fifteen weeks. Attention-span issues arise not just in the context of each reading but also from the sheer drudgery of week-in/week-out tasks. And so we clap our hands in front of their faces. We cajole. We praise. We warn. We entertain and amuse, just about anything to urge them to find just a little more oomph. These are mostly cheap teacher tricks, of course, and I’m not proud of them. At the beginning of the term, I promise myself only to appeal to the nobler side of students’ natures. “I try to help them connect to their own deepest motives for wanting to succeed,” I wrote in an earlier VP essay. And, sure, I do, and, sure, it works. Sort of. For a while.

01853D0D-B5B5-48E7-9D47-5D4202D942B7

But that’s before the victuals start running low, before the snows come and they find themselves floundering just above tree line, no longer sure of the trail or their own feet. Exhausted, they long to burrow into the frigid earth and rest, just for a moment, only for a little while. But because I am the guide who knows that stopping now means certain death, I reach for the Buddha’s parable about “skillful means.” With children happily playing in a burning house, too distracted to notice or care as the flames leap from room to room, it is our obligation, he says, to do what works to lure them out. I can indulge in principled musing about how I must “respect that my students are adults,” that they “are fully capable of seeing and living with the consequences of their actions,” or I can focus on urging them to safety.

I am, then, never more pragmatist as a teacher than in the midst of this perennial, predictable crisis of persistence. And so, though I generally dislike the more manipulative aspects of pedagogical performativity — last ditch antics to grab students’ attention — I write my students these alternately cajoling, cautionary, and praise-filled notes. I ply them with tales of my own struggles with motivation and circumstance, and assure them with a confidence I do not always feel. I have been to the promised land, I preach, and, yes, safe arrival is assured if only they will push ahead just a few more miles.

This semester, I’m shamelessly trotting out a few new/old tricks, one that was suggested by a wise advisor colleague. “Tell them how much they’re paying for these credits,” he suggested. “Sometimes it works.” And so I (almost) shamelessly craft a message to my students that appeals to their pocketbooks, leveraging the very consumerist orientation to education that is so undermining to contemporary higher ed. “You’re handing over a hearty chunk-o-change for these credits,” I will write, “Is this money you’re prepared to squander?” And though I feel a little cheap as I wave my arms to grab their attention, at least I am in good company. There is the Buddha, after all, and, of course, the earnestly undead Patrick Swayze.

The online teacher as Wizard of Oz: embodiment and social justice

Women have fought hard to get their corporeal lives recognized in the workplace. Whether it’s been about maternity leave, decent bathrooms, or breastfeeding rooms, progress has been frustratingly slow and limited. It’s a sad irony, then, that so many feminists now find ourselves working in the virtual realm. Where do questions about women’s embodied realities go when workers may only rarely visit the institutions that employ them? And what about the other implications of disembodied teaching? Are online teachers exempt from the usual varieties of bias — e.g., racism and sexism — given that students and colleagues may never even see them? Is there a place in online ed for instructors who care about their corporeal identities and responsibilities?

Sure, there all sorts of little ways to inject a semblance of physical presence into online classes, for example, video material and still images of instructors and students. And we can assign work that requires real life engagement so that students must brush up against other bodies and objects at museums, lectures, or one-on-one interviews. Such fixes may soften the edge of unreality that online classes can have. But disembodiment in online ed is, nonetheless, a real and incalculable loss for individuals and institutions, as it is with online shopping and dating. It’s part of the very steep price we pay for this convenient modality.

Isn’t it a shame, for example, that workplaces may be feeling less pressure to increase equity in physical surroundings when there is still so much work to be done? When I helped create a gender neutral bathroom in a science building, I got a clear view of the barriers to basic access that still exist. With students and teachers increasingly shifting to online, will institutions feel such pressure ease? If I didn’t spend lots of time at my university, how quickly would I forget the disparity in facilities across disciplines and colleges — luxury on one side and crumbling stairways on the other? Is the much vaunted universal access provided by online ed to be coupled with less attention to access and equity on our physical campuses?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And what about the impact our mundane physical presence has on one another? As the only woman professor in my department in the mid 90s, I viscerally understood that the sheer fact of my being there affected students, colleagues and the institution’s ethical self-perception. Of course this proximity wasn’t an unmitigated love fest — there were predictable slights and struggles that left scars — but what if I’d been teaching invisibly?

Of course, in the online realm some symptoms of racism, sexism, xenophobia can be mitigated. Without casual hallway conversations, one is less likely to be looked up and down by a student and told “you’re smarter than you look,” or to be asked for a date by a senior colleague who will oversee one’s tenure case. On the other hand, when one appears only in the virtual world, casual prejudice need not be reckoned with either, not by our colleagues, our institutions or ourselves.

But how disembodied are we really, even in the virtual classroom? Do students do much reading between the lines based on our pictures, language use, and even the disciplines we represent? What assumptions do they make about their teachers’ race, sex, age, nationality, etc., when such characteristics are not obvious? How do students interpret teachers’ embodiment clues in the online environment? How do they fill in the yawning embodiment gaps left by our constructed online presence?

img_0747

I’ve considered adding more still images of and details about myself to provide a greater sense of physical presence, but I’ve got mixed feelings. Students would, I guess, develop a clearer picture of me as (probably) a white, cisgender, middle-aged, able-bodied female. But while this might deepen the connection some students feel to me, it is complicated. Wouldn’t I, for example, be capitalizing on an implicit bond with white students? I don’t want to unwittingly reproduce white privilege, but I don’t want to misrepresent myself either, or leave my students utterly at sea about who I am.

The insidiousness of this is brought home to me when I pay attention to the assumptions I make about others’ embodied existence. I’ve been surprised more than once, for example, — and startled by the fact of my surprise — when a student’s apparently white face did not match what I had interpreted to be a black-sounding name. And I was recently jarred to see a Japanese-American face on a podcaster I’ve listened to for years. Only the mismatch I felt at seeing his face forced me to acknowledge my initial expectation that he was a white Californian.

In short, this erosion of embodied presence has consequences for social justice, as well as for individual experiences of difference, prejudice and privilege. This loss is a really big deal that mustn’t be prettied up and glossed over. But nor should we imagine the online environment as totally beyond the usual influences of embodiment. Even if a teacher were to aim for a purely disembodied persona — and what a bad idea! — would students just fill in the blanks with stereotypes? Could it be that, paradoxically, we bloodless online teachers are at an even greater risk of tolerating or reinforcing such pernicious biases?