This past Friday I turned in my grades for my first online course–a survey of Western Classics. Nine students read The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Othello, Candide, poems by Wordsworth, Keats, and Dickinson, and Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. They watched online content, participated in forum discussions, and wrote a LOT! I will see some of these students on campus in the next week, and I’m eager to talk with them about their experience.
From my perspective, it was a success. It seemed to me that students connected with the objectives of the course, and they reported in their online reflections and essays that several of the readings meshed with their personal circumstances in some ways that surprised them.
Teaching online made me reflect on what I love about teaching, what I assume about the students I teach, and what I assume about my role as a teacher. Because there is a necessary distance between instructor and student in an online environment (even with all the ways we can “connect” these days electronically), I had to devote more time and intention in the materials I prepared for them. I also had to watch them read from a distance, which meant I could “coach” their reading but not control it.
The humility in this restraint brought with it the realization that I’m not really controlling students’ reading even when I’m teaching face to face–though I try by moderating in-class comments on assignments. More important, there’s value in letting students struggle a bit in working out their interpretations of texts, even if I think they’re getting something wrong. More than once I witnessed a student growing in his or her understanding of a work as they moved through it, revising their assessment of a character or reassessing a situation or theme after gaining a fuller understanding of the culture in which the situation was playing itself out.
Having said all that, I am still looking forward to seeing students in the flesh next week–I’ve missed the face-to-face contact. That, too, has been a spur for me to think of ways I’ll adjust the online course to foster a greater sense of community the next time I teach it. Maybe it’s a bit like being asked to explain something you know well but to do it in a different language. Suddenly, you’re aware of just how idiomatic your accustomed language is and how you have to work harder to re-contextualize meaning and truth. I’m eager to see how this experience informs my on-campus teaching this year.