May 16th, 2007


Distance Learning

All my grades are due today, which means it’s time for… a little procrastination. Right? I mean, at least I’m straight-up about it.


I love writing. I love teaching. I love talking to students about the craft of writing and seeing little lights go on and reading what they’ve written. But the long slog through end-of-the-semester piles with the sole intent of qualifying the work with a letter grade? I do not love.


Thus, the procrastination. But really, this is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now because I’ve been teaching in the emerging, evolving field of Distance Learning, about which there’s a lot to say.


First off, let me just say that I don’t find teaching online nearly so engaging as teaching in a classroom, but I realize we are reaching students we wouldn’t be otherwise and I’m glad about that. I think we do a pretty swell job of getting important content and concepts to students via email and interactive web sites and such.


And for me, teaching in both venues keeps me on my toes. Or rather, keeps my fingers nimble and my jaw joints loose.


But here’s the thing, I’ve noted a remarkable lack of inhibition and informality in the online environment. Scary remarkable.


“Well, duh,” you say. “Your students spend a good portion of their waking hours on MySpace and FaceBook and in between, they’re texting.”


I know, I know. The walls have come down. But if they’re not learning, at all, how to discern between various forums and audiences, hasn’t somebody dropped the ball?


I mean, think about when we were kids. We knew that you wore one set of clothes to school, another to muck around in the mud, and a third to get on the airplane to visit grandma. I’m the first to admit that dressing up for the airplane was a rotten idea that I’m happy to see has evolved (or devolved, as the case may be), but the point is that we understood pretty early on that context determines behavior.


Now don’t call the shrink on me. We still get to be ourselves – I’m not talking about true chameleon un-tetheredness here – while acknowledging that certain things we wear, do, or say are more appropriate in some situations than in others. Can you give me that?


Somehow, this concept has not crossed technological boundaries. My students, lots of them, are with me as they are in FaceBook.


“Well, good,” you say. “If Distance Learning is going to work, it’s got to encourage community and intimacy.”


I totally agree and I fill my discussion boards with puzzling questions and funny comments and I encourage students to engage each other there, too.


But here’s some of the stuff that is flying under the radar, and oughtn’t to:

SCREEN NAMES: O.K., since this generation is so comfortable in the online environment surely they know that you can have more than one screen name. Don’t you think it would be a good idea if their academic screen name wasn’t pardychik or hot_abs or drinkup? How about a first name and a last name? Or initials? Call me crazy…


TMI: Remember the old, “My grandmother is ill so my report is going to be a day late, professor” line? No longer necessary. Since we’re not looking each other in the eye, white lies have gotten tossed out the window in favor of the bloody truth. In the past 6 months, I’ve been told about an affair, a drunk-driving arrest and three break-ups. And then there was the student who said, “I don’t know why I’m not doing my work in here. I think I’m just being lazy.” Actually, that one was refreshing after all the reality TV show fodder. Listen, I really want to be there for my students. As a personal support but also as a resource for the help they need – in any area of their lives. But this off-the-cuff confessionalism isn’t about accessing me for support (or even compassion), it’s about thinking I’m their roommate and we’re hanging out in our bean-bag chairs at 2:30 a.m., eating cold pizza and sharing a flask of Jagermeister. 

PAY IT FORWARD: Y'know all those forwards (jokes, political manifestos, spiritual uplifts)? Don't we all get enough (read: too many) from our colleagues and granddads and in-laws already? I'm thinking a little discretion regarding who gets sent what is wise and thoughtful. Yes? There are, no doubt, notable exceptions -- I love it when a student, especially one I haven't seen in a semester or two, sends me a link to an article on Judy Blume or a piece on how writing prompts are being used in therapeutic situations or, best yet, notice of the student's own successes or publications. But the please-forward-this-on-to-your-ten-favorite-people-and-your-wish-will-come-true emails? No thanks...


TIME SPACE DISCONTINUUM: Something happens to clocks, calendars and due dates in the virtual world. I mean, really happens. Maybe it’s just that guilt doesn’t work very well digitally. Coming to class over and over again with nothing to hand in (or not coming to class at all) is just too shame- and guiltifying for most of us. But not showing up online? Big whoop. Think about the old reminder, “Call Your Mother.” Doesn’t have quite the punch, does it, when you’re not hearing it in a Brooklyn accent with the scent of garlic in the air?


So now that I've firmly established myself as a grouchy curmudgeon, I should note that I've read some stunning poetry this semester, and have seen some courageous students come out of their shells in a way they might not’ve in a classroom. So there is a flip side. (Isn't there always?)

Speaking of which, I gotta get back to my students' work right NOW before the day gets away from me. It’s that time-space discontinuum thing.