First Impressions Online

This first week of the semester in my online classes, students are required to post an introduction of themselves. Some students write lyric, Dickensian accounts of their lives up to the age of, say, nineteen, but most offer quick, almost telegraphic prologues:

“Hi, my name is Lisa, and im 28 years old, this is my third semester at school, and I’m nervous about taking English online because I’m not great at writing lol. I hope to get an A in this class. Look forward to working with you all this semester!!!”

I try my best to reply to every student’s introduction, but often I can’t think of what to say in return, except, “Welcome, Lisa!” — and then I will usually remind a student like Lisa to keep in touch with me and with the online writing tutor to ensure her success. In a face-to-face class, I might encourage Lisa to describe some of her interests. She might admit to liking the beach or the Twilight books or quantum physics. Online, however, we start with this and go from here. It is a start, after all.

The other problem with first impressions online is that student limitations with the English language become immediately apparent, and how does that affect the professor’s initial response? I have a rather detailed rubric for how online discussions will be graded — and remind students that, even in their introductions, spelling and grammar count. But how strict should that rubric be adhered to in these rather informal opening remarks? Do I respond, “Welcome, Lisa! Be mindful of run-on sentences and note proper punctuation and capitalization?”

That hardly seems an auspicious beginning.

And what about my own introduction to the students? I realize how hard it is to encapsulate one’s personality into a few pithy sentences typed and sent out to perfect strangers, which is why the default for students is — even in our face-to-face introductions — name, age, major (and for me: name, degrees held, years teaching). The students who have not yet chosen a major often feel embarrassed about confessing, “I don’t know what my major is yet,” or even (humbly) “I’m General Studies” or (shamefacedly) “Liberal Arts.” I remind students that these are the best declarations one can make at the community college level — that there will be plenty of time to narrow in on some path. Plenty of time to take philosophy and pottery classes before deciding to pursue a business option. After all, shouldn’t all the options open to us as human beings be our business those first semesters of college?

As for me, I open a new message in Blackboard and write, “To begin my post with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born.” No. “Call me Ishmael, students!” But maybe not. “Call me Professor Russell!” Getting there. Inevitably, it seems, I revert to my own standard greeting, which can be summed up as follows: “Hello, this is your captain for the course! I look forward to an exciting semester working with all of you!”

Lisa and I are not so different after all.

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