By Rich Russell
In Blackboard there is a Roster tool, where students (and the professor) can post pictures of themselves, and I encourage (but do not require) students to also do this during the first week, in addition to their written introductions. I qualify, “Please only post pictures of yourself and not someone else. Please do not post a picture of your pet.”
One semester, however, I had a student who admitted in her introduction to having a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, at her house here in South Jersey. When I looked to find her picture in the Roster, there was Brenda — holding up a skunk. “The skunk has been de-skunked,” she assured us; what existential crisis must a de-skunked skunk feel, I later fretted.
I must admit — I’m not especially good with faces; am better with names myself. (Oliver Sacks had a recent piece in The New Yorker about face blindness, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a prosopagnosiac.) Still, there is an uncanny shock when seeing an online student in real life, or even pictured with a skunk in your Blackboard class. (Is the skunk also a student? Has the skunk paid its lab fee?) But for many, a clearer sense of the student becomes, well, visible in a picture.
I wrote about how professors are quasi-celebrities in an essay last spring for The English Journal. Students know who we are even before we know them: they see us around campus or maybe pictured on the college web site. Last spring, a feverish student came darting up to me in the hall before my third cup of coffee to ask a flurry of questions about an assignment due that week for my section of literature online. She took off just as tantivy when her anxieties had been soothed. But I never caught her name. I checked the Roster later that day, but couldn’t choose this girl from the line-up. She just disappeared, reverting to her previous online, “absent” presence.
Sometimes, I admit, I do feel that some of the online students are mere ghosts in the Blackboard shell. Some of them will appear on your class list the first week, but never post anything (fail to fully materialize), and then either drop or withdrawal, and it is a different experience from when a student never turns up for a traditional class. They were like theories of students never put into practice. In Blackboard, the professor can even track to see that these theories have logged in, are reading entries, but just never respond. And then just exit (shut down). Some even restart the next semester, and it’s a welcome surprise when they immediately set themselves to work, as if previous hauntings had never happened.
Last week, I was chatting with another professor in her office, and a girl walked in, and hugs were exchanged between my colleague and the student. She then turned to me and said, “And you’re Professor Russell — I was in your online class over the summer!” Here, again, the uncanny: the return of someone familiar in an unfamiliar setting, in this case the false home being the real world.
We stare and stare, some of us for many hours a day, into the computer screen. Do we imagine there are people staring back? Is it, at times, just the screen staring back at us? How do we establish that more human connection?
These are questions to be explored. (Prepare yourself, skunk.)
About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell earned associate degrees in liberal arts and general studies from Atlantic Cape, a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from New York University, a master’s in secondary education from New School University and a master’s in English literature from University College at the University of London. Russell has been an adjunct instructor at Atlantic Cape since 2007 and served as co-advisor of Atlantic Cape’s student-run literary magazine, Rewrites.