By Rich Russell
Upon discovering that I’d become a contributor to a blog about online education, a colleague of mine posed two important questions about our work: How often should we as professors be logging into our classes, and how frequently should we be participating in student discussions? (Thanks for those, Steph.) I thought I’d take just a moment this week to share my thoughts on both.
I suppose one can never log on too often. Like Facebook, which some have described as a very dull party that never ends, at times online classes can feel like very casual meetings whose slow vegetable discussions take an entire week to fully gestate. All of my online sections are asynchronous out of respect for the students. My students, at least most of them, take online classes because they are unable to meet during regular class times — are busy with work and with families — and so I believe it would be unfair for me to mandate that we all log in at the same time on a Wednesday afternoon, say, for a synchronous debate of the week’s subjects.
So how often should we be checking in? Unlike a face-to-face class, where the professor “burns with a gem-like flame,” as Walter Pater might note, for one hour twice a week or three hours en bloc, in an online class the teacher and his students exist on a low simmer almost 24/7. Students have e-mailed me at 11:07 P.M. and then again at 2:33 A.M. (to be clear: not even four hours later), feverishly entreating, “You haven’t responded to my last e-mail yet, so I’m sending this again to make sure you received it.”
I tell students that when they contact me I will try my best to respond within 24 hours; when I go away for the weekend (or decide to take a weekend offline), I am sure to post this in class, so that students will know not to expect a high-speed response. (Usually I even caution, “Please hold all crises until my return on Monday.”) But for the most part I log in at least thrice daily, often just to make a quick check and ensure there aren’t any gem-like fires that need extinguishing.
I also set up discussion areas dedicated to “General Comments/Questions” and “Questions about Papers” where students can post their desperate queries in a public forum. This, of course, serves two salutary purposes. First, the students can help each other out (often I still feel compelled to reply to wise student-driven counsel with a quick approbation, such as, “Listen to what Zach says!”). Second, of course, it relieves me from having to answer a question individually by e-mail to multiple students. Sometimes I copy student questions that have been privately e-mailed to me into a public discussion topic to answer.
In graded discussions that students have on assigned readings for the week (what ho! trusty rubric), I admit that I used to contribute too zealously. This caused a problem: were I not to respond to each and every student’s comments individually (which is nearly impossible and sets a bad precedent), students would fret, “Why didn’t you respond to me in last week’s discussion?” Further, over-participation perpetuates that false notion that the professor is the ultimate keeper of all knowledge; how Socrates would tsk-tsk. As a result, I contribute less frequently until the students have all had their chance to “speak.” Then, I might initiate the next week’s discussion by briefly highlighting some of the thoughts from the previous week.
The online space can, after all, be a fruitful democracy, if we allow it to be. Unlike in traditional class settings, where the professor is physically situated in a place of authority (in either the front of the class or at the head of the conference table), in an online discussion the spatial hierarchy is less intransigent and potentially more exciting. While the professor’s name attached to a discussion reply might be awarded with more gravitas by students than their own individual titles, it doesn’t have to be: this might be Camelot without the expense of a Round Table. (And what with budget cuts…) I judge my best traditional classes to be those when I have spoken the least; so too online. Online, however, it is essential that students know you are listening to them. They must know that you’re paying attention to what is going on — and that you’re not asleep behind the scenes (even if you are wearing your pajamas). This is why I stay busy responding to posts in other, less formal discussion areas (the “General Comments” section, for example), while permitting the more serious issues being debated, to be debated by the students themselves, without too much interjection from me.
Yes, there is still a king here, but some weeks we can all be kings — the mighty avatars of this brave, new world.
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.