“Helping Students Find Their Voices in The Virtual Classroom” by Lenore Harris

Lenore (along with her creative writing student, and her two colleagues, Paulette Boudreaux and Susan Glass) interviewing Cuban American novelist and poet Cristina Garcia (at West Valley College's Global Citizenship Center on 18 October 2012). Photo by DMG.

Lenore (along with her creative writing student, and her two colleagues, Paulette Boudreaux and Susan Glass) interviewing Cuban American novelist and poet Cristina Garcia (at West Valley College’s Global Citizenship Center on 18 October 2012). Photo by DMG.

Okay, I will be the first to admit. I have been relatively skeptical of distance learning since it has become more and more popular. The reasons vary and aren’t necessarily thoughtful or even rational. First, I am skeptical of everything–especially anything new or unfamiliar. (This is illustrated by the fact that my mother bough my first cell phone for me when I was thirty-two.) Second, I had doubts that an online course can provide the same level of intimacy, immediacy and spontaneity of a face-to-face course. Third and most important, I was concerned about how I, (and I mean me), would translate in cyberspace.

Let me be clear that this isn’t about ego; although, it is about personality. I have a big one. I am animated; I am spontaneous; and, I’d like to think I’m funny. It seemed to me that distance learning wouldn’t allow me to be any of those things. Would my dry sense of humor seem caustic or sharp on line? Would my willingness to toss an exercise that isn’t working look erratic or disorganized? Would all the aspects of my teaching that I consider to be my strengths become weaknesses when translated into an online platform?  Would teaching on-line would take “me” out of the classroom?

The next logical question is whether or not I am that important–and should I be? The answer is–I probably shouldn’t be but probably I am. Much teaching philosophy tries to discourage instructors from making themselves the center of the educational experience. Focus on the student. Shift your concentration to what the student is experiencing. In many ways, the most important aspect of teaching is the information but I am the vehicle by which that information is conveyed and if I fail, the experience is a failure.

So my first few experiments with on-line teaching did divorce me from the teaching experience and by association, divorced me from my students. My lectures were distilled down to Power Point presentations and supplemental links to various websites. My voice was absent. The spontaneous observations, investigational riffing, speculative thoughts and epiphanies were nonexistent. It seemed impossible to create inter-textual connections between pop culture, literature and history; and, the closest vehicle to dialog–the discussion forum–had proved to be sterile.

I didn’t feel that I knew my students. The intimacy and immediacy of the classroom was lost to me. I wanted to quit. But, like the cell phone, distance learning was here to stay and sooner or later, I had to master the format. I read some textbooks, articles and took a course. Ironically, it was an on-line course, in which I experienced much of the frustrations my students did. Just as I would in a face-to-face course, I had to be willing to jettison some of the exercises that were unsuccessful and try something new.

I changed the format and grading schema for discussion forums–assigning points for the number of posts and replies to posts students provided. In addition, I created two separate deadlines for posts, mid-week and at the week’s end. This ensured that the discussion didn’t languish until the deadline and I could address the most erroneous or tangential threads before they got out of control. And surprise, though, mostly asynchronous, the nature of discussion became more rigorous and surprisingly, increasingly more student-centered.

I found that when I logged on students had taken it upon themselves to address others’ questions, directing them back to texts or even, resources they had discovered on their own. They were beginning to troubleshoot one another’s problems and conversations were more focused on the subject matter than even in my face-to-face courses.

I decided to record my lectures. At first, talking to the screen—a terrible experience that made me feel like I was trapped in reality television show—and then, my actual face-to-face class. This, too, was uncomfortable, at first. But being in front of the class was more natural to me. I was informed that my lectures were frequently being downloaded. When I found myself fielding questions based upon the lectures on line, I felt like I was truly teaching.

So in essence, I had both found my voice and I had disappeared. In my online classes, I have yielded the spotlight to my students and my students are forced to be more thoughtful, articulate and self-directed. I may miss the immediacy of face-to-face but they have become more empowered, which is far more important.

Let’s face it: my voice will always be here. I will still be same spontaneous, slightly salty instructor I have always been. But my students have found their voices and isn’t that what teaching, in its deepest essence, is all about?

Lenore Harris teaches African American literature, composition, fiction and creative writing in the English Department at WVC. She is also a writer whose work has been published in the San Francisco Writers Conference Anthology, Prism Review, and Voices Magazine. Learn more about her writing and publishing at her public journal, Desk of L. Rebecca HarrisCurrently, Lenore is working on her second novel and is a Resident Fellow at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University.

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