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Friday, May 19, 2017

May 19, 2017: Spring 2017 Reflections: The Short Story—Online



[As the Spring 2017 semester comes to a conclusion, a series of classroom reflections, this time focused on new things I tried in my courses. I’d love to hear your Spring reflections in comments!]
On a few takeaways from my first experience teaching an all-online class.
Like pretty much every institution of higher learning in the country and world, Fitchburg State University has over the last decade or so begun to include online courses and even program offerings much more fully than was the case when I arrived in 2005. The first clause of that sentence makes clear why FSU has to do so, and I’m sure that for various disciplines online courses and programs can accomplish their disciplinary objectives perfectly well. But as an English Studies professor, I’ve always felt that there’s no substitute for in-person classes and conversations, no way to achieve what we hope to in our courses without that element of face-to-face work. While I’ve begun to teach hybrid graduate courses, classes that meet half in person and half online through Blackboard discussions and the like, as a way to accommodate the needs of our grad students, I had remained adamant that I didn’t want to teach an all-online course of any kind. But this semester one of my colleagues took an unexpected medical leave and the department needed someone on short notice to teach her online section of our Short Story literature course, and I decided to give online teaching a shot for the first time.
As with so many of the things we fear, the reality of teaching online turned out to be far smoother and more positive than had been my concerns. The students consistently rose to the challenge of the weekly Blackboard conversations, both in their own weekly analytical posts and (especially) in the required responses to at least one classmate’s post. I hadn’t specified a length or content for those latter responses, but the students consistently went well beyond “I agree” or “nice job” or the like, really engaging with each others’ readings and ideas. Because this course was offered through our Department of Graduate and Continuing Education (an “evening” rather than “day” course, that is), my guess is that many of the students had taken other online classes, and thus were a more experienced cohort, a group more ready to participate online in these full and meaningful ways, than might be the case for a “day,” regular undergraduate online class. But whatever the particular factors, there’s no doubt that the class featured not only impressive individual analyses of our stories, but also and most importantly multi-vocal conversations about them and many related questions and issues. Those conversations weren’t and could never be identical to in-person ones, of course, but they were present and effective nevertheless.
And yet I would also highlight a couple shortcomings that I believe are endemic to online teaching. For one thing, I personally hate the fact that I’ve worked with a group of 28 students for an entire semester and have never met any of them; I offered them the chance to come chat in office hours, but couldn’t require it (again, it was a DGCE course and at least some of the students work full-time), and so they understandably didn’t take me up on that offer. This is certainly a personal objection, but it’s a very real one, as it limited the human connections that to my mind are an important part of teaching and learning. And for another thing, I believe that the most effective literary analyses are built in multiple stages, with an individual sharing one idea or reading and then it becoming part of the kind of ongoing, multi-layered, communal conversation that can happen as a classroom full of students add their voices and ideas to the mix. As impressive as the students’ Blackboard responses to each others’ posts were, those are still more individual and isolated than would be such truly communal conversations—and in their absence, I’m not sure we developed any sustained analyses of any of the course’s complex short stories. If I do teach an all-online course again (certainly just an “if” right now), that’s an area on which I’d have to work much further.
Summer and Fall preview this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections you’d share?

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