Later. Is there any more seductive word?
I have been teaching post-PhD for 15 years. And for at least the past five years I’ve been intending to look at what I teach and how. Each year the teaching term seems to arrive before I’ve quite got around to it, and so each year I put it off until ‘later’, promising myself that next year will be the one. And then all my teaching went online. It turns out, ‘later’ is now.
I used to see the online module dashboard as a place to throw up the course outline, a few PDFs of secondary readings, and assignment instructions. When students asked if, maybe, I could share some links to performances or bibliographies, I would tell them (not unkindly) that these were research skills they were meant to learn themselves as part of the course. And, in an environment where they could drop into office hours easily, or stay after class for a chat, or where they were going to see real life shows at Dramsoc, I didn’t think that was such a problem.
My online format is different now. With the zeal of the convert, I have adopted scaffolding, whereby every seminar is presented as a unit. Yeah, a ‘unit’. ‘Ugh, my class is not a “unit”,’ I muttered during one training webinar about remote learning. Except, of course, it is.
Each unit begins with a welcome message, an overview of what we’ll cover, and the main learning outcomes for that week. There are learning checklists, alongside links to performances, production images, ‘refresher’ discussion questions, and a mindfulness exercise. I have posted mini videos talking through each of the assignments, and I’ve started a weekly newsletter for each module (aka ‘an email’). All of this self-improvement has not been achieved solo, of course. I am gratefully dependent on my colleagues’ leading-by-example and the extra training created by my university’s educational technologists. Following these lessons, and belatedly using the online dashboard not just as a noticeboard, but as a platform for structured and asynchronous learning, is a practice I should have adopted a long time ago. These are the kinds of support structures that students need whether we’re teaching face to face or not.
And I have learned another belated lesson – that the online format is actually better for those students who struggle to find their voice in a crowded classroom. These students now type comments in ‘chat’ and I read them out. This way of contributing makes the students more comfortable and, though it seems paradoxical, they say they feel more part of the course. One student even emailed me to ask if there’s a way, when we go back to face to face, we can keep up the practice of written comments.
In all of this, I don’t aim to fetishise the online format – it is a ton of work, it is draining in ways I have never experienced when teaching before, I hate looking at myself on screen for hours at a time, and I hate talking into a void. Most problematic, many of the students who keep their cameras and microphones off are not, in fact, feeling ‘more part of the course’ but much, much less. For most students, university is a social space they appreciate being welcome in. But, for some students, university is the safe space they desperately need. Online teaching is a big loss for them.
Still, I am counting every win. Not least because I am working in a context that does not seem to want me to.
My university’s response since the summer has been denial (advertising in July that we would resume 60% face-to-face undergraduate teaching and 100% graduate teaching), insufficient support (when staff asked if there was a protocol for returning to campus, we were told not to fret, there were ‘plans’ but what those were remained a mystery), and inadequate communication (bulletins from the University Management Team mention the word ‘health’ only in relation to government guidelines, never with any concern for, you know, our actual health, mental or physical). The only reason our campus is even vaguely safe for those staff and students participating in face to face teaching, is because the majority of us have chosen (before renewed government restrictions mandated us) to work remotely. Against this background, it feels like a wilful act of necessary optimism to be inspired by what we can achieve through online teaching.
But it is not only anger at one university’s callous approach driving me to suggest that we celebrate and mark the many goals we are striving for in remote teaching, learning, researching, and administering.
Most of all, I am stressing the good because it is a necessary reminder that even though everything has changed, some things remain the same. And I feel that if we don’t make space for this kind of reminder, that may go unsaid.
Here’s the thing: We still love what we do.
And here’s the other thing: We are still good at it.
In a discourse of crisis, these facts are far too easily forgotten.
Emilie Pine is Professor of Modern Drama in the School of English, Drama and Film in University College Dublin and Editor of the Irish University Review. She has published widely as an academic and critic, most recently The Memory Marketplace: Witnessing Pain in Contemporary Theatre (Indiana University Press, 2020), and the multi-award-winning Notes to Self: Essays, which has been translated into fifteen languages.