It’s been two years since I last taught College Composition at the University of Baltimore for my MFA degree. This week, I stepped into the classroom once again on my computer to begin teaching at The University of Southern Mississippi, and also began a concurrent course in Writing Pedagogy in the pursuit of my doctorate. It all feels so paradoxically familiar and foreign. Within me is a certain teaching reflex that reminds me that I’ve done this before.
Several years ago, I began cultivating a teaching persona, which I’m quickly realized will take a very different form this year. I can still strive to be authoritative, encouraging, compassionate, but how do I adapt this to a changing world? It’s reminiscent of discussions I once had in my writing pedagogy course at UBalt, in which I was asked, “Will you present yourself as the ‘Sage on the Stage,’ lecturing to students as an absolute authority, or will you act as the ‘Guy on on the Side,’ treating the teaching role like an advocate who uses a bottom-up approach rather than top-down?”
UBalt pushed for the ‘Guy on the Side’ approach. Academic tradition dictates the ‘Sage on the Stage' model. I’m finding that my teaching persona needs new considerations. I’ve thought back to my studies in Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience at The University of Michigan, my undergraduate alma mater, and considered how the year of 2020 is a time of collective trauma. As a society, we are undergoing a global pandemic and racial tensions. Mass protesting is at the forefront of our social activity responsibility. There is the existential threat of climate collapse. It’s the year of a bitterly divisive presidential election. Courses are now entirely virtual, since it’s simply unsafe to meet in person.
Being the teacher that I was would be irresponsible this year. Instead, I feel an even greater pull to humanize myself in my teaching. While this concept has always been central to my teaching methods, I have to find new ways of humanizing my classroom. In the past, I’d always taken class time before a paper’s due date to schedule individual meetings, during which I would chat with students, talk about their concerns, and address needs of the drafts. It was a human touch meant to calm their nerves and prepare them for their revisions. I used to spend a few minutes at the start of class to chat with my students about their week and also use reflective journals about various topics to practice low-stakes writing. But with virtual learning, so much of what humanizes me as a teacher feels so difficult to practice behind a screen. What would it look like to cultivate empathy and community virtually?
In my planning, I can see some sort of vision of this: I want to see my students laugh behind their muted microphones and use emojis in our Microsoft Teams chat functions. I need to welcome all the gifs and memes that so specifically reflect our cultural psyche on the internet. I have to consider how digital experience design is more important than ever in creating empathy within the classroom. How can I use writing and technology to rationalize the assault of complicated challenges we are facing this year? A composition, in my mind, is a work of art, and art is such a panacea in turbulent times. So, too, can a digital composition be an artistic panacea.
This week was only the beginning of a semester that won’t be like any other. I’ve started small with my students: a Slido word cloud to gauge how students feel about the virtual semester, some screen sharing to collectively look at the course syllabus, and a Teams chat activity, wherein students explained their dinner in three separate genres: a text, an email to a professor, and as a cookbook entry. I got a few giggles when a student entered in his cookbook portion that he would have ½ cup of cereal and 1 cup of milk stirred to perfection in a bowl for dinner. It was a small victory, but also a confirming one that this semester can be full of laughs in creative digital spaces and concurrently introduce multi-genre theory and rhetorical analysis.
So now the task begins: how do I keep these students engaged when it’s so easy to feel burned out in front of a screen? In front of all the screens bombarding us with chaotic information? How do I integrate humanizing experiences into a virtual classroom? I don’t have the answers yet, but I feel like I touched on something this week with the giggles from a simple chat activity. Onward to the lesson planning for Week 2 and beyond. Onward to navigating new spaces! Lastly, onward with a few more laughs, even if they might be nervous ones, as is so common at the start of new endeavors.
-John Constantine Tobin