Being in the Classroom

There exists on the Internet a long discussion about MOOCs (mass open online courses) and their role in the university system. As schools turn towards MOOCs to reduce costs (even though that’s not what will happen) and destroy education (it seems pretty clear that will happen), many are discussing what a shift to the online will mean. Reading the latest addition to the debate, by Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry, I really loved his depiction of why a classroom is necessary:

In a well-run seminar, students must disagree with each other respectfully, must try to persuade, argue using facts rather than polemic, and face the people with whom they disagree. They have to find points of agreement within their disagreements—or I strive to find it for them, anyway—and it’s by finding ways to explain to each other what they disagree about that the class makes progress. And this is what distinguishes the classes I count a success from the classes where I feel like I failed: while a bad class remains split between active teacher and passive/reactive teach-ees, a good class is one in which the group develops its own vocabulary, its own history, its own personality, when unresolved discussions in week one and two structure the kinds of unresolved discussions we have in week three and four, and so forth. You only understand your own position, I think, if you understand why others don’t share it (and why they believe what they do).

In short, my story of a good class is not a narrative of conformity and control: it’s a narrative of socialized disagreement, of a group of people that can respect and work productively through and around and about everything that divides them. I find it easy to picture doing this in a classroom space. I find it hard to imagine doing this in chat-rooms, discussion boards, comment threads, and emails.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Years in a classroom as an educator have given me strong opinions about why my classes fail and why my classes succeed. The sooner you learn your students’ names—and the sooner they get comfortable with using each others’ names—the more successfully they will engage with each other as people, rather than as props for their own monologues and performance. Managing time is an art, but it’s an art that depends on reacting to sub-verbal cues: knowing that you can sustain a discussion on character for only about 40 minutes before they get bored, for example, and how to mix discussion with in-class writing to keep a two hour class from going stale, and knowing when and where you need to drop the discussion you’d planned to teach in favor of the discussion they clearly walked into the classroom wanting to have… all of these decisions must pivot on something as small as the look on a student’s face, the character of a silence, and the reactions of students whose intellectual personalities you’ve come to know intimately. Try to do that on a discussion board. Seriously, try it.

Moreover, there are always a handful of hyper-eloquent students who need to be persuaded—sometimes nudged, or even pushed—to step back, and to listen to other voices in the room. There are also, always, at least a handful of students that will not talk at all, unless you cultivate them with more skill than I sometimes have. It’s only by reading a student’s face that you can ascertain that she has an unexpressed idea burning in her brain, that all you have to do is ask her to speak up, and she will. And that then she’ll speak up again. And again. But this only happens when you’ve established a relationship of trust; when students are comfortable with you and with their classmates, you can see their minds working even when their mouths are closed. When they are not, you can’t; they come to class with a mask on, and they speak as they think they are expected to, performing a pose of what they think intellectual engagement is supposed to look like, the artifice rather than the substance.

I vigorously agree with what Bady is describing about what happens in a classroom because that is both how I want to teach (and how I tried to teach when I was doing my student teaching) and very much how I learn. Especially as a graduate student, I’m seeing how the seminar-style structure of a course really allows students to explore the topic and find out what everything means. Even in this structure, though, there are wide variations of how that plays out.

At Arizona State I really only had the occasion to take seminar classes a few times. It would have been twice, but my favorite professor continually forced his lecture classes to become seminars, requiring a lot of table shifting before class started and sometimes slow debates in a seminar with a lecture class’ worth of students. And yet, those seminar classes are probably the ones in which I learned the most. I am most confident talking about international justice and human rights, and I have a comfortable understanding of France in WWII and memory after atrocity. It was in those classes and others that I spent most of the time engaged in a long discussion about ideas and events, conversations that spanned weeks and informed my final paper from a number of perspectives. It was in those classrooms that I learned.

But I would hesitate to even tell you some of the courses I took online, lest you think I know about those topics, because I didn’t really learn much about the Vietnam War, piracy in the Caribbean, or special education policies in the classroom. In each of those classes, I was merely given a reading list and a discussion board (respond to the question by Wednesday, respond to two student responses by Friday!) and then some essays. And so, like virtually all of my classmates, Wednesday evening and Friday evening saw a flurry of posts – and Friday’s was almost always somebody opening five tabs, skimming, and responding to the two easiest or most interesting. Nobody would ever go back to engage in actual discussion on the discussion board. Why would you? It’s just an online class.

The only time I really saw people engaging with each other was when the professor of the piracy class asked us to reflect on the characteristics of pirate activity (looting, killing civilians, etc.) with President Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And you can imagine how that discussion went even if you’ve never taken an online class, so long as you’ve been on the Internet. I say that because it looked like any internet message board discussing a touchy topic – people typing over each other, some sass and sarcasm, some ALL CAPS. There was no facilitation of debate, just a kind of provocative question let loose upon Blackboard. Needless to say, I don’t think anybody learned.

When I was teaching, I was never really able to facilitate a seminar very well. My classes were all made up of almost 40 high school students in a very crowded classroom, and I was usually planning things relatively last minute, so I didn’t have the greatest opportunities to really plan out discussion topics. But I knew my students and they knew me, and most of us trusted each other to do this whole “school” thing. I was able – the same way Bady describes – to really discern what was going on in the room and nurture some of my students’ thoughts. It was great watching students gradually open up and say what they had been pondering all hour long, and it was great to really watch a debate unfold when we talked about the more contentious issues. It was also a lot of fun playing devil’s advocate, because sixteen-year-olds don’t often get asked what they think about politics and they don’t often have people rebutting their opinions on immigration or tax policy. There are a number of times that I really think the class was able to move forward together and grow together. That type of learning really doesn’t happen in online classrooms where many students generally aren’t as engaged. There are some independent learners who excel at online classes, students who just need a reading list and maybe some power points. But there are also a lot who, like me, will learn enough online to get a passing grade, but not really enough to learn.

And yet schools everywhere are pushing towards online. ASU has a huge number of online courses offered, and one school district in the Phoenix area is talking about requiring two online courses for all high school students so that they are “better prepared” for online courses in colleges and for online training in the workplace. Colleges are funneling students into online courses for a lot of introductory classes now, making the foundational knowledge on which the rest of your education a shaky one. Online classes can be done right, and there are students that could benefit. But that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening here is students being forced, either by requirements or by the simply math of more students than there are seats in the remaining classrooms, to take courses that have been created first and foremost to change education for the worse – to make it cheaper, to make it easier to grade, to make it quicker. We need to preserve what’s left of the classroom, and we need to fight to rebuild what’s been lost. Online classes are a dark, looming future, and they’re not the way forwards. Online classes are a move backwards. A step away from education, and a step we shouldn’t keep taking.

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