Teaching to a Virtual Wall

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As with all other activities that involve some form of public speaking, one of the most common tips that new teachers receive is to practice spoken instruction out loud to an empty room, which is sometimes called “teaching to a wall.” This is a technique that I still sometimes employ, more than fifteen years into my teaching career, but only when it comes to those rare instances where I’m delivering more of a monologue to students. That kind of thing is necessary for the first couple of classes each semester, as I work to set the tone for each class and help students learn the “rules of the road” for the work we’re about to do, and that kind of solo practice can help when it comes to those longer explanations. Trying to use this practice when it comes to class dialogues, though, is all but impossible; a good teacher can anticipate some of the questions that students may have after they’ve been exposed to new information, but no teacher can anticipate all such questions.

The more important an audience is for the speaking you do, the less effective those solo practice sessions can be. That doesn’t just cause problems with dialogue-heavy pedagogies, though. I’ve always tried to incorporate more than a modicum of comedy into my teaching, especially for those all-important first classes where I’m helping students adjust to the new rigours of university learning, as a way to help diffuse tension and build my ethos with my new students. Teachers should always be looking at students’ faces for the obvious signs of comprehension (and, more importantly, lack thereof), and that feedback is even more important when it comes to using comedy in class, since failed jokes are a one-way ticket to alienating yourself from your students in a hurry.

I taught my first classes of the semester this past week, and as much as I was hoping that the routine of a new semester would help reduce the feelings of uncertainty that I’ve struggled with these past few months, I think they’ve actually gotten worse. When we had to move to online learning halfway through the spring semester, I taught the remainder of that term’s classes asynchronously through text explanations and instructions that I typed up myself, which was how I taught online a decade ago, before Zoom and media-rich course management software and the like. (Back then, when I was teaching in-person classes to a largely rural student body at the same institution, some of my students could still only get dial-up Internet at their homes.) With all the preparation I was able to do for this semester, and with the new technological tools available to me and my students, I knew that I wanted to teach synchronously via videoconference, so I could try to capture at least parts of the live classroom experience, especially those all-important dialogues about class material.

After those first classes, though, I feel like I don’t know where I am with my students. Our institution isn’t requiring students to turn on their video feeds (a decision I wholeheartedly agree with), and even though some students have switched their cameras on during my classes, I only see a small fraction of their faces when I teach, since I’m using visual presentations from different applications while I talk. The only person whose face I regularly see when I’m doing that is an ASL interpreter for one of my classes, and while I seem to be amusing her with my jokes, I don’t know if the actual students in my courses are laughing along, or at least appreciate that I’m trying to keep my classes a little lighthearted, or if they’re already sick of my crap less than a week into the semester.

Complicating this issue is the fact that if my students aren’t laughing at my jokes, it might not be because my jokes are bad, but just because these past few months have been so horrific that they might not be in the mood to laugh, or even smile. I’ve certainly had lots of students who have constantly felt down nearly every semester I’ve taught — I don’t think that those of us who are older can truly appreciate the difficulties of being an eighteen-year-old in a 21st-century world, even when that world isn’t in the middle of a raging pandemic — but it wouldn’t be surprising to find that most students feel that way now. Especially for students whose final months of high school got derailed by the pandemic, and who are now getting a small fraction of the off-to-college experience they might have seen in popular media all their lives, feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration may be constantly palpable, and I’m not sure if any of us who work in academia can really do anything about that.

I won’t have to do nearly as much talking in this semester’s classes from now on, since we’re about to transition into more dialogue-heavy work. I’ve put even more care than usual into selecting class materials that should, I hope, connect with most of my students’ lived experiences, and make it easier for them to start developing the critical thinking skills that will form the basis for the papers they’ll be writing later on. Maybe the dialogues will go more easily for me, because at least I’ll be getting more direct feedback from students as I teach, but I can’t help worrying that this semester could be even rougher than I planned on. It’s not like I ever thought to practice how to best teach during a pandemic back in the day.

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