That Stir in the Back Row
I have never taught an on-line course, so I'm not the best qualified person to evaluate the merits of technology's ability to supercharge the awakening of young minds. Most on-line pedagogi-gadgetry strikes me as an impediment to learning, but I have every confidence that the ballyhoo boys advocating MOOCs, blended classes and teaching via avatars already have well rehearsed answers to my objections (Relax, there's an app for that). And if they don't, give them some time. Even now they are hard at work to eliminate the annoyance--not to mention expense--of getting students and teachers into the same real-time space for some no-longer relevant real-time interaction.
Here's what I know. A few days a week I am teaching to just one student. He sits in the back row and almost in spite of himself (and certainly in spite of me) he's gotten interested in the subject. And get this: the subject is 19th century Romantic poetry. A less propitious medium for engaging young, football-obsessed males you cannot imagine. We've been reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and have transitioned into Emerson and Whitman, and this kid is really into it.
Does he say much in class? No, he plays it cool. Are his papers burbling over with insight and enthusiasm? No, he struggles to get thoughts onto paper and observe academic conventions like most of my students. But in class, he's a leaner.
Here's what I mean. Sometimes when you're teaching you will just have this weird sense that someone's paying really close attention to everything you say. It's just a feeling. You look around the room and, sure enough, one student's tempo-rhythm is slightly out of sync with the others. Everyone is sprawled about, slack-kneed, half-engaged, but one student is tensed and leaning slightly forward as if an invisible lodestone is tugging at him. You may even unconsciously find yourself gravitating toward this student, as if you too were being pulled, tugged, drawn by an invisible force.
And so there it is, the holy grail of teaching: a completely engaged mind. This is pure crack for a teacher. You want it all the time, but you just can't make it happen. And suddenly you find yourself spending a bit more time with this kid's papers. You look forward to seeing what he's going to discover next.