by Dr Jenny Bavidge, Academic Director for English Literature, Institute for Continuing Education (ICE)
I’ve recently finished teaching a five week course on the creative and critical afterlife of Wuthering Heights. We looked at various responses to Emily Brontë’s novel, from the commercial (MTV’s film version which recasts Heathcliff as a blond rock star, oh dear) to the brilliantly eccentric (the still-classic Kate Bush song). I’ve taught this subject before, but this was the first time I’ve conducted a course entirely online, never meeting my students face-to-face. My students had the advantage over me as they could see my short video lectures whereas I had only a small photograph and their postings by which to get to know them.
Academic colleagues sometimes express uncertainty about how teaching online works and I’ll admit to some anxiety about how it would feel to teach students I’d never meet in person. A lecturer friend of mine says he can only imagine teaching students when he can “see the whites of their eyes” and it’s certainly true that any teacher of any subject will know how they respond to their students’ body-language; how one picks up the eager lean forward, or little flicker of comprehension or disagreement, a politely-concealed yawn or exasperated eye-roll as you speak too fast or snigger too long at your own joke.
As well as this kind of physical noticing, eye contact feels important in the classroom. You can prompt someone to speak by staring hard at them, or instigate a cheerful argument by glancing at a student whose opinion you suspect differs from that of the person speaking.
My old schoolfriend Hannah Thompson, a Cambridge alumna who now teaches French Literature at Royal Holloway, writes a wonderful blog about her research into cultural and literary representations of blindness which also charts her own experiences as a partially-blind lecturer. In an article about her research and teaching practice, Hannah describes how she has recently changed her approach in the classroom in ways which acknowledge and embrace her disability. Rather than relying on the connection of eye contact, Hannah encourages her students to forget raising their hands or waiting for the conductor/teacher to bring them in, and to call out their responses and answers instead. Her students were nervous at first, but she describes how, gradually, some of the usual formalities and restrictions of the seminar room began to fall away. The students’ understanding of their teacher’s disability and her inspirational mastery and exploration of it, provoked all sorts of interesting responses to their subject of study and to their experience of studying it together.
The situation in an online seminar room is different to Hannah’s classroom, of course. I can’t see my students’ response to my talks or questions, but I can’t hear them either. It is possible to set up online seminars where students communicate via audio devices rather than typing, or ‘live’ lectures where students can type in real-time questions, but many of my students were in different timezones, dropping in from Japan or the US (and, heavens, Northampton) so we normally didn’t have even that vague sense of each other’s physical presence to aid our communication. Instead, we got to know each other through initial introductions in the orientation week, where students worked out how and where they could talk to me and to each other, and then relied on the space of online forums to discuss the week’s reading.
Much of the recent discussion about online courses has concerned the growth of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) where the emphasis is on massiveness and accessibility. At ICE, our model is the more cosy-sounding ‘SOCCs’ (Small Online Closed Courses), which are taught to closed groups with a limited number of students. Our SOCCs are organic, hand-knitted experiences, carefully designed to fit busy feet and based on the artisanal pedagogic approach for which Cambridge is known: small group-teaching, led by a tutor who knows your name, encouraging wide-reading and independent thinking.
Unlike most MOOCs, your SOCC tutor will talk back to you when you post a comment or want to argue a point. And like undergraduate modules that develop from year to year, our courses are also protean in their content because they are research-inspired. My ICE colleague Ed Turner recently taught part of his online course in Conservation from the jungles of Sumatra where he was conducting research; my own course was punctuated by a visit to the no less exotic University of Leeds for a conference on creative responses to the work of the Brontës, so I came back to my students with my head full of Lisa Sheppy’s ‘Empty Dress’ and discussions of the Japanese film version of Wuthering Heights.
One recent commentator on the MOOCs/SOCCs issue says that the mobility and flexibility of online courses are best suited to vocational subjects designed to respond to an ever-changing employment landscape, and not for traditional academic topics which move more slowly. Adam Kotsko says: “A course on The Odyssey could remain relatively unchanged for a long time, but that’s not the kind of thing that people are generally looking for with online ed.” Whyever not? That ‘kind of thing’ (the Humanities in general, or just old stuff?) isn’t inert knowledge. Our readings and understanding of The Odyssey, or Wuthering Heights or Ancient Rome change with every year, every new adaptation, or archaeological find, or critical move, or, indeed, with every new group of students who come together to travel with Odysseus, Heathcliff or the Romans.
I also don’t accept that Humanities courses which might rely on traditional techniques of slow and close reading can’t be taught via speedy digital technologies. And, in truth, the online class I was teaching had something rather beautifully old-fashioned about it even in its shiny new medium; as we post and respond to each other, we’re engaging in the communication common to letter-writers over the centuries. Writers, readers, editors, and groups of literary critics have always sent their thoughts over many miles: admiring and anguished, caustic and critical, devoted, fannish or furious, and, above all, focused, letters of discussion and comment. Digital letter-writing has its own advantages. There’s a spell-check for a start. Online, in-class discussions are more carefully constructed than emails, longer than tweets, and can use the little windows of hyperlinks which drop interlocuters into related areas of discussion alongside the main topic: I can place a link in a sentence to something that my reader can dive off to read before they come back to finish my sentence.
In a letter to his patron Henry Wotton, John Donne wrote in praise of the power of words to overcome distance:
“…more than kisses, letters mingle souls,
For thus, friends absent speak.”
There are many joys in the weekly encounters of our Certificate and Diploma classes at Madingley, or the yearly visits of our Summer School students who arrive in Cambridge with the swifts, but as Donne suggests, there are other ways to ‘mingle souls’, and although we can’t promise kisses, we think our SOCCs will warm you up.