"All the mishaps I had had this past week learning how to teach online faded away reading these thoughts from my students. While seemingly simple gestures, they reminded me of why I teach."

By Anne Sokolsky

March 28, 2020
Anne SokolskyOnline teaching was never something I was planning to do. In fact, I have been quite concerned about the increased discussions in this country which seem to suggest that online teaching can replace face-to-face instruction. That is not to say online teaching has no value. If it weren’t for technology we are using right now, how would we have recreated our classroom instruction?

Despite my own technologically challenged mindset, I was able to pull off some semblance of recreation. The purpose of my classes on East Asian literature is to get my students engaged in a 15-16-week conversation about the distant cultures of Japan, China, Korea, and Taiwan and to somehow help them find meaning and relevance in their own lives to what I ask them to read in my classes. This semester my conversations are centered on three topics: Literature of the Silk Road, Love and Sexuality in East Asian Literature, and The Great Books of East Asia.

Though I might teach the same course from one year to the next, the conversations’ themes and variations change. This is a result of the camaraderie that develops in each class based on student-to-student interaction as well as student interaction with me and my teaching style. Usually it takes about two to three weeks to find our groove with each other as students get used to my teaching style and I figure out their learning behaviors, habits, likes, and dislikes. This takes reading cues—in-person reading of cues. I watch for their facial expressions, body language, where a student chooses to sit, how students look at each other when I am talking, and how they look at each other when they are talking. As I teach, I am also aware of their laughs, their smiles, and even their yawns. Now we are finding a new groove as our courses transition to online learning.

I had already been using Blackboard Discussion Board posts as a way to get students to share their thoughts about a work of literature. Usually at the beginning of each class discussion students share their blackboard posts. Then I respond with my own thoughts and provide the background information—the nitty gritty details of history, literary reception, and translation mechanics. Blackboard Discussion Board posts were supposed to be a supplement to the way I teach my courses, not the central fixture.

But now we must all learn to teach online—the fans and the resistors. This past week has been a learning curve. Students told me they did want some face-to-face time. We are doing this through Blackboard Collaborate. I record the sessions for those who cannot be part of “synchronous” learning (a new term I have learned).

The virtual classroom is focused on my PowerPoint lectures, where I provide the information my students need to know to help them understand the sociopolitical context of each work they are reading. The Blackboard Discussion posts have now become our class conversation. Each student is responsible for creating a thread to a conversation about a specific work of literature. These threads are in response to a prompt I give for each reading. Students contribute to the class conversation by also posting responses to each other’s threads. I keep track of how many times students start a thread and respond to other students’ threads. I also keep track of quality of posts.

When students are done posting, I write my own responses to their comments. In place of the in-person conversations I usually have with students in my office, we now meet through Google Chat or through long email conversations as I try to help answer students’ questions that can range from the mechanics of classes to the abstract conversations about their hopes and their dreams in this uncertain future.

This first week has been quite moving. I was not prepared emotionally for how sad it was to see my students through the lens of my computer screen. They are so close but yet so far. The readings for each of my classes this week ironically were quite relevant to what we are dealing with right now. Loneliness and social isolation. In my Literature of the Silk Road class, they read Marco Polo’s Description of the World. Students found solace in reading about Polo’s travel through 13th-century Central Asia as they are confined to their homes in various parts of the country now. In Love and Sexuality of East Asia, students read the famous Ming era romance, Peony Pavilion. In the play, the protagonist, Bridal Du, is not able to leave the confines of her parents’ palatial residence. Instead, she learns about the world through books she reads behind the high walls of her family compound. My students, confined in their own spaces, could relate to Bridal Du’s frustration. In Great Books of East Asia, students read Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000. The protagonist in the novel, after learning that a diagnosis of death was a misdiagnosis, takes a lonely journey to the far reaches of China’s minority regions in the northwestern part of this vast country. Students repeatedly commented that they found this novel haunting. They could relate to the narrator’s sense of loneliness and isolation because they too felt lonely and isolated.

It has been interesting to see my students in their home spaces and for them to see me in mine. We have all noticed the backdrops that appear in our screen images of each other. Some have rooms filled with posters. Others have a sleeping cat next to them or a hamster in a cage. Students have noticed the art in my office. A poster of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Chinese scrolls from Shanghai.

But while it has been fun to see them in their home spaces and I think fun for them to see me in mine, this does not replace the experience we are all missing. Our in-person human connection. Blackboard Collaborate and Blackboard Discussion Board have been a saving grace in this crazy historic time in which we are living. But the disconnect is still there. Some of my students have gone missing because they do not have the internet resources to do the school work online. Even if they are able to “enter” our virtual classroom, there is a strangeness to the conversation. I cannot see all the faces of my students at one time. Their faces pop in and out of the screen. It is distracting. Jarring.

In my larger class, students have to turn off their mics so we do not hear noise from each other’s computers. Though I know students are out there in virtual land, I cannot see all of their reactions at the same time. I talk into a void. This is not the kind of teaching I like. Nor does it seem to be the type of learning our OWU students want.

Many have commented in their discussion posts how they miss their classmates and being at OWU. They want to come back to their home of learning. It has been heartbreaking to read some of their concerns. Even more heartbreaking is to see the sad faces on many of them. Despite the distance, I can still read the stress and concern in their faces, even in the small camera image in the corner of my screen.

I became a teacher to have human interaction with my students and to instill in my students a love and curiosity for East Asian culture, the way it was done for me by my own relatives many decades prior. To teach about foreign cultures at a time when xenophobia is increasing seems even more important. But to do so in a virtual world seems strange, if not ironic.

On Friday, as I checked my inbox to make sure I had answered all my students’ queries, sent feedback to all of them about their Blackboard posts, and written encouraging notes to get them through the next week, two emails entered my inbox. One student sent me a selfie—a photo of the Starbucks green tea latte she had just bought. “I wanted you to know that I am thinking of you and our class.” Another student thanked me for all the work I had done this past week helping them. “If there is anything we can do for you, let us know,” she wrote.

These two emails made my day, if not my week. All the mishaps I had had this past week learning how to teach online faded away reading these thoughts from my students. While seemingly simple gestures, they reminded me of why I teach.

This past week has taught me how much I miss my students. While this technology is a welcome substitute, it is not a replacement for the value of the human interaction of a teacher with students huddled together in a classroom sharing our thoughts and ideas while we pore over difficult foreign texts about unimaginable places in distant parts of the world. I miss my students’ smiles, laughs, and yes, even their yawns. I look forward to the day when we are all back together in dusty, historic Sturges Hall reading together about the distant cultures of our small, highly connected world of human beings.

Anne Sokolsky is an associate professor of comparative literature, editor for The Journal of Japanese Language and Literature, and author of From New Woman Writer to Socialist: The Life and Selected Writings of Tamura Toshiko from 1936–1938.