Even though the weather in New York City refuses to admit it, summer is coming to a close. As a newly minted assistant professor, these last few weeks of August are devoted to setting up my new office, learning a new library system, and preparing for my first classes. Part of that latter work is learning a new online academic support system.
Every college I know of has such a system, and from what I’ve seen and heard, the different variations all feature the same basic tools: user-specific password protected access to online portals where teachers can post electronic texts, specialized instructions, study guides, and paper prompts, and students can upload assignments directly to the professor, chat with classmates, and complete assignments. Every class I took and taught in graduate school featured some version of an online discussion board where students were expected to post questions about the reading and answer each other’s queries.
It’s been a few years, however, since I’ve logged on to this kind of software, and some of the new tools are telling: in addition to discussion boards, now we have wikis, which allow students to edit each other’s entries, not just respond to each other; a blog interface so teachers and students can create running commentary on the class; virtual classroom interfaces where the class can log on together (that is, at the same time, each from their own locations) to discuss a topic or even video chat, or where a professor can hold office hours online through a live chat function. Video, music, YouTube channels, Flickr streams, and animated slideshow presentations are all assumed forms of content to be uploaded, shared, and interacted with
While no technological savant, I used to have to arrange for many of these functions through secondary means: create a separate wiki board using WikiSpaces
, send music or video files through YouSendIt
, or (gasp) bring print outs of a last minute handout I wanted to share. Having access to many of the means of learning, thinking, and collaborating that I take for granted so easily at hand seems delightful and even necessary.
But as I take advantage of online registration records to scroll through my growing class lists (this, I think, is a new professor’s handicap—surely old hands at this game don’t spend two hours imagining backstories to all their first years), I am realizing how much I am counting on all of us showing up in the classroom together that last week of August. I’m trying to learn my students’ names and faces, not just their Twitter handles. I’m re-arranging office furniture based on prospective office hours to discuss difficult and (hopefully) stimulating course material. In my mind’s eye and sometimes my dreams (the same ones from college where I can’t find my classroom, only this time I’m teaching the class), I feel the awkward pauses from a badly asked question or the electricity from an idea that sparks debate. All of this depends on something more than virtual mediation.
In my essay
for this project, I tried to blur the line between virtual and embodied, suggesting that virtually mediated relationships are not necessarily less embodied, but differently so. But that difference matters. Maybe even more so, in this case, because I’ll be teaching the required first-year theology class, trying to shepherd a group of 18-year-olds into and out of the thickets of theological reflection in an academic setting. I am sure we will need all the relationality we can muster, digitally-mediated relationships included. I am confident we will also need the graces and challenges that inhabiting the same, non-digitally-mediated space can provide.
If you are a teacher who has faced these negotiations before, what have you learned about the kind of learning new media provides? Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University (starting Fall 2012) and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.