Friday, October 11, 2013

Adventures in Online Teaching Part I

Melinda Palacio
one step at a time

This semester marks my foray into teaching for an online MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello (Go Boll Weevils!). I would have never gotten a job in Arkansas had it not been for a chance encounter at AWP in Chicago two years ago, before the program was approved. Teaching invisible students without having the advantage of looking them in the eye when they give me reasons for not having their papers in on time is challenging. I am learning much myself, including not to be so skeptical. When one student told me their paper was late due to attending a sick puppy, my initial reaction was to ask if the dog had eaten the homework too (I'm glad I didn't send an impulsive email). Later, when the same student mentioned that the dog had died, I still felt awful for wanting to make make a snarky remark.

Teaching online has also taught me patience. I noticed that I wasn't the only impatient one. As a group, we need to respect that students read at different paces and may wait until the very last minute to chime in on a discussion that may start days before the due date. I learned that if I posed a question to the class, unlike a live discussion or an online meeting, students may not respond right away. Sometimes having real time interactions in social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, gives you the false sense that a student is capable of answering a prompt or discussion question right away. Maybe, if I posted the discussion on Facebook, the responses would instantly come. Now, there's a scary thought. I learned not to expect to micromanage the class. Using Blackboard, the class practically runs itself. However, I recently read that all syllabi and all materials posted on Blackboard become the property of the university in charge (I still need to research this rumor).

Complaints aside, I must say (as every teacher does) that I have the best students. My students are incredibly gifted, one is already a published non-fiction author. I'm still scratching my head as to why he wants to add the MFA in creative writing under his belt. Having such brilliant students makes my job very easy. And I'm not just saying this in case they are reading along. While I may not be able to see my students, I judge and grade them solely on their written work. What they look like when they critique a novel or turn in original fiction, does not matter (and shouldn't). Ultimately, it's all about the work. Knowing this makes it easier to mentor these talented graduated students who will soon be professors and best-sellers.

Don Paul's Poetry Ball in New Orleans is next week at Cafe Istanbul, Wednesday October 16.

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