I Heart Online Conferences

So I teach writing at a university, and I’ve been teaching online classes for a decade now.  When I started to teach a good chunk of my courses online, I thought it would be great.  I get nervous in front of a class, so I felt eager to try the online experience because there would be a buffer between my students and me.  (When I felt the worst in the early 2000’s, I had a hard time cranking myself up enough to get to the classroom.)  I thought I would be able to calm down and work methodically and steadily at teaching online, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary.  I don’t work methodically/steadily/calmly at much of anything besides gaining weight and getting older.

It turned out the buffer kinda made things worse.  For all the eye-popping anxiety I experienced in the classroom, the structure motivated me enough to produce at a competent level.  Despite my ineptitude and my constant fear of the pink slip arriving in the mail, I managed to earn tenure even though my “tenure track” period encompassed the worst of my anxiety.  My performance, though seemed to suffer most in the online teaching arena.  I had the worst sort of annoying ADHD habits: posting course materials late, not returning email, having to rewrite the course schedule halfway through the semester because I messed things up so much.

The problem stemmed from grading papers, the writing teacher’s burden.  I had always been bad at grading papers.  I would put them off as long as possible and them do them all in a big crush of work when it was no longer possible to delay.  I was much worse in the online environment because I never had to face anyone.

In graduate school, when I only taught one or two classes at a time, when I got behind I would just walk to campus, grade papers all night, sleep in the faculty lounge for a couple of hours, and then teach class and hand back papers and go home and sleep the rest of the day.


Old Timey Teacher

When I taught full time, I had four or five classes, so one entire night of grading papers wouldn’t dig me out of a procrastination hole.  I was competent enough at the other aspects of teaching, particularly conducting workshops with students, but my grading stain marked me so severely that I started attending a Ph.D. program to try to change careers so I didn’t have to grade papers anymore.  (I got all the way to ABD in educational leadership, then realized it wasn’t possible to do a dissertation in a long, sleepless binge.)

I tried everything to grade faster: rubrics, recording audio, a complicated rewrite/revise/rest grading system, holistic grading, colored pens, macros.  Usually the results were predictable: a new system would work for awhile, but then I would start to procrastinate and get disorganized, and my here-I-go-again attitude would surface and I was soon doing everything possible to put off grading papers.

You would think that I got some satisfaction out of not grading papers, that the procrastination was to do something fun.  Instead, though, I constantly worried about grading while watching TV, reading catalogs, and playing guitar.  The ratio of time spent worrying about grading vs. time spent actually grading would be something like 100 to 1.

My career-change plan stalled, and thus I would be grading papers for the foreseeable future.  Also, my supervisors were finally starting to get wind of this problem.  A couple of years ago, an old friend from graduate school became my boss, and on his first day on the job had to field a complaint about me.  I resolved to change, as I had resolved a thousand times before, but I tried something I had never tried before: the grading conference.

I had usually held conferences (one-on-one meetings with students) to go over drafts of their work with them.  I learned to teach that way from the beginning in graduate school.  In my instinct to shy away from students to protect myself I had cut out conferencing altogether, with bad consequences; I never got  to know the students, for example.  My thought was to go the other direction, that actually grading student papers with the student at conference time would force me to get it done.  It would be time consuming, it would be anxiety-inducing (grades are a touchy subject provoking nervousness and defensiveness), but it couldn’t be worse than being a mess of a teacher that I was.

So I did it.

It was hard.  I had to be able to focus for hours at a time.  Each class had up to 23 students.  I did two classes of conferences every single week.  If I did 20-minute meetings, that meant 15 hours of conferences every single week, not to mention all the scheduling, planning, and rescheduling.  “How do you get anything done?” some colleagues would ask me.

It’s the only way I got things done.

After awhile a change occurred. I noticed an integration in my teaching.  For the first time, students really learned what I was teaching, and I followed through on my job of evaluation.  I started having strange experiences, like students pointing out flaws in their papers to me.  I had a student thank me for a C- on a paper.  I started hearing good things about my teaching from students, compliments that seemed genuine.  And time opened up for other things.  Even though I spent a lot of time grading in my office, I didn’t spend any time sitting at home staring at piles of papers to be graded. (That’s a metaphor. I would bring them home but not take them out of the bag.  Or they would sit in the ether of  online courses, waiting patiently for me.)

But I still had the problem of the online classes.  I couldn’t meet with students in person.  In any semester, I might have students from California to Maine.

I had been experimenting with SecondLife and attending the poetry scene there.  I would go to virtual poetry readings in a 3D environment.  I thought that there must be some way to meet students like this.  SecondLife requires too much hardware and too much of a learning curve to require it of my students.  But some of the professional conferences I attended started to move to the web conference format.  When our university bought a license to Adobe Connect Pro, I decided to give it a try for online conferences.

Holy beans, did it change my online teaching!

The first, obvious benefit was that I got my grading done on time.  But secondary benefits evolved as well.  I found myself actually looking forward to online classes.  I had renounced them totally for a time, but to guarantee myself summer employment (because of my other ADHD symptom of not managing money well),  I had to teach online.  Last summer I willingly taught a fully online schedule.

Another benefit is that my attitude toward online students changed.  Sitting around at a meeting recently, I heard a familiar conversation: faculty griping about their online students.  They’re demanding.  They’re rude.  They’re selfish. They don’t read instructions. And so on.  I used to think those things too, but now found myself having real affection for online students.

Here’s why: when you teach only using asynchronous methods (email, discussion boards, etc.) you really only hear opinions about the course when there’s a problem: a link is broken, a student is frustrated, an assignment is confusing.  Rarely does anyone email you to say “I think this course is great!” or “I like the way you teach this class!”

When I talk to students, I often ask them if they’re having any problems with the course or the technology.  Most of them say no and tell me what they like about the course.  If there are problems, I can usually fix them right away too.  The compliments put me in a better frame of mind, because I am oh so vain.

What has really happened, I think, is the collapse of the emotional distance between the students and me.  I often hear students say something like “It’s good to feel like there is a real person teaching this course.”   I’ve known about the concept of online presence for awhile, and there are techniques for creating strong online presence without live conferences, but I was never able to keep up with them.

Perhaps most important is that the writing is better.  Students get more and better help from me.  I honestly started doing conferences for selfish reasons.  I just wanted to get the freakin’ work done.  However, the practice has helped make the quality of my work so much better.

Now, I don’t mean to say that my teaching is entirely blissful.  My brain still uses mood and energy against me.  I still get bit crabby on the way out the door (or into my study in the basement at home) to face a bunch of conferences.  I still have these monkey mind scripts playing in my head: I don’t want to do this today.  I’m too tired.  It’s been a hard week.  I deserve a break.

But after I do one conference, just one, even if it doesn’t go very well, my energy level picks up.  In fact, sometimes, I can say to myself you’ll feel much better once you’ve started and get myself going fairly easily.  Not often, but sometimes, which is way more than before.

Finally, for the first time this year, when I prepped for this semester, I had high confidence in my ability as an online teacher.  I knew that I would sometimes be slow on email or post something late,  but I believe in my fundamental teaching ability.  It’s only taken seventeen years to get here.

15 thoughts on “I Heart Online Conferences

  1. I love this post because I relate to so much in it. It is too late this semester, but I am going to look into grading conferences next semester. Thanks for the great idea and solution to the worry vs grading problem.

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