Talking to the Wall

A wall of blank television monitors
“Television wall” by doodlecarll is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For the most part, during the pandemic, I’ve been able to teach asynchronously — in some ways, this has been a distillation of my “normal” pedagogical practice. No two writers work the same way, and no two respond to critique, suggestions, or encouragement alike. While I’ve been teaching in a classroom for decades now, there’s a sense in which that practice is (for me) a prelude to holding individual conversations with my students, conversations that begin when they submit their writing to me. I’ve always felt like that’s where the most important (and impactful?) teaching I do takes place. Speaking to a group of people about writing is an exercise in statistical averages — it feels as though very little that I say will be of specific use to any one of them, as I weave a path of generalities through their intrinsic variety. (this is part of why I think “how to write” books are largely junk).

One of the saving graces of the face-to-face, broadcast classroom, though, is that I’m able to rely on non-verbal cues to make adjustments to what I’m saying. If eyes are glazed over, I can switch gears. If I see folks nodding, I can push a point a little further. And so forth. You learn after a while to read the room and the people in it.

I assume that that’s what people are after when they talk about how important it is to return to face-to-face instruction in the midst of a pandemic, at least to the degree that they are being honest about comparing close and distant instruction (as opposed to using it as a smokescreen). Myself, I’m more ambivalent about any sort of presumed (value) distinction between the two, honestly. The face-to-face classroom is a technology centuries-old, after all, and there’s no small amount of evidence that is not the one size fitting all.

Anyway, for a couple of different reasons, I found myself this week teaching a synchronous graduate course after having assiduously avoided teaching that way for the past couple of years. It’s a small group, and we met over Discord, which I’d already set up prior to the semester in case of just this sort of eventuality. I don’t want to get too deep into the mechanics of it, but I thought it went well, even though it actually went against most of what I tend to do in my courses.

I talked more than I normally do, much more. We went without cameras, and without visual cues to help manage any conversation, it was easier (I think) for me to be talking most of the time. Alongside me on the voice channel, we set up a text channel that I was watching while speaking, on which my students provided a near-constant stream of questions, comments, interjections, memes, emoji, etc. This is not to say that was no cross-over — I sometimes dropped notes in the chat, and they sometimes answered questions or discussed things in the voice channel. I should also note that there’s a “discussion” channel on our server, where I ask the students to post a few discussion questions prior to our meeting, so that I can help direct our conversations to the issues that they want to address. So it’s probably more accurate to say that we were juggling a couple of text channels, referencing PDFs, and then running a voice channel over the top of that.

That being said, after avoiding it for multiple semesters, I found myself talking to the wall, which is not what I think of when I think of teaching.

But I do have to say, it wasn’t too bad. I don’t want to speak on behalf of my students, but I think we were all pretty engaged. Having multiple channels allowed folks to “speak” at any time without fear of interrupting, and the text channel was really lively.

Honestly, it reminded me a lot of streaming. I spend a lot of time on Twitch these days — I run it in the background while I do other things, and there are some people/channels I watch regularly. I got into it several years ago when I discovered D&D streams, watching Critical Role in the Geek & Sundry days, and while I wouldn’t say that it took over my world or anything, streams and podcasts occupy the space for me that putting on ESPN in the background used to.

I’ve always thought on-and-off about the overlaps between DMing and teaching (having done a fair bit of each in my lifetime), but after class this week, the addition of streaming put a whole new spin on it for me. Until about 10 years ago, the idea of role-playing games was inextricable from the idea of a group of friends sitting around a table together. The idea of watching that was largely inconceivable. But then, so was the idea of watching someone else play a video game was, too — it summoned up images of going over to a friend’s house and slouching on the couch while their attention was on the television/controller.

But talented streamers (and there are many) are capable of splitting their attention in a way that engages their audience at the same time that they play. I don’t know that it’s all that different from the way that an instructor must divide their own time between a lesson plan and understanding how to guide students through it, through gauging their reactions, responding to their concerns, and shifting on the fly to keep them connected. Or the way a good DM can tell a coherent story while giving their players a chance to explore, develop and actualize their characters. There’s something about each of these activities that feels importantly (though perhaps not exclusively) pedagogical to me.

I need to think about this a little more, but I wonder if part of the issue with the digital/hybrid models we’ve been working with for the past couple of years is that we’ve tried to gaslight students (and instructors) about the normality of it, trying as best as possible to simulate a face-to-face experience that meeting over Zoom can only ever imitate poorly. What we should be doing is looking to places like Twitch, where they’ve been reinventing chunks of our culture for years now and doing it successfully. Rather than “putting our classes online,” we should have spent the last couple of semesters thinking about how best to work/teach/learn in those spaces and drawing on the expertise of those who are already doing it.

I know that I’m not saying anything that others haven’t said before (and probably better). But it’s been a persistent theme throughout my career, I suppose, to argue that our engagement with digital spaces has been too focused on creating pale imitations of the offline (classes, journals, books, conferences, &c.) as opposed to drawing on the strengths of those spaces to re-imagine what we do. So this is no exception in that regard, but for the pandemic.

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digital rhetorics professor at Syracuse University. rarely accused of underthinking it.

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Collin Brooke

digital rhetorics professor at Syracuse University. rarely accused of underthinking it.