Friday, September 4, 2009

The PTI & the DE Student

I have been teaching college courses since 1995. First, as a graduate student and then, and forever since, as a PTI, or for those of you who don’t work in the ever acronym creating world of academics, a part-time instructor. For the most part, I’m pretty good at it. My student evaluations are predominantly positive. Moreover, students compliment my personality, inventiveness, organization and equity in person and by private email. Obviously, this is nice, but I encourage them to also do so through official channels so their glowing opinions of my work performance can also have a positive impact on my personnel file. But even with the frequent and encouraging feedback, the start of a new semester always makes me think of past decisions and student encounters that were particularly difficult or merely uncertain.

About a week ago, while sitting in a pre-semester faculty meeting, I was reminded of a specific student that I hadn’t considered in years. It was the fall of 2001, and as I remember it was near the beginning of my foray into DE, or distance education, or teaching online to put it more simply. It was an English composition course, English 101 to be exact, for CCSN, the Community College of Southern Nevada. To be frank, teaching essay writing to community college students is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But I have a lot of successful experience doing it. Transferring that experience to the online classroom is challenging, but not impossible and with the right guidance and dedication and acknowledgment of personal responsibility, students do succeed.

But back in fall of 2001, I had one student who was determined not to take responsibility for any of his actions and blame me for every problem, from miniscule to devastating, that he encountered.

If he overlooked a policy in the syllabus, it was my fault because the link on the homepage labeled “SYLLABUS” wasn’t clear enough.

If he didn’t turn in something on time, it was because he shouldn’t have been expected to use the calendar link with all of the deadlines included and I should have sent emails reminding him whenever assignments were due.

If he lost points on an assignment for poor grammar and punctuation it was because my expectations for the proper use of English were too high… in a college English composition class, no less.

For an entire semester, not a day went by that I did not receive a volatile, accusatory email from this student. And not a week went by that he did not publicly post a complaint about my pedagogy seeking support for his anger from other students.

I responded to every indictment with a calm grace that is one of the benefits of teaching online. When an antagonistic student approaches you in person, it takes a lot of inner strength to take a breath and remain composed. But online, you have the option to close the email, think about it for a few hours and then expertly compose a response. This is especially important since in an electronic classroom, your response is in writing and time/date stamped. It is irrefutable evidence, so it must be unambiguous and professional.

Eventually the angry student took his complaints to the chair of the department. When he didn’t get the response he wanted from her – namely my severed head on a plate – he took his complaint to the dean. I received a letter documenting that meeting, but thanks to the slow bureaucratic stylings of higher education, it didn’t come months after the semester was over and I was rid of this student forever. And, thankfully, the letter merely acknowledged the meeting had happened and that the students’ complaints were ultimately determined to be unfounded.

Well, I could have told them that.

Despite anything this one student may have said, my online teaching skills were deemed successful by the powers that be and I have continued to work as a distance education professor every semester for over nine years. And, in order to improve my talents, I seek out professional development opportunities. Conferences, workshops, online tips and videos – I take advantage of anything I can find and afford.

A few years ago, I attended a one-day distance education conference sponsored by the Community College of Southern Nevada one week before the start of a new semester. The idea of the conference was to promote online education and inspire professors before we all started back to work. I went to lectures and workshops all day, enjoyed free breakfast and lunch with some colleagues and generally had a great day. At about 4pm, I was exhausted and debating whether I should sneak out before the last panel discussion. I took off my suit jacket and sat down on a bench outside to decide what to do next when the decision was made for me. The director of the distance education office came by and struck up a conversation with me. Next thing I knew, we were doing the “walk and talk” and I was following her into the theatre where the last panel discussion was about to start. That was it. I was trapped. I took a seat, took out my notepad and decided to make the best of it.

As opposed to all of the previous events of the day, which focused on pedagogy and technology, this panel was made up of students. Four very different looking people were seated at a table on the stage representing the broad variety of students that take online classes.

A professor stepped up and introduced the panel. Student A was an older man who had come back to school later in life and enjoyed distance education because he felt conspicuous in the classroom. Student B was a single mother who appreciated distance education because she couldn’t afford daycare. Student C was a nursing student who used distance education to take her general education courses because nursing classes are so time consuming. Student D was a guy who was using distance education to earn his degree while working full-time. And his named sounded really familiar.

It turned out that Student D dominated the conversation. He was arrogant, loud and opinionated and didn’t let Students A, B or C speak at all. So, it wasn’t surprising when he jumped in to answer this question: Do you find instructional pedagogy to be as effective online as in a traditional classroom setting?

Student D blurted out: “I do now. But I didn’t always.” And without anyone asking him to, he started telling a story. A story that sounded way too familiar. He started talking about the first time he ever took an online course… it was English 101… of course it was, I thought to myself… and then he talked about how he hated his professor and he thought that she… and the word “she” didn’t escape me… had overly high standards and poor communication skills, that the class wasn’t organized with the students’ needs in mind. He share how he had complained endlessly and had even taken his complaints to the chair of the department and the dean.

At this point I slunk down into my chair and anxiously glanced toward my left lapel. I was relieved to remember that I had taken off my jacket with my name tag on it so that he wouldn’t know that the professor he was talking about was actually in the room. And thank God I wasn’t the type of online professor that posted a photo of myself. At least he would never recognize me. He was tearing me apart in front of my colleagues and a couple of people who could actually fire me. I started silently, desperately praying that he wouldn’t say my name. Please, please, please don’t say my name was my unspoken mantra.

He talked about how that experience had turned him off of online education and he was panic-stricken because he had counted on being able to complete his degree online while he still worked full-time. So, hoping that his disastrous first experience was a one-time thing, he registered for two more online classes the next semester. One, he said, was truly awful, and the second was just okay. And from taking these additional online classes, he realized that it was he who had not put the effort into the first class… English 101 with yours truly as the professor… and had blamed his problems on the professor when in retrospect her class was actually well planned and organized and she had been more much patient and helpful with him than perhaps he actually deserved.

Wait, I thought – is he actually admitting he was wrong?!? Was this public apologia? I was shocked, but so happy that I was there for this event. If I hadn’t stayed for the panel discussion, I never would have known that this student who hated me and had tried to get me fired had eventually come to the conclusion that I was a good teacher. He even went on to say that he was glad he had taken English 101 during his first semester because what he had learned about writing had been so helpful in his subsequent classes.

I don’t remember what anyone else said in that panel discussion. I just sat there reveling in the unexpected flattery and satisfaction of a job well done. I also debated whether I should approach the student and introduce myself in light of what he had said. But instead, I just picked up my jacket, purse and conference materials and slipped out the back door with a smile on my face. If he had actually wanted me to know any of those things, he would have contacted me on his own. I had the unique opportunity to learn that my position as a professor, while initially met with disdain, had ultimately been a much broader learning experience than that student could have ever imagined. That was rewarding and inspiring in ways that the conference coordinators could have never imagined.

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