Since I’ve begun teaching online, my engagement with my students has been mostly mediated through text. This primarily textual engagement with other humans, many of whom I will never meet face to face, has given new meaning to our symposium’s theme for me. Although we do have some videoconferences in real time, most of the listen, think, and respond sequences in my classes are accompanied by significant delays (the lag time involved in responding to email plays a big role here). This mode of communication has some disadvantages, like the inability to read body language and other non-verbal cues, but one advantage I’ve found is that students recognize quickly the importance of writing as a way of getting what they need. In addition to writing papers in my classes, students also have to write discussion posts, feedback to other students through peer review, and emails … much of this without seeing their classmates or me.
In the online format, a question can’t come in the form of a lifted eyebrow or a confused look (how many times have you realized based on these cues that a student didn’t understand concepts or instructions?). Instead, the student must carefully articulate the question in writing. Some students seem to enter the class already realizing the importance of clarity and specificity in written communication, and they write detailed emails when they have questions, identifying the assignment they’re having trouble with or describing in detail (sometimes with screenshots) the technological issue they’re facing. But other students start off asking questions as they might in the classroom, sending brief emails containing half-formed thoughts or general statements of confusion, which prompts additional rounds of emails in which I keep asking for clarification and offering to videoconference until I can understand what the student is struggling with. The delay involved in these exchanges has consequences, and students lose valuable time to work on assignments. But the delay also teaches an important lesson about clarity in written communication, a lesson that the students can and should carry into their lives beyond the classroom: When words are all you have, you have to make them count. Successful online students learn quickly to craft emails that ask for exactly what they need to know or see, and I, as an instructor, have learned to craft increasingly clear and detailed responses. I know that these lessons in writing for life have stuck with me, and I hope that they stick with my students long after they’ve forgotten the essays they wrote for their grades.
Sheena Boran, Online Writing Instructor, University of Mississippi