The Virtual Teacher

Like many writing teachers, I am privy to secrets. I’ve read stories about lost love and illicit affairs, addiction, shame, family dysfunction of every stripe. I know the parting words one student’s father said to her before dying; I know how another’s wife reacted when he revealed his long-hidden homosexuality. These are such private stories that, without encouragement, they might never have made it onto the page. And like any teacher, I feel privileged to have helped bring them to life.

There’s just one difference between me and most other writing teachers: I wouldn’t know my students if I passed them on the street.

I am one of that new breed of educators, an online university instructor. Most people probably don’t even wonder what that means; those who do probably imagine I inhabit a sort of academic netherworld — somewhere between the legitimate classroom and the mail-order correspondence courses advertised on late-night TV. Even I was skeptical when I was first offered the job more than a year ago.

I’d spent years teaching the old-fashioned way, standing at a chalkboard. What I loved about the classroom was its intimacy — the way I could tell right away if my students grasped what I told them, the way that my gestures and vocal inflections could elicit immediate response. I liked the physical clues that hinted at their personalities — the slouchy postures and jittery knees, tattoos and subversive haircuts. Most of all, though, I relished my classroom role as a sort of farmer, attentively coaxing a new crop of writers into the world.

How would that role change, I wondered, in a “virtual classroom”? One where I would post written lectures instead of tailoring them (or ad-libbing) for my audience? Where the only way they could have dialogue — with me or each other — would be through instant messages or the class discussion board?

I had a hard time, at first. Posting each of my online lectures, I felt anxious about how my students would respond. I could no longer rely on visual tip-offs — nods, blank stares — to help me along; I also simply missed seeing their faces. As I read their stories and messages on the discussion board, I took comfort in imagining the details of what each of them might look like. I pictured one female student with spiky hair, glasses, and (for some reason) a fuzzy wool scarf around her neck; another, older student became a freckled redhead in hiking boots.

I also worried that my students couldn’t see my face. This was especially tricky when it came to giving critical feedback; how to make sure they took my e-mailed critiques as they were meant — constructively — when I couldn’t temper them with a compassionate expression or a reassuring shoulder pat.

Before long, though, I began to realize something: Rather than sharing my separation anxiety, the students seemed to thrive in our virtual learning environment. Their writing was freer and more evocative, their subject matter more personal, than what I’d seen in the classroom. On one level, this wasn’t surprising; in our age of e-communication, where writers can lay themselves bare without ever being recognized at the supermarket, the liberation of anonymity is clear.

There was another difference, though, one that took me longer to recognize because it was harder for me to accept. My online students just didn’t need me the way their classroom counterparts had. In fact, as they progressed through the course, they consulted me less and less, until, by their final assignments, I was hardly part of the process at all. It left me feeling dismayed, even a bit wistful — the farmer watching her seeds lift away on the breeze.

This was the hardest truth for me to acknowledge as an online teacher: My absence was actually helping my students more than my presence ever had. I could coddle them in the classroom, but at the end of the day, writers have to do their real work alone. They have to mine their own stories, hammer out their sentences, and muster the courage to send them off — to faceless, voiceless editors — in hope of getting published. Without realizing it, this is what I had been teaching them to do.

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a former online student — a young woman who’d never tried to write until she took my class. The subject line read simply: “My story’s getting published!!!”

The harvest has begun.