I’m Taking Online Classes and It's Like I’m Teaching Myself

A professor's perspective.

Posted Mar 01, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

Jeshoots/Unsplash
Source: Jeshoots/Unsplash

Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part post.

These days, it’s common to hear students say, “I’m taking online classes and it’s like I’m teaching myself.” And it’s equally common to hear parents express their own frustration with comments like, “All this tuition money for this?” or “This is ridiculous, professors have had since last March to make this work, enough of the pandecation party; it’s time to get to work.”

I've been teaching on the college level for 26 years, yet this is a new type of complaint brought on by the pandemic. I approached this semester with trepidation as I was scheduled to teach Minority Group Relations (an outdated course title that I did not choose). In a year in which we have been especially saturated by the weight of white supremacy and violent crimes by whites to intimidate and control people of color, I, a white professor in the South, was concerned about how I would pull off teaching such charged material online, asynchronously. January 6 happened, with the rioting at the Capitol, and I was set to start teaching on January 11. It seemed surreal to me to do this online, away from each other; the moment begged for connection. 

In my class, a non-traditional-aged white woman asked in an online discussion forum how she possibly could be privileged as a white person since she grew up poor; she recounted examples of kids with whom she grew up who were black and had more money and material possessions. I unpacked this publicly on the forum, gently questioning her, and she remained tremendously open and curious—so much so that days later she posted on Blackboard that she had been Googling to continue to try to better understand white privilege, and she came upon a terrific TED Talk. I had never seen it before, and I, too, watched it and was blown away. Funnily enough, the speaker referenced readings I had already assigned so materials were connecting for the student and coming full circle. I am grateful to the student for asking this question that so many have, for not deleting her question on the discussion board even though she emailed me earlier that week really wanting to, and I encouraged her to keep it up, and for wanting to know more about the subject. She taught herself something through this and was then inspired to pass along this brightly lit torch to me and to others in the class. If that counts as teaching oneself, we need much more of that. 

I stood as the guide on the side, coaching her to sit with the discomfort of what she posted since the same thing could have happened had she spoken in a face-to-face class and later regretted it but unable to take it back. I took a giant leap of faith that others might receive her comments graciously based on the foundation work I had done with them to move beyond shame, blame, and guilt, and to open to deeper vulnerability and intimacy.

Rather than try to control the whole thing, I let it go, not in a laissez-faire way, but rather one that was infused with care for her and the other students. I wound up later reading papers that referenced this important moment in the course. Through it all, I did not post any videos of me lecturing. Yet people seemed to trust what I was doing with the discussion boards and continued to post more questions and comments. The emotional labor in a class like this can be intense and especially so at a cultural moment when tensions are running so high.

This assumption that students are just teaching themselves in asynchronous online classes is rooted in something else as well: It’s the notion that students can and should just show up however they want to for a class and professors should just accept that as enough. They can come to class hungover with a cap pulled down halfway down their face and not utter a peep; they can scroll through their phones that are nestled in their crotches under the table; they can put their heads down on the desk; they can saunter in and out at any time. What I am seeing in this particular asynchronous online class is a different way that students are showing up to the experience and generally giving more of themselves to it. 

This class serves as a case study for me as I think about the merits of asynchronous online classes in a pandemic. My experience in this class has helped me to reflect on and refine my perspective on online education and to think hard and critically about the dominant narrative that students are merely teaching themselves. In short, if asynchronous online learning can be accomplished for the most fraught topics like racism in this cultural moment, it likely can be relied on as a good modality for anything until it is truly safe to be face-to-face. And students aren’t just teaching themselves. That’s a myth to further devalue and insult educators. But are students teaching themselves more than they might be used to? Perhaps. And, as in the case of my class, yes, absolutely, and it’s a great thing.