I am the odd duck in our group: I am not designing an online composition course; I am designing an online introduction to literature course. I have taught advanced composition online, and I can see how it “works” in an asynchronous learning environment.
But teaching literature online…
The very act seems at odds with all that I know about how to teach literature. Literature should be debated “live” so that comments can ricochet around the room, triggering insights that help students uncover the meaning of a text. I can act on a comment immediately; students can react to and respond to it immediately. It is the tradition I was trained in, and it’s one that I value.
I will have to surrender that tradition, and this worries me. As you can see from previous posts here, my colleagues share a similar concern. The immediacy of dynamic dialogue will be nearly impossible to attain in an online course. Even if I held a virtual class meeting, the technology of it would drag down the spontaneity by flattening it to a screen that both communicates and distracts. I am not certain there is a true digital equivalent, so instead of searching in vain for a substitute, I have decided to look for an alternative.
Still, finding examples of such alternatives has proved more difficult than I anticipated. While there is ample research about teaching composition online, there is very little about teaching literature online, especially general education introduction courses.
In 2009, however, the Modern Language Association dipped its toe in the online teaching of literature and language when it published Teaching Language and Literature Online, a collection of essays edited by Ian Lancashire. While some of the essays feel a bit dated (WebCT is no more), several authors present inventive strategies to overcome the unavoidable drag caused by the asynchronous delivery of instruction.
One in particular spoke to my concern about the loss of dynamic conversation: Laura L. Bush’s “Solitary Confinement: Managing Relational Angst in an Online Classroom.” Early in Bush’s essay she emphasizes how her online literature course must “facilitate[s] real human interaction” (291). Even better–she describes some ideas for creating it.
Bush’s decision to synthesize the journal entries of her students and use that synthesis as the prompt for a discussion topic marries two problematic tools in Blackboard: the journal and the discussion board. Used independently of one another, these tools often suppress student engagement. They often elicit wooden responses from students who either post drive-by comments or write like robots programmed to perform. As a result, grading them often feels like a chore for the instructor.
Bush’s tactic injects an element of suspense in that students write journal entries wondering whether their ideas will get a “shout out” in the prompt; students get glimpses of what their peers are saying in journals not visible to them. The instructor gets to shape the discussion based on what students have observed and analyzed, which brings, albeit asynchronously, their ideas back to the center of the discussion.
At the end of her essay, Bush includes the “Guidelines and Evaluation Criteria” she uses to assess student work in online discussions. It’s worth a look.
Bush, Laura L. “Solitary Confinement: Managing Relational Angst in an Online Classroom.” Teaching Language and Literature Online, edited by Ian Lancashire. Modern Language Association, 2009, pp. 290-309.