“All you fascists are bound to lose.”

I have a confession to make: I’ve been blogging for so long now that I’m starting to regret more than a few of my older posts. Take this one, for example:

If all the student has to do to find an easier class is enroll with the webcam professor who is unwilling or unable to tell them that they actually have to read the book to complete the assignment, then the cause of education isn’t served. Perhaps this explains why most professors aren’t lining up to become free agents as we speak. Those of us who actually teach for a living know that the students aren’t supposed to be the ones with the power in the professor/student relationship.

The problem with that sentiment was that there are many other ways for students to express dissatisfaction with your class besides dropping you for some borderline unethical easy online course. For example, they can vote with their attention rather than their feet, playing with their phone or just zoning out if you get too carried away with all the power that you have as so many people’s center of attention.

This train of thought reminds me of that awful example of quit-lit in Vox yesterday. I don’t mean awful in the sense that it’s badly written or that I disagree with it entirely. I think I’m about 50/50 with respect to its various sentiments and suggested reforms. However, for anyone who’s been at the front of a classroom for any length of time, passages like this are just painful to read:

When my best friend visited my campus to give a talk, he observed one of my lectures. I’ve got many shortcomings as an academic, but lecturing isn’t one of them. I’ve been on TV, radio, podcasts — you name it. By professor standards, which admittedly aren’t that high, I could rock the mic. But while my friend sat there, semi-engrossed in the lecture, he found himself increasingly distracted by the student in front of him. That student, who like all in-state students was paying $50 per lecture to hear me talk, was watching season one of Breaking Bad. In a class with no attendance grade, where the lectures were at least halfway decent, he was watching Breaking Bad.

To be fair, season one of Breaking Bad is EXTREMELY entertaining, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this guy wasn’t quite the gifted lecturer that he thought he was. Even if he is, blaming yourself for one student doing something else while you’re talking is a recipe for madness. And it’s no coincidence that this guy is a historian, because lecturing is the easiest way to convey historical content (Oh look! Another old post that I now regret writing.) That’s why we historians are mostly lecture crazy, but even your giant survey class doesn’t have to be entirely about you. To think otherwise is just childish.

I attended Hybrid Pedagogy’s Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute in Madison a few weeks ago because I had already learned this lesson since writing that first post. I spent most of my time there listening to the great Bon Stewart explain how to think about your Internet habits in a more systematic fashion, and had my mind blown on a regular basis. Perhaps I’ll cover some of that here someday.

However, I also went to Madison because I wanted to learn about tools that I could use for my upcoming entirely online American History survey class. Future Virginian Jesse Stommel calls this a “Tool Parade,” and while he wanted to go beyond that I was so ill-equipped in terms of digital tools that I would have watched that parade go by all day long.

Luckily, my big tool break came during the Wednesday afternoon un-conference. I suggested a session on ways to promote better online discussions since mine have always stunk and I don’t want my all online class to stay that way. It happened. At one point, Jesse’s partner in crime for that week, Sean Michael Morris, who was leading that discussion, said something to the effect of, “Your students can’t really talk freely if they know you’re watching.” I then immediately said to myself (at least I hope it was to myself), “Oh shit, he’s definitely right.” Before the end of that discussion, someone (maybe Sean, maybe not – I don’t remember exactly) brought up Slack.

You may have read about Slack in ProfHacker recently. I believe at least one of those posts postdate this experience, but really neither fully do this particular tool justice. Think of it as your class’s very own social network, but in this one nobody’s pushing you products and your picture won’t end up as the face of somebody else’s ads.

I’ve been using Slack in my hybrid Introduction to Digital History class for three weeks now. The class is centered on group projects and the Slacking has already begun. There’s one general network for the whole class, private group networks for each group and the capacity to DM anyone in the class, including me, of course. Keeping Sean’s comment in mind, I made the deliberate decision to stay out of each group’s private network, but I’ve already heard that the messages are flying fast and furious. Moreover, I’m now getting DMed requests for non-class business (like advising appointments) through Slack instead of e-mail. There is just something so darned friendly about this set-up that I think it promotes communication. Learning is occurring (including learning how to use Slack) and I’m not at the center of it at all.

It’s also worth noting that Slack has a phone app. If, as that guy in Vox seems to think, teaching is some kind of war for your students’ attention, then I have captured the most valuable real estate in my students’ lives without even trying: the front of their smartphones. I send a message, they get pinged. Their fellow students send a message, they get pinged. Yes, you can do that with e-mail, but this is much, much easier and it’s not something that you have to check all the time. In this manner, Slack makes it easier to de-center your classroom without entirely replacing you the professor, and I think both these ends are very good indeed.

You may also have seen Ian Bogost’s response to that Vox piece, “No One Cares that You Quit Your Job.” In it, he calls for more “staypieces.” Consider this my “making staying easier” piece. I’m staying and my advice to people who choose to do likewise is don’t take everything personally. It’s not about you. OK, maybe it’s somewhat about you…but not nearly as much as most of us think it is.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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