Up close and at a distance

I was giving feedback to my students online the other day and realized that the way we think of reading, the way we position ourselves in the process of reading is vital. I also realized a missing part of the learning that I have been providing; I missed showing them how to know and recognize when you are moving from examining writing up close to examining writing at a distance.

You see, we read the beautifully crafted article by Alicia Elliott, “On Seeing and Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing with Empathy and Writing with Love”, and the students examined specific words, devices, phrases, and the various shapes and sizes of sentences. We analysed those small parts of her writing which contribute so meaningfully to the whole. We read up close.

But then when we switched the learning to a new task: an annotated bibliography based on their own research on any Indigenous issue and this reading required that they look at the whole, that they read at a distance, and indicate why it is relevant to the subject of their research.

In giving them feedback, I realized that I missed something important is the space between these two tasks. I missed providing the transition from reading up close to reading at a distance.

I’ve been continually wondering how students feel about this distance learning so I polled them, anonymously, to get feedback on a few of my questions. I wondered how much time the work in each course is taking them, which methods of instruction and support are beneficial to them, and what other issues are getting in their way.

This is what they told me:

time per course

From this small sample of 28 students, nearly half are spending three hours or less per day on course work, while nearly one third are spending more time than is expected.

I really wanted to know what specific structures in distance learning were supporting them and this was the result:

ways of learning online

Although my items in the list need further consideration, I think there is useful information here. If these results and my interpretation is to be trusted, then I think that the “presence” of the teacher online matters. Nearly half the students felt that short Google Meets, and screencasts done by the teacher support their learning while worksheets and assignments are the least beneficial way of learning for most students. And I don’t think this means the same thing as “synchronous learning”, but this does mean that teachers need to be active and present in the course and with the material. We have to get up close and interact with students and the course content if they are going to learn at a distance.

I’d been feeling the eeriness of this online teaching experience. I’m not close enough to the learning to understand it, so I’m left wondering from a distance. Perhaps this requires some fantastical thinking.

It was superhero day last week and I needed to lift my own spirits before our virtual class. For our weekly Google Meeting, I asked students to identify their superpower and to type it in the chat function. They were stumped. They said they didn’t have one and wanted to make it fictional and speculative. I let them to maintain fantastical thinking. Some wanted to fly or be able to make themselves invisible. But, I didn’t think they yet know their own superpowers and I wondered if I even know my own.

And then it hit me. I’m “wonder woman” but not in the descriptive or noun sense of “wonder” and not the shapely and beautifully appearing Wonder Woman of the television screen. I am “wonder woman” of the digital screen. I am “wonder” in the verb sense of wondering and questioning. I love the wordplay of this which demonstrates the complexities of language and the ways in which we gender terms with women as objects and men as actions. Glennon Doyle points this out beautifully in her book Untamed as she describes the verbs on her son’s shampoo bottle and the adjectives on her daughter’s. I love getting up  close to words and then standing at a distance to understand differently.

I only hope that I’m modelling the ability to make transitions for my students as I struggle to stay close at a distance.



4 thoughts on “Up close and at a distance

  1. I love so many things about your post, Melanie. You are definitely a “wonder” woman! But I think you are a WONDER as well – you are always so responsive to your students and so empathetic toward them.

    I am taking a new course and after the first week I already had feedback from my professor letting me know that what I am doing is right on track. That meant so much to me after being in a course last semester and receiving hardly any feedback except to tell me what I’d done wrong in major assignments. I concur with your students. The presence of the teacher doesn’t need to be synchronous, but the presence is definitely appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredible post! First, that essay by Alicia Elliott is fantastic. I’ve bookmarked it so I can reread it later again (and maybe use with students). And I love wonder as a superpower. It’s one of the best! And the metaphor from Elliott that you’ve applied to our online teaching experience is so powerful. I’m going to be thinking about it and making sure I am very intentional with my presence. I also appreciated what your students shared in your survey. Good to know what is working for them!

    Liked by 1 person

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