Attempting to break the non-silence

I wanna be in a band/when I get to heaven/anyone can play guitar…

I mentioned in a post somewhere lost to the archive that I have a course taught through video conference this semester. I’ve actually done this before with a larger lecture course, but never on the small scale. One of the problems I noted early on was that there’s a real sense of disconnection between the groups. I also think there’s a bit of animosity (maybe the class needs a third space!).

In another post I talked about speaking space in courses. I have long thought that the biggest problem with graduate pedagogy is that instructors seem to forget what we do with our first-year students (or in the case of some remember all the bad things and forget the good things). For example, a “professor” should faciliate discussion. As an instructor, that’s what I do. I don’t lead, but I don’t allow trainwrecks, either.

In the video class there are a few people on the other site– where the professor is– who like to perform. I certainly don’t begrudge them that. I know there are students among us who enjoy speaking for long periods of time and being heard in spite of the topic. The more quiet, I-want-that-in-my-notes people like me sort of need them. But they create a situation where I feel the professor MUST intervene.

I’ve tried to be extremely careful and courteous about this course. I’ve mentioned to the professor that we feel alienated at the remote site and feel like we don’t have a space to speak (and that we’re received harshly by the students in the actual classroom in some cases). The professor did mention it to class, but there was not real change.

So today, I decided to try to turn what I do in a regular classroom into something that works with a camera and speakers. In a normal class, if someone is rambling off-topic and I want the right to speak, I make “ready to speak face.” Those of you who have taken grad classes and have been the person who doesn’t shout over everyone else know the face I mean— eyebrow darted, hand on chin, lips curled slightly… maybe one eye squinting if it’s just critical that you get the floor. This look doesn’t work on TV.

But mumbling into the microphone does.

I started innocently enough. Someone made a REALLY outlandish metaphorical comparison, and it wasn’t working, so I mumbled “the metaphor is falling apart.” I hoped someone in the other room would say “what?” and perhaps someone else could speak, but no one did. Later someone contradicted the book, and I said to the person next to me, over the mic, “that’s not what the book says.” Again– I was trying, in a subtle way, to work my way into conversation.

Eventually I’d had enough, and I interrupted someone to make my point.  I felt bad, but I did it. Because my point (illustrated in my previous post) needed to be made. It was quickly buried by people who were positive that there had to be all sorts of slack in spaces 1 and 2, but at least I got the idea out there.

But the story doesn’t end here. If anyone’s heard the Dane Cook joke about cutting in line, this one goes like that. One of the other students in our remote classroom tried to speak. And was ignored. And she tried again. And she was ignored. A third time, someone raised their voice to speak over her. So I mumbled, into the microphone, “Just talk if you want to talk. They aren’t going to leave a space.”

Finally the professor intervenes, giving me the usual response to a smart-ass: “Phill, do you have something to add?” tacking on “we can hear everything you’ve been saying,” as if I should feel some sense of intense shame for mumbling about course content while one person monopolized a three hour seminar. I also found it funny that he asked if I had something to add while clarifying that they heard everything I said, but that’s just because I like riddles.

Without pause I responded with “no, I don’t, but *name removed to protect the innocent* does. People keep talking over *person.*” And though she blushed out of talking in that moment, she FINALLY got to say what she wanted to say a few seconds later as people reacted in confusion to the class being derailed.

It seemed obvious to the others in our classroom that I had offended our professor. I hope that isn’t the case, but I have to be honest: if I did, I am not sorry. All of us in that class paid money to learn the material and to discuss it. We didn’t pay to listen to a single voice rant about off-topic personal politics while bashing the book and the concept of the course. I don’t ever want to be remembered as the Bart Simpson of a grad program, but if someone had to snipe and snicker to get the conversation to be an actual conversation and not a monologue, I’ll gladly take the ire of a professor for the sake of everyone.

Don’t have a cow, man.



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