A COPLACDigital reflection by Brenda Brown

It was almost thirty years ago that I horrified my dissertation committee by turning down a tenure track job at a research university and accepting an offer from an institution dedicated to teaching undergraduate students. One of the main reasons for my choice was the institution’s mandatory general education core, ranging from freshmen to senior level, which was interdisciplinary (IDS) and committed to team teaching. Still working at this same university, which remains committed to this program, I have had the opportunity to teach many of the IDS courses with a variety of faculty and have found myself learning from each of these experiences.  

When I heard about the COPLACDigital project, I was instantly captivated as it integrated those two aspects of teaching that I find the most productive to students: interdisciplinarity and team teaching. While I was anxious about the mode of teaching (online via Zoom to students across the United States), nervous about working with a new partner (an amazing history professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield), and intimidated by the final project (creating a website), what I was most concerned with has been my priority for three decades: effective pedagogy. I wanted to make sure the students learned something. Not surprising to any teacher, I discovered that the facets of an effective course remain surprisingly consistent. While it is easy to point out the contributing factors to a course’s success—instructor and student preparedness, challenging yet doable assignments, etc.—it is harder to describe, much less initiate and maintain, that enigmatic quality known as class chemistry, which I believe is central to student learning. Recognizing the importance of building a strong class community in this unique teaching environment, my teaching partner and I deliberately set out to make the students feel as comfortable and confident as possible.

Sailing into our class, “Fashion as an Agent of Change,” we began trying to create class unity the very first day we met. After the students had introduced themselves and talked about why they were interested in this topic, we separated the students into three chat rooms armed with specific open-ended, nonthreatening questions to answer—how do your fashion choices reflect who you are? What is your favorite type of fashion? From what era? In these chat rooms, the sixteen faces on the screen were reduced to five or six, partners from the same campus were separated from each other, and everyone had the opportunity and responsibility to participate. The students were totally onboard and did not hesitate to share. My partner and I sometimes joined in the chat rooms but were also content to let them have time to themselves to explore each other’s ideas and bond. Letting them know how long the discussion would last (usually 10-15 minutes) encouraged them to stay on task and focused. We utilized chat rooms regularly the first five weeks of the class.

Blogs have become a staple of online classes, but this does not mean they are automatically successful in building community. Trying to encourage direct communication between the students, we asked them to write one blog post once a week in response to a prompt we posted and then respond to at least one other student’s post. Again, the idea was to increase dialogue (and thus learning). We found that the students would post about their process or their frustrations and others would respond with encouragement or detailed instructions as to how to work with a certain program or overcome a technical problem. It was not uncommon for students to solve problems among themselves before we were even aware there was an issue. This not only brought them closer as a class but also allowed them to bask in the glow of being experts who could help others. And, those that needed help weren’t embarrassed by their ignorance, because their classmates were just responding to their blog post . . . not really helping them.

I was surprisingly pleased with the connection I felt with the students in spite of our physical distance, but I did not realize how strong our relationship was until one of our students I will call Niall began to have serious issues with the class and its requirements. Niall and his partner’s discomfort had been obvious early on, and their lack of progress finally resulted in our suggesting that they withdraw from the class. While the partner readily accepted this, Niall struggled. He had never dropped a class before, he did not want to quit something he had started, etc. After several private conversations, we finally just had to lay it out for him: he had to withdraw. As we had this conversation, the distance dropped away; the cameras and computers and screens became immaterial. It was just a student and me trying to figure out life. I believe that when he finally made the decision to withdraw from the course, he was at peace with it in large part because he trusted my advice.

While the majority of the community-building was deliberate on our part as instructors, one aspect that was out of our hands involved the support staff who controlled our computers’ access to the class. At the beginning of every class, these individuals welcomed every student and checked their equipment to make sure they could be heard and they could hear everything going on. If the students had been greeted by coldness or even indifference, I have no doubt the class would have suffered, but the friendliness and patience of these individuals helped ensure the students’ overall sense of collaboration and comradery. Such a seemingly simple element was crucial to building the class community.

As with all of the courses I teach for the first time, I would love to have a do-over. Even as this course progressed, my partner and I made notes about what we would have done differently or what we could improve on. But, reflecting back on the experience, I am still pleasantly surprised by our ability to create a strong, cohesive learning community through the use of technology.

Headshot of Dr. Brenda Brown

Brenda Brown is a Professor of English at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. She taught "Fashion & Identity in Modern America" for COPLACDigital in the spring of 2018.