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Face to Face is so much better?

Teaching, learning, online presence and questioning the premise….

You can also visit and comment on this essay on my Craft page here.

I have mentioned before that I'm a writer. I'm also rather burdened by Imposter Syndrome so, although I have written a lot and even published a fair few things, I often question that label for myself since, well, I haven't written that novel yet. Quite apart from the fact that you don’t need to write a novel to be a writer, it’s a rather silly extension of the way of feel about my work in general which does rather get in the way. Anyway, I do try to read (part of a writer is reading, for me at least). I read serendipitously and opportunistically and, like a good many other people I suspect, I have a few different piles of physical books around the place, on top of a few dozen in my Kobo (I have a Sage and I love that I can scribble on it). Part of my reading is around the practice of writing, which was spurred by Stephen King's excellent On Writing a while ago and has grown into a bit of a thing all by itself. I am in the middle of reading Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme, which I have recently discovered is part of a set of 5 “Quitbooks” (a tagname, now there’s a thing). It has the promisings of an interesting book on the craft – not as funny or deep as Lamott’s essential Bird by Bird, but then, there are good reasons the latter is an out and out must-read for pretty much anyone. And who knew that “Strength” was a registered trademark? Well, Gallup, I suppose. One of the first things Syme gets to us needing to quit is accepting premises of things that we hear. She calls this Questioning the Premise (QTP). Like – her example this – you can’t edit an empty page. This is a premise Syme says should be questioned. I agree with her on this – I tend to edit my blank pages in my head many times over before I actually get stuff down on paper or screen. For any review or letter or page of research I write down there have been many hours of seemingly non-work whilst what I want to write sorts itself into a semblance of order in my head. Most of what I have ever written and published is ‘first draft’ – as in, was what I put on the paper in the first place – but has been through several revisions before it saw the light of day. How do I do this for research papers where I need to put references and such in? By remembering, synthesizing and writing, then adding the references later! The idiom is “if you want to be a writer, write!” whereas for me and (it seems) many others, it really should be “if you want to be a writer, potter about with something else while the words make their picture in your head. Then write!” The questioning of premises is the point of the essay you are now reading. Actually, the questioning of one premise in particular that has been doing the rounds, as it were, more and more recently: that *things are better face to face*. Spoiler: I don’t believe that this is necessarily so. We’ve lived through some terrible times in the past couple of years – lockdowns, deaths (5 million and counting), ‘restrictions’ (news flash: requiring masks is not a restriction) and more. Many people have suffered simply because of lockdowns. Humans are apparently social animals – at least that’s what everyone wants to assert at the moment – and suffer if they can’t interact socially with each other. What’s more, the received wisdom says, students should be in a class to learn, they are suffering for being out of school. And then there’s the “everything is better face to face.” Why? Why is everything better face to face? Do we think better when a few inches from another human being? Are we more articulate? Are we more interesting? Are all of us social in the way people think they mean when they say we are? At the risk of becoming unpopular I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that everything isn’t better – or at the very least doesn’t have to be – face to face. Some things are. Being in love is better face to face. Seeing your parents? Yes. I miss my parents and siblings in the UK. I don't miss traveling there except for my little stop, every time, at Birdlip Hill to say hello or goodbye to England (I have come to realize I don't miss travelling at all). Sharing food and drink, sure. Concerts? Yes, I’d say so. But some things just aren’t necessarily better face to face: Meetings. Lectures. Shyness. Speaking out. Being different. For many of us, lockdowns have opened up a vast new set of experiences, possibilities, ways of doing things and ways of being that our gregarious, noisy society frankly denied us before. It has been a joy (I use the word in the correct sense that Zadie Smith examines). I teach at a university. It has the distinction (I use the word wisely) of having a student body with a great many immigrants – often first or second generation. Sometimes English is not their first language, or at least not that of their parents. Often they are the first people in their family to go to a university, with the attendant pressures thereof. In the past couple of years some of my students haven’t even been in Canada because they got stuck someplace or got their visa but caught in travel bans. It’s been a wild ride, hasn’t it? I’ve noticed in the classes I teach that the interactions with my students have been deeper and more meaningful and reasoned online than they ever were in person. They've also been fun. I can't recall laughing out loud in any face to face tutorial, but this past semester it was every week. Every week I have also been totally wiped out by the end of a synchronous teaching session, however short. I put every single piece of me into those sessions and the rewards are manifest, not just engaged students but totally engaged me. And exhausted me, but thankfully I have a very understanding family. I’m not saying I’m a bad teacher face to face, I’m saying I’m a better one online. There is a significant minority of students who not only enjoy, but also flourish, in the online setting. They are more willing to contribute their thoughts in class, they are more willing to be vulnerable in front of their peers, and they are more able to engage on their own terms in an environment that is inherently more democratic than the traditional mode of education we are all so desperate to get back to. This last is interesting right? Technology isn’t democratic – it’s expensive, elitist, inaccessible to many even in the ‘right’ socio-economic space. But education isn’t democratic either. It’s an exercise in power by those who know things over those who don’t, where we spend half the time telling people the things we know without listening to their stories, and the other half putting them through dead-end assignments or stressful exams so that they can prove to us we’re good at getting them to learn stuff. It requires that students turn up to classes or they won’t get the material. It requires them, in sum, to put their own lives in limbo while they learn about what we say is important. Yes, I’m exaggerating. No, not by much. Teaching online isn’t like that, or at least it shouldn’t be (teaching face to face shouldn’t be either, but you have to start somewhere). We’ve learned in the past short while that we can do it, what works, and how it works, and many of my colleagues have made great strides in bringing the best out of our students. The best, not just ‘good enough’. What’s more, we’ve often been able to get the best out of ourselves too. My own experiences has helped me grow as a teacher, a student, a listener and a parent. I have grown, so very much. As for us as teachers, we’ve engaged with people on their own ‘ground.’ We’ve shown ourselves to be human beings, with our own lives and stories, and it has brought out some amazing things. When we’ve been doing it right, we’ve shared and discussed with instead of talked at and we’ve all – students and teachers – grown as a result. I suspect that for some teachers this has been a deeply uncomfortable experience. It’s nice to be looked up to, respected, listened to and to have power of some kind. There's a sense of your place in the world where we have so little control and which seems to be less viable every single day. But let’s not pretend that all children learn better when they’re stuffed into a classroom with other children. Many of them learn better at different paces than the (not particularly wise) crowd. For some of them the crowd slows them down, for others, it’s too fast or too stimulating. My own schooling was a mix of terror and boredom for various reasons and informs my own view of educational facilities. One size does not fit all. Whilst many children thrive in the social atmosphere of the classroom, many children, my own and others, have done better outside of the traditional classroom environment because they don’t thrive there. They just survive there. Let’s get over the premise of everything being better face to face. It’s false anyway and it does many of us little to no good to perpetuate it. Everything is not always better face to face. We don’t need to be face to face to make wonderful things happen.

December 19th, 2021
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