Thoughts from a Year of Online Teaching

In early 2013, I applied for an online faculty position at Ashford University. When the hiring process really gained steam, I was in Hawaii for the SAA conference. As a testament to the versatility of the online medium, I was virtually attending training sessions in Oahu and filling out PDF paperwork on my iPhone in St. Louis as my friend drove me from the airport. Back in Columbia, I was still in my final week of training when I got my first teaching assignment! That was one year ago, last week. The experience was been greatly rewarding, and at this milestone, I want to share some of my thoughts and experiences.

A friend at lunch offhandedly mentioned that online instructors do not care. I completely disagree! I have marveled at how the classes I have taught have brought me in contact with people from around the world and from so many walks of life. For five weeks our paths parallel. While that does not sound like much, those brief windows have shown me the death of a spouse, the birth of a child (who arrived two weeks earlier than expected, landing squarely in the final week of the class), dissolving marriages, and the daily ups and downs of single parenthood and double shifts. While I have never seen any of these people, I am involved in their lives at a deep level.

I found out that I am a fairly easy instructor in terms of deadlines. At first, I chalked it up to being green and unsure. After a year, though, I still tend to give students the benefit of the doubt if they ask for an extension for whatever reason. My previous observation is definitely a factor: while school is important, there are so many things that have to be even more important for one’s livelihood than writing a paper and I have to respect that. I do have a firm deadline of accepting nothing after four days without prior arrangements, but the arrangements are easy to come by.

Anthropology is very suited for the short online format. While a semester-long cultural anthropology class has its own benefits, a five week ‘crash course’ conveys a reasonable amount of introductory knowledge about human culture to open one’s eyes to the world around them. The rapid turnover of the course also makes it very easy to make each class unique. Every time I have taught the class, when Week 2’s lesson on race rolls around, and when Week 3’s material on gender is introduced, there is always something relevant in the news to share with the students. Whether it is when Oprah was hassled in a Swiss store, or when senators filibustered the Paycheck Fairness Act, these modern public incidents of racism or sexism (or both!) demonstrate that the textbooks and articles are talking about our own culture as well as everyone elses’. In a way, teaching anthropology is easy because so little extra effort is needed to hit one of the main criteria for effective teaching: making the information interesting and relevant to the students.

The benefits of being employed online will be evident again as I move from Columbia to San Diego. As I leave my full time job, there will be an opportunity for more online work whether it is an additional class, a different course, or both. I look forward to learning more as I teach more. Here is to another year of teaching!

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