Despite nearly 50 years of experiences teaching in lecture halls and seminar rooms, I have found preparing and teaching an online course—Years of Upheaval: Diplomacy, War, and Social Change, 1919–1945—to be full of surprises. Here, my five stages of online teaching.
Stage 1: Excessive Exuberance
It begins with Susan Baldridge, Middlebury’s vice president for strategy and planning, giving a presentation about the interesting things one could do in an online course. Susan is recruiting faculty to teach. I’m an emeritus professor, enjoying retirement and with time on my hands and curiosity to burn. I like being the first to do something new. And how hard can it be? I’ll just add a few additional sessions and some extra PowerPoint slides to my Alumni College course on World War II. Next the documentary instruction company In the Telling (ITT) gives a presentation. Nice. They can jazz it up and handle the technology for me. A deadline of late August? Okay, so I miss a few golf dates.
Stage 2: Reality Bites
Technological benefits come with costs. I’m told that people have, at maximum, nine-minute attention spans when it comes to watching talking heads on computer screens, which means adding more images, videos, and music to the slides. All right, I can do that. All the visual items have to be broadcast quality. Uh-oh. I also need to add about 150 or so “transmedia links” to information “off canvas” to supplement the lecture materials. What? And we need copyright clearances for each of the roughly 300 items. Soon I am spending all my waking hours searching for new materials and their copyright holders. The files are to be shared with ITT through Dropbox. What the hell is Dropbox? I’m now conducting a full-time research project. My wife, who only recently joined me in retirement, is beginning to feel lonely. Meanwhile, the August deadline looms.
Stage 3: They’re Ready for My Close-Up
I anticipate the filming taking two weeks. With one session a day, I can catch my breath after each class and prepare for the next. In fact, the filming is squeezed into five days, with two sessions a day being the norm. There are more new challenges, such as makeup. That’s a first. The biggest challenge is attempting to communicate with an inanimate object—the camera—after decades of relying on cues from students’ reactions. It never laughs. It never groans. It just stares. But I find my stride after a couple of sessions, and the ITT crew gives me positive reinforcement. I do love compliments, sincere or not.
Stage 4: Editing and Cringing
If I thought I was uncomfortable during the filming, I’m even more so watching myself on film during the editing phase.My first reaction is relief. Hey, I don’t look all that old. Good, no verbal crutches or uptalk. Nice ITT enhancements. But with the benefit of hindsight via not-quite-instant replay, I find myself wanting to phrase things differently, to spend more time on a particular line of thought. Too late. The producers assure me this is both a natural reaction and unnecessary worrying. They think the material is great.
Stage 5: The Premiere
Still to come, and I’d rather not think too much about it. You be the judge.
Years of Upheaval: Diplomacy, War, and Social Change, 1919–1945 will be offered to interested alumni, parents, and friends in February.