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Teaching Online Dialogue: Responses #3

We’re thrilled to continue our dialogue on online pedagogy with these two pieces. In our February issue, Lee Skallerup Bessette kicked off the dialogue with her piece ‘Teaching Online in Extraordinary Times,’ and the next week’s dialogue pieces, by Alexander Jones and Sean Michael Morris, reflected on the need for resilience and the paradoxical importance of knowing when to admit defeat. This week’s trio of responses, by Cai Lyons, Laura Biesiadecki and Paul Thifault, discuss specific pedagogical practices and tools that might make teaching in the upcoming weeks and months that bit more fruitful.

#MuseumAtHome: Art in a Time of Crisis

Cai Lyons, University of Birmingham

Universities and their libraries are now closed. Higher education (HE) institutions are rapidly changing how education is delivered and moving everything online. Where possible, students are recommended to access online journals and e-books. This has been supported by numerous publishing institutions, who have made their content available online for a limited time. JSTOR and Cambridge Core are offering free access to their academic and HE texts during this crisis, while the digital textbooks platform Kortext is working with Jisc, the UK’s not for profit education and research services provider, to launch the Free Student eTextbook Programme (FSTP). Fifty-six different publishing institutions have made their content temporarily available for free on Project MUSE, an aggregated database of humanities and social science textbooks and journals. 

But what of art? What of those students who need to look at paintings, sculptures, tapestries, architecture – artworks of all decorative forms and functions? For the past decade, more and more effort has been made to digitise visual material and, where possible, upload it so it is accessible to all who have an internet connection. The Google Arts and Culture Project is an incredible resource, with high resolutions images. There are 13,548 high resolution images available through the Google Art Camera, where you can zoom in to view the artist’s brushstrokes or the weave of the canvas. You can explore by art movement; the collection of modern art, from Impressionism through to Surrealism and abstract expressionism is impressive.

Figure one: Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son, detail (1875, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). 

With Google Street View, you can go on virtual tours of the British Museum in London, the Guggenheim in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and many more.  If you download the Google Arts and Culture app, there are other features to be accessed, like audio tours.

It is true that during this unprecedented crisis, we are collectively turning to entertainment and the arts industry to fill our days – to distract us and uplift us. Friday morning: another day working at home. BBC Breakfast: coronavirus. Email inbox: coronavirus. On Twitter: coronavirus. But wait, what’s this? Two new hashtags: #MuseumatHome and #MuseumsfromHome? There is so much to explore. 

The National Portrait Gallery has a #portraitoftheday every day; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has daily gallery tours and their catalogue backlist is free; the National Gallery in London has a whole thread dedicated to their recent Titian exhibition; and the Van Gogh Museum has created videos of its galleries in 4K and uploaded them to YouTube, with more to come. And there are hundreds of people sharing and talking about their favourite artworks.   

Many museums and galleries have online collections. There are image databases like Bridgeman Education, ArtSTOR, Image Bank, and Europeana, some of which need institutional logins to access. But with Twitter, the curators and gallery staff are interacting with artworks and visitors in a volume never seen before. Textbooks are free and now, so is the dialogue around the artworks that we research, teach, love, admire, and enjoy.

Teaching with Twitter: Community beyond the Classroom

Laura Biesiadecki, Temple University

As our community makes the switch to online and alternative instruction, many of us will be rewriting lesson plans and syllabi, searching for the perfect balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning. We will be, or have been, looking for a deeper connection in (virtual)face-to-(virtual)face communication, higher energy for our Zoom meetings of 25+, and a more empathetic voice for Google Classroom posts. 

I’ve been struggling with feelings of disappointment in these early stages of the shift from campus to couch, knowing that students will spend most class hours completing assignments off-line, on their own, completely separated from their classmates. Most of my classes are discussion-based, and my education batteries are recharged by unplanned moments of group laughter and vulnerability, none of which seem likely to happen after such a quick and dirty transition to virtual instruction. Frankly, I’m scared.

In this time of transition and apprehension, I turn to Twitter for hope.

For the past five semesters, I’ve started the third week of every first-year writing and ‘Theories of Gender & Sexuality’ class with a four-step Twitter assignment: 

  1. Download the Twitter app or bookmark the page on your computer
  2. Create a private account for this class using your school email
  3. Follow the account I’ve made for our class
  4. Follow your classmates

Students are then asked to follow at least 50 other accounts over the next five days, building an online information base that consists of verified, or “blue check” news accounts, institutional accounts, and individuals (presidential candidates, directors, athletes, journalists, musicians, celebrity chefs, etc…). They’re also encouraged to follow accounts that are not verified, understanding that Twitter’s verification process, while helpful in identifying “authentic” accounts, does not guarantee correctness. By the time we come together for our next class meeting, each student is following 65+ people.

When we’ve all connected, the assignment expands: once a week for the rest of the semester, students are expected to tweet or retweet content related to the class reading, and tweet at least one informal response to a classmate. As a group, we start each class meeting with 10 minutes of tweet presentation and discussion, offering the opportunity for students to share, comment, challenge, and question. With anywhere from 15 to 32 people contributing new content to each class session, the conversation is consistently extraordinary.

Two weeks ago, my ‘Gender & Sexuality’ class was asked to find tweets related to either the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning or the 1992 essay from bell hooks, ‘Is Paris Burning?’ And, would you believe it, none of the accounts we followed were tweeting about this content! But a few students found and shared tweets about the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, clips from FX’s Pose, and an article celebrating Barbara Smith. These were topics that wouldn’t have been covered by the original syllabus, but that helped the class to contextualise assigned readings and consider the past thirty years of ballroom culture.

For the next six weeks, my Theories of Gender & Sexuality class won’t be able to start group meetings with a ten-minute review of relevant Twitter content, and students won’t be able to turn to their neighbours to ask questions or commiserate over a bad take. But they will keep tweeting and retweeting and responding to each other on a platform that encourages participation, rewards informality, and fosters the camaraderie we built in the first half of our semester.

The Return of the Lecture

Paul Thifault, Springfield College

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet

T.S. Eliot – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The digital turn in university teaching threatens our reliance on organic class discussion in teaching modernist works. I am referring to the common instructional practice of beginning class meetings with spontaneous student responses to assigned readings, and then carefully introducing the instructor’s knowledge and more structured activities as needed. In the US, such seminar-style instruction is pervasive in brick-and-mortar settings. Certainly, online discussion boards do provide a robust opportunity for student input (and my colleagues and I use them to supplement our traditional courses), but such responses are usually shaped by the students’ awareness of needing to say something to receive credit—whereas in a physical class, a thoughtful student may prefer to remain silent for a while, signaling attention with eye contact and a few head nods, in advance of making some greater, riskier contribution in a later class period.

All agree that the instructor’s personal presence is integral to creating a sense of a shared learning community, and, in the traditional setting, we instructors present ourselves most effectively in our deft moderation of spontaneous student exchange. But as our in-person moderation of class discussion becomes necessarily less dynamic and more piecemeal in the asynchronous online platform, we need to rethink our primary mode of being present for students.

All of this suggests a sea-change in our attitude towards the lecture in humanities education. Though I’ve dutifully refrained from much lecturing in my career in adherence to my own training and to the expectations of my departments, I have never subscribed to the notion that lecturing leads purely to passive learning. As a graduate student in coursework at Fordham University, I was riveted by the weekly lectures of Phil Sicker, longtime co-editor of Joyce Studies Annual, who would dramatize his thoughts on Ulysses and Pale Fire from reams of yellow legal paper, cleverly anticipating our questions, and generously firing off more possible essay topics than a dozen seminars could hope to complete. We can all agree that there are great lecturers, but even I will concede that a bad lecture is worse than a bad discussion. 

It is ironic, then, that after years of maligning the lecture, and without exactly pronouncing the “L-word,” higher ed administration and pedagogical gurus are now championing some form of lecturing to retain a sense of community in the online classroom. I am pleased with this development but do fear that all the years of avoiding lecturing has made us all wrongly presuppose that we are actually capable of lecturing well in the first place. Personally, I feel underprepared to approach the podium with much polish, being so used to the improvisational approach of moderation. What about all of my ahs, ums, and tangents? Won’t lectures take an amazing amount of time to prepare and record? What if I make a factual error or a tasteless remark and my stupidity is immortalised on YouTube?

It’s time that we faced it: the undergraduate lecture is a unique and increasingly rare genre—something distinct from a conference paper, keynote address, podcast, or TED talk. In the online setting, it mixes an antique approach to instruction with cutting edge digital know-how. It also requires an assumption of authority on behalf of the instructor that clashes with the anti-authoritarian posture of our discipline. But as online teaching becomes an evermore common mode of course delivery, literary studies will need to take a more active role in encouraging and training instructors to deliver engaging and somehow participatory monologues. To aid in this process, it’s time we had our institutions in literary studies shine light on the lecture. Let’s coordinate a series of lecture-writing contests, conference panels, and edited collections that signal the importance of the online lecture as a central part of what literature instructors do—and will have to do more of—in the years ahead.

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