In classes such as mine, the “massive” element is not the students, but the subject matter: the power and possibilities found in Shakespeare’s plays. The students, then, can be the tight and narrow focus of the teacher’s attention.
But what is exactly “in focus” in an online class when the student is never seen? I found the answer in the work that online learning organically fosters.
As international as my students
After a few jet-lagged weeks in the tropical heat of Taiwan’s late summer, the semester started. In the early morning I’d ride my rusty-trusty bike alongside the enormous Da An Gongyuan (“park of great peace”) to the public library, an eight-floor concrete tower filled with fake tropical plants and, on its upper floors, rows of four-person tables which, on the weekends, are filled by improbably quiet high school students poring over their textbooks. I’d find a seat, and once more into the breach, dear friends: another day of work. Logging on to Blackboard, I would check to see how my Shakespeare students in Michigan were doing.
Except they weren’t all in Michigan. On the second day of class, a student wrote that he was in the Philippines, about an hour’s flight away from me. Another student was in Germany. Others were spread out all over Michigan and the United States. And ironically, one of my students was from Taipei but currently living in Ann Arbor, where I was on faculty at Washtenaw Community College.
This was my first eye-opening experience as an online teacher overseas: I thought I was doing something groundbreaking, unheard of, even daring. Well, it was all these things, for me, but actually, I was only catching up to what many of my students are doing, and really, I’m embarrassed to have been so surprised. Of course I had known that the student body at my college was geographically diverse. Students “live” at the addresses brought to the Student Center to establish residency, but their capital-H Homes are another world away. The student in Germany was caring for her grandmother; the student in the Philippines was on an extended visit to his in-laws. My Taiwanese student had been in Ann Arbor for three years, she wrote, and added that having her instructor be from Ann Arbor but now living in Taipei was “so weird.”
Becoming an “international teacher” didn’t just connect me to the diaspora experience of my students. It also influenced my Shakespeare pedagogy in one significant way: what I learned from, and how I have come to appreciate, ELL students.
Shakespeare as a second language
My ELL students in Shakespeare are at a high level with their English, a much higher level than I was in Mandarin Chinese; I was a beginner, and my students have to test into “college-level reading and writing” status on the ACT placement test, along with native English speakers, to be able to enroll in any literature class the college offers.
(Next page: the advantage of online learning for writing and comprehension)