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Teaching from Afar, Learning at a Distance

By Dr. Michael Platt
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #9, 1995.

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Dr. Michael Platt


This fall I taught Shakespeare, as I have for thirty years, but this fall I taught Shakespeare over the phone, to students scattered throughout Wyoming. They could have been scattered throughout the world, so long as they could get to a phone.

What was it like? Well, teaching from afar is like the blind teaching the blind. However, blindness can stimulate the imagination.

I “broadcast” my first classes from my study in Vermont. On the wall I put a well-colored map of Wyoming and I imagined what life must be like in Powell, in Gillette, in Riverton. The assignment I gave the first night, the one I’ve given for years, helped. I asked the students twenty questions, ranging from: “What is the most complete human happiness?” to “What is the funniest story you can think of?” The second assignment, “Write your intellectual autobiography,” which goes neatly with Shakespeare’s answer, Sonnet 94, was even more helpful. By the second week I knew about how each student understood herself. (They were all women.)

As I got to know the students, I would think of each of them out in the night two thousand miles west. I would remember the plains and mountains of Wyoming I had seen on my two previous visits. And I would think of our coming trek to Wyoming, along the old Oregon Trail, to live there in the west for awhile. My students were all citizens of Wyoming; most grew up there and were raising or had raised their children there. It is exciting to be talking to people who live in the new place you are going to.

If these students hadn’t been good, I wouldn’t have liked teaching from afar, but if they’d been poor, I wouldn’t be able to judge distance learning fairly. Since they were good, I can.

Wyoming is a vast state, bigger than all of New England, and yet with fewer persons than Vermont. Years ago the University decided not to build branch campuses. Later they decided to reach citizens not able to live in Laramie, by teaching with phone and compressed video.

When the University asked me to consider teaching Shakespeare, I was not sure I should. Let me explain why. All my classes are inquiries, me leading, sometimes stirring, occasionally pushing, and all of us set on the track of some serious matter. So, I rarely lecture and if I do, it is not American style, to give information already in a preface, but to pin down some difficult matter we’ve already been pursuing in previous discussions. So, while teaching over the phone is obviously suited to lecturing and taped lectures, I doubted it would suit the conversation through which my students find important things on their own.

However, upon receiving the invitation I began to reflect on distance learning. What if I could have a phone conversation with Shakespeare, or Plato, or Augustine? Certainly I would not refuse it. On the contrary, if I knew I could talk with a master spirit of the human race, I would prepare for it long before, as if I were paying for a call to Katmandu. I would bathe, put on my best suit, and comb my hair.

Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that such a conversation is not all that different from reading. When you sit by the fire, winds howling and snow filling up the sky, and open your Shakespeare, you are conversing with Shakespeare. He is there in his works and you must traverse the distance from his vivacious plays to his deep mind. So, what is the novelty of distance? Distance is always there in learning from the great.

And it is not only there between the great, who are mostly dead, and us. It is also amongst us. We in these times, who communicate so much on the phone, marvel at the letters our ancestors wrote, for example those in Ken Burns’ Civil War. Yet they would marvel at us, and with more reason, at how little we understand each other or care to. Letters require more concentration and encourage more self-knowledge. So, again, that would seem to argue in favor of far teaching, since it requires more.

Ah, but there’s the rub. While I might prepare for such a conversation with Shakespeare, would the students? And while I might carry on a good part of my intellectual life in letters, would the students be accustomed to such concentration? So much in study is aided by assembling in one clean, well-lighted room, face to face, at the same time, on the same campus, and being able to meet outside class. Of course, the same journals (not diaries) I ask each student to prepare for my classes would be required of distance students as well, and might even be sent in by email on the morning before the night’s class.

Unable to decide, I listened to a friend. Nick Murdock, husband of the Dean bringing me to Wyoming, summed up his experience teaching law this way: “These students want to study.” That was decisive, for in learning, desire is everything. Without it nothing amounts to much, with it to begin most things may be added unto.

Nick was right; except for one grade chiseler, these students did desire to study. They did the assignments on time, were ready for class, and participated in the discussions. I believe this has something to do with the fact that most were in the midst of life, family life, working life, life. So, the readiness, the steadiness, and the ripeness was theirs. And like good freshmen, they were also imaginative and longing. They wanted something important from Shakespeare.

That was decisive but that does not mean there are no disadvantages to far teaching and distance learning.

No sooner had I accepted the offer last spring than I began noticing how much I gesture in class, how much I learn from looking into students’ eyes, and how often I find it useful to write on the blackboard. (If I were a pipe smoker, if pipe smoking were still allowed by the health police of our time, I would add that too, for pipe smoking allows one to think before answering and allows everyone during a silence to watch smoke curling and so think without embarrassment.)

All this is true, I found. You cannot gesture, you must put all your meaning in your voice; you cannot make a diagram, you can only say “Imagine a divided line”; and above all, you cannot look into the eyes—windows of your students’ souls. You don’t even know whether they have eyes, nor do they know if you do. You don’t know what they look like. Are they dressed in jeans and a cowboy hat, in dirndl skipping to a polka, or in an old bath robe, sitting in a kitchen with a week’s dishes in the sink? And between comments you do not know what they are doing. Filling out a crossword puzzle, pouring a cup of coffee, scratching. To each other we are like eyeless Gloucester trudging to Dover Cliffs. You are blind and they are blind.

There is also a hollowness to the whole thing. I suppose anybody with a radio show feels that. You wonder who’s out there. Who’s listening? Anyone? You speak on, and on, not quite sure when someone will interrupt with a question or comment. (Even Larry Burkett must have felt that when he began.)

I do not know whether a less experienced teacher could speak on so confidently. I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years.

Of course, in far teaching there are listeners, and they do speak up. That makes the equipment important. Not until November did we secure a connection without strange sounds, words, and sentences clipped fore and aft, reverberations, twistings, etc. The DuoFone 102 suggested from Radio Shack was no improvement. From Nick, I happened to learn that a marvelous phone, which looks like a Stealth Frisbee or boomerang should look, was available the whole time. Called the Polycom Sound Station, it made everything smooth. The directions say that once you start, don’t move it on the table, for it has already adjusted to the acoustics of the room. I didn’t test that; I believed it.

This delay in providing us with a piece of equipment that had been there since I began to complain weeks before ought to alert us to a greater danger in far teaching. The distance inherent in it allows non-teachers of various kinds—technicians, secretaries, directors, managers, publicity writers—all with something other than the learning of the students primarily in mind, often with some entertainment, lots of esteem-building and a little learning in their minds, to interpose themselves between teacher and students. In such an atmosphere teaching becomes “communication,” learning gets lost, and academic integrity may be compromised. Only because of a tip from a student did I, and my academic colleague turned detective, Prof. Bob Carlson, follow a trail that led from a cheater and a negligent proctor, through an unconcerned manager, up to a main office both secretive and when asked for an account, foul-mouthed angry.

My conclusion? Any group of teachers serious about using such technology must be sure they are in control of the technicians. The best way, of course, is to be the technician yourself. “Homeschooling Comes to Far Teaching,” you might call it.

I have one final remark in favor of this mode of teaching. As a result of doing it this fall in Wyoming, I now know at least one good person in the four to six corners of the state, some of whom we met in their town, or at Shoshoni for one of those milkshakes, which every person in this state knows as the best, and our children now know as “the bestest.”

Next fall I will be teaching Plato’s Republic on Monday evenings to a class in a classroom, and at the same time, with that Stealth telephone, to whomever in Wyoming, or elsewhere, wants to participate in the great conversation on justice led by Socrates, which is the Republic. I’m looking forward to it. How many good milkshakes in hamlets, states, and climes, yet unknown to us will this lead to?

NEXT ISSUE:
We “sit in” on part of an actual distance learning class taught by Dr. Platt. No computer necessary—just a telephone!


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