illustration by Tony Mech Acostaillustration by Tony Mech Acosta: @robotclouds on Instagram

illustration by Tony Mech Acosta: @robotclouds on Instagram

People often ask me what it’s like to teach online. I got in on the online education craze in 2007, fresh out of grad school. I first learned Moodle and then eCollege for what turned out to be a shady for-profit “school.” Later I took a seminar on the UCLA campus to learn Blackboard for teaching my online UCLA Extension classes, which came in handy when a community college where I was teaching was looking for adjuncts interested in teaching online (some of the tenured faculty in that English department told me they would only ever teach traditional on-ground classes). I upgraded my Moodle skills while teaching a hybrid course at a women’s university. Later I taught some of my own private writing workshops online first using googlegroups, then the free version of the Moodle software, and now use Blackboard to supplement on-ground classes (as a way to send announcements, post required reading, and keep track of grades) as well as a way to facilitate fully online classes. I love the faces and spontaneous nature of a traditional classroom, but I enjoy the reach and innovation online learning offers, too. I’ve been fortunate enough to be on book tours or teach journalism seminars in Denmark while teaching online for schools in the US. Have computer–will travel. I can’t say I like one teaching environment better than another; they are different.

Back when I taught literature at a community college, I recognized one of the writers in our anthology as a colleague from my LA literary scene. The students had responded so well to his short story, I Tweeted to tell him about it, and he messaged me to ask if he could see any of the response papers they’d written. Many were happy to share. This gave me an idea in planning my next semester—I created a Twitter name and hashtag for our lit class (#pglit) and gave extra credit to students who tweeted about our readings or tweeted to living authors and poets. They tweeted Sherman Alexie, Larry Fondation, Maya Angelou and even other lit professors. In 130 characters or less at a time, they discussed Faulkner, Chopin, Dickinson, Hansberry, Poe, and Tupac. They learned of local open mic nights, bookstores and poetry readings in our city, and some even learned how to use Twitter, just to get in on the outside-of-class conversation. What more could a literature prof want than for students to be excited about the written word?

When I was in grad school, I’d taken a workshop with Bill Roorbach, a visiting writer whose work stuck with me. Six years later, I decided to use his book, Writing Life Stories, in teaching my Intermediate Memoir Writing class online for UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. I tweeted about it and he unexpectedly replied, offering to visit my classroom. I had to explain that my classroom was online, but that wouldn’t stop the plan—we’d just have to be creative. I obtained a password for him and he agreed to participate in some way after his book tour, for a week or two of my 10-week course. I announced the arrangement to my students and asked them to gather questions for our textbook author in the first few weeks of class. They posted them in the designated forum and he obliged with generous and inspiring answers about halfway through the quarter. Later he asked permission to use the exchanges on his blog, which most agreed to, some even adding artwork. I should add that no money was exchanged for this erudition. But look at it this way—students writing from France, Seattle, Chicago, Colorado and Southern California got to interact with an acclaimed author in Vermont—and the author witnessed one of his books applied in a pedagogical way, all thanks to the Internet Universe. While academic bureaucracy and limited funding often frustrate the hell out of me, I firmly believe online interactions like these make us all a bit richer.