Teaching online

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Like fish to water, I had no choice but to dive deeply into online learning platforms when COVID-19 drove us out of the classrooms.

I was then the Head of School-English at the University of Nottingham Malaysia when we had to shift quickly to the use of Echo 360 and Microsoft Teams. Credit goes to our top management, which gave us two weeks to attend online workshops on how to use MS Teams. That two-week academic break also allowed both academic staff and students to buy or upgrade their needed equipment.

I only relied on my mobile hotspot and I was lucky I lived in a part of Kuala Lumpur that had a strong telecommunications signal. I also required my seven academic staff to acquaint themselves with the online learning platforms. We had no problem with Echo 360, since we already used that to record our lectures, which in turn was sent to the students who missed our lectures.

The problems came to a head when I returned to the Philippines. I used to live in a part of Quezon City that was a few footsteps away from Caloocan City. The area had no provision for fiber-optics technology. I had to change providers three times before I got lucky with the pocket WiFi from Smart.

Other issues included the students’ weak WiFi connections and the fact that some of them worked part-time – yes, even during the pandemic – and thus missed some classes. The saddest part was that some of them got infected with the COVID-19 virus; or their family members did, which forced them to skip classes or miss deadlines.

As I have told my fellow teachers and other people who have emailed me, we should be more flexible with deadlines and choice of readings for our online teaching in a pandemic. We should be less suspicious of students’ reasons for the delay in submitting a paper or for skipping a class. The older I get, the less paranoid I am that the students do not like my teaching methods, or do not like me at all, that is why they are never there in my class. Think of weak WiFi, or a pestilential pandemic; it is not always about you.

What about content? I have chosen shorter texts in my classes. Instead of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde for a discussion of LGBT readings, I required the shorter – and less obvious – novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The latter’s division of personalities into two, split selves is a stepping stone into discussions of closeted personas ad submerged selves in repressed Victorian England.

I also asked the students to watch the film version available on YouTube – but only if they like. I have been teaching English, Literature and Creative Writing since 1986. In the last 36 years, I have resorted to multimedia texts to enrich the discussion of a text or of a subject matter. In my poetry classes, I used to require my students to go to the Ateneo Art Gallery, look at a painting and describe it in two or three paragraphs. Bonus points were given to those who wrote a poem. In my discussion of the haiku, I have asked the students to draw with their hands their impression of the haiku, since this poem is a painting in words.

In my fiction classes, I have learnt a technique from my teacher, Professor Lourdes Hernandez Vidal. She drew the map of a small town, with its major characters also drawn, and then she popped the question: Mr. X was killed one night, who could the killer be?

The students had a grand time looking for motivations, as if in a sieve, find out whom they think was the killer. It was a good exercise in characterization, and the students liked it when they were asked to give their own version of the story.

In my creative nonfiction class, I would ask the students to read a concise story like “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid or “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin. Kincaid published her story in 1983 and Chopin published hers in 1895. Whereas the former was lionized for her one-paragraph tour d’ force on a young girl growing up in the conservative Caribbean, the latter was shunted aside by the American public. Her books were rarely reviewed and they were never in the literary canon. They were only retrieved in the 1960s, when feminism’s final wave came.

I would tell my students to look at the techniques of fiction that both writers used –exposition, narration, point of view, imagery, motivation certainly, and voice, especially voice – and use these in their own creative nonfiction. Moreover, I tell my students to revise and give me only the third draft of what they have written. The first draft is a skeleton; the second draft is a being half-dressed; and the third draft, I would say, has the beginnings of a fully-fitted work.

For this, of course, I also require them to read “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White, the only book they need to write good prose. And for advanced students, I ask them to read “A Reader Over Your Shoulder” by Robert Graves, who even found fault with the prose of the Nobel Prize winner for literature, T.S. Eliot.

If your students do not have access to these texts, you can send them excerpts of the more telling and important rules for writing well.

This last tip will make you work harder, but it is worth it. I ask my students to send me an outline, and then a first draft of around 250 words, so I can give them feedback about their work. An outline gives shape and structure to the chaos of ideas inside them; a first draft is like giving me a lay of the land.

I read the outline and the draft and I dash off my feedback. It might arrive late, either because my WiFi is down or I am ill, but the feedback will come. After all, practice does not make perfect; practice leads to good, even great work, by master and amateur alike.

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Email: [email protected] Danton’s translation of Lope K. Santos’ “Banaag at Sikat” called “Radiance and Sunrise” has been recently published by Penguin Books.

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