At the risk of offending my employers and colleagues I cannot wrap my mind around online teaching. I realize that it’s a modern version of the old “degree by correspondence,” but I even found that to be problematic. So am I just a fuddy-duddy traditionalist mired in the past, unable to come to terms with the glorious opportunities of the digital age, clinging to evanescent habits and attitudes, a fading Mr. Chips?
I was educated by Spanish and Indian Jesuit administrators in a quasi-English public school tradition, complete with neck-tied uniforms (blazers on special occasions), “teachers” (the women) and “sirs” (the men) armed with acerbic wits, free-wielding wooden rulers, and regular notes of complaints (in my case) to parents; elocution classes, House divisions Hogwarts-style, student governments that oversaw school discipline (that I was a house captain may have been a risible oversight!), and an international curriculum dictated by the University of Cambridge designed to produce Queen and God-fearing colonial subjects—or Commonwealth citizens, because by the time I went to school Gandhi had successfully shamed the British into leaving the subcontinent, although their imperial attitudes lingered…
When I think of the teachers who had the greatest impact on me, I remember the charismatic ones—Edith D’Mello, whose whispered tones couldn’t mask her appetite for poetry, Stanley Miranda’s magical mathematical ways, Fr. Molinet’s playful quizzes around French verbs (a sign of the times that a Spaniard taught us French!), Noel D’Silva’s love for physics that would bear fruit much later, and Stuart Baker’s cynical façade about theatre that was constantly punctured by his own irrepressible enthusiasm. It wasn’t so much their knowledge of the subject as it was their passion for it; I wanted to know what they knew because their fervor was akin to that of children in possession of a wonderful secret. That’s what makes a great teacher. And that kind of inspiration is almost impossible to convey online, even through occasional video-chats.
Teaching is not about imparting knowledge—we have text-books for that. It is about soulful exchanges that sometimes border on rudeness, passionate defenses of sacred cows that are sometimes slain, and spontaneous outpourings of half-baked ideas. More than anything, great teaching is about tangents! It is about having the courage to veer off into the underbrush, not just in search of the road less traveled but indeed to find new paths never traveled! For this to occur, teachers need to have a broad view of the world, they must be well-read and well-traveled and endowed with the skill to juggle the heat and press of those tangential conversations in ways that enrich the discussion and connect the new paths to the old road to create a map that explores all the nooks and crannies of each topic. Sometimes tangents lead to dead-ends, but if the walk is a sincere effort to explore new avenues then nothing is wasted!
Such a situation demands interruptions, interjections, and strange thoughts; it mixes loud voices with hushed gasps of surprise; it mingles emotional outbursts with intellectual ramblings, pithy exclamations, and the unspoken word! It demands a marketplace of ideas, a rialto of divergent opinions, a battlefield where opposing armies clash stridently!! Can this be done online? Or is this an old-fashioned way that has no place in the cool, sleek digital world in which we now live?
Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not teaching much anymore!!