Revealing the strange and wondrous power of digital publishing, the following unsolicited piece was written in response to an article published earlier today, submitted by the author (from CO), reviewed by both managing editors (in GA and OR), revised by the author (back in CO), and published, all in under 12 hours.

When I read the title of the most recent article here at Hybrid Pedagogy — “On Pedagogical Manipulation” — and gazed with a slight tremor at the image crowning the article, I wondered first if this would be a complaint against academic administration, or an expose on some as yet unearthed classroom conspiracy. Instead, I found myself engaged in Jesse’s and Pete’s discussion of the performativity of instruction.

To be certain, I feel no discomfort at the notion that “Encouraging learning is an act of subtle manipulation.” Rather, I admire the honesty of that. Being a teacher has always reminded me of the character Columbo, the bumbling — yet genius — private investigator of TV legend. In front of the classroom, one appears the way one appears in order to evoke a specific response from students, whether that be awe, wonder, fear, self-authority, curiosity, &c. When I write a lesson plan, it is like writing a drama: here are the characters, here is the plot, here is how we shall use the setting to illuminate the drama, and this — this part here — is the climax. I believe it’s important to bring a sense of theatre to the classroom. “The play’s the thing”, after all.

As a former online educator and English department chair, my trouble with entirely online learning may have been its lack of theatre. Without the presentation of character in person — Jesse’s sitting on his desk or taking off his shoes — instructors’ personalities are located entirely in their photograph or in their written words. While proclaiming “[sits on desk]” could be a very useful way to convey a relaxed, engaged posture online, it doesn’t have the same effect as doing so in front of a classroom of students. As well, the prescribed responses to discussion online or to assignments turned in via e-mail are not ideal places for idiosyncratic character to shine through. Students participating in (assigned and graded) discussions are much less interested in the instructor’s pedagogical stance than they are in their own success or achievement.

I recall a presentation I shared with Jesse at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We presented on Student 2.0, offering up the idea that students are more of a concatenation of online identities than the static personas they typically present in a learning-management-based online class. Online, and to some extent, hybrid students are made up of web sites. They are their Facebook page and their Twitter feed. They are their Disqus comments on half a dozen blogs, as well as their rapid-cycling posts on Tumblr. It’s easy to remember that students who are in the room with us are more than their attendance and participation that day; we assume they have lives (we hear them whisper about them; if we’re good, we inquire about them), girlfriends and boyfriends, hobbies, bad habits, and more. Online, the student often appears as just a single valence in our classroom: his name — Joe Smith — possibly his student number, and whatever work he does in class. But to truly illuminate Joe Smith, we must look for him outside the garden wall of the online class portal. To know him multidimensionally, we must seek him out multilocationally.

The point I’m making here is not about how we get to know our virtual students; it is about how we extend the “subtle manipulation” to the online and hybrid world. At that same presentation in Boulder, an instructor spoke up about feeling that her boundaries were crossed when a student found her profile on Facebook and wanted to add her to his list of friends. At the time (it was 2008), this did feel like a transgression; however, when thinking about how to take off one’s shoes in front of a classroom of students who are not located in just one place online, I wonder if Facebook, Twitter, and their like don’t also offer this opportunity.

Can instructors become just as much a concatenation of online personalities as their students? Would this serve us in practicing the necessary subtle manipulation of encouraging learning? Will students warm to me, and be willing to see me as “overtly ‘under construction’” if I present myself in specific ways online? If I construct, through the opportunities afforded by Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and more, the sort of “calculated genuineness” that’s necessary to encourage students to play, experiment, and explore, might I not be more successful than if I limit myself to the parameters of the typical online class portal?

Can pedagogical modeling happen in 140 characters or less?

[Photo by 5thLuna]