A new semester has begun at my university, where I teach as a Sessional Lecturer (Adjunct to my American friends). Mind you this sort of academic labour is somewhat better than in the United States. I earn enough from my five courses a year to live, if not well, at least to pay bills for a roof over my head and food on the table. Anyway, I don’t want to go off topic as I am wont. I am teaching two courses this Fall term, both originating from the same source, but one has been extensively redesigned and rewritten to the point it is really a different course. It is the process of redesign, but more importantly, repair and renovation while on the go I want to look at here.
When I taught in the classroom, I had an officially vetted, one short paragraph course description that students used to decide whether to spend time in my classroom or not. This was the only restriction, along of course with normal things such as the number of weeks, regulations over examination times and so on. But the content was entirely up to me. I could wholly rewrite the content each time the course was presented if I so wished. I could rewrite a section or a sentence. In any case, lecture notes were mine, or I could put a version online for students, or not. Once I stood in front of the class and started to talk, I usually had an outline for the students to see, but the words I spoke centred on these outline points could change on the spot in response to reactions from the students, or in response to some idea that popped into my head as I was talking that helped make a point clearer.
I will give an example of what I mean. I teach the History of Religion. Most of my students then and now were not History majors, but students from all areas of the university who had an interest in religion. Sometimes this meant getting across points that were not obvious to those outside this field. I recall in one semester, explaining that religion was not only, or perhaps even primarily for believers about the institution, the church, the building, the hierarchy, whether complex or simple. That there was a yin/yang aspect of the institution and the spirituality of the people. It popped into my head to give labels to two fundamental aspects: religio and spiritus. These are indeed Latin words, but not used normally to mean what I wanted to get across on this occasion. I wrote them on the board (green, chalkboard, old classroom, no white board) and said, religio I will use in this class to refer to the instituional aspect of religion. The most complex in Christianity would be the Roman Catholic church, the least an independent evangelical church with one building, a pastor, people and some kind of Board made up of elected followers. The Catholic church as we all know has a complex interntional hierachy and hierarchies, and buildings of all shapes and sizes, mostly large, all over the world. Spiritus I told them, writing that on the board, is the spirit of belief, the sense of community, the intense personal spirituality of the people. This could be evangelicals belting out Christian Rock in a service, or monks chanting in a whitewashed room, or a giant pipe organ blasting out Christian heavy metal. Or it could be a person alone in their bedroom at night praying. I tried not to make these seem separate as they are not, but as two aspects of the same thing. These two Latin-like words popped into my head that day in class as an aid to get this point across.
When I came to prepare this same course for an online version, I transferred those words in text to the course. I also transferred most of my lecture notes, though this time rewritten to look like a textbook. Originally I wrote my lecture notes, taking a page from Winston Churchill’s playbook, with notes on where to pause, where to speak loudly, where to speak quietly, like an actor’s script for a Play rehearsal. This was the first thing I lost. The spontaneity that makes a classroom lecture succeed began to leave. Over time, however, I managed to reinject spontaneity using tools such as YouTube videos posted to the course site – videos that I recorded with the use of minimal notes as I had in lecturing, then posted immediately after recording. I also used Discussion fora to interact with students, albeit by typing. But today most students are used to this sort of interaction from their various social media platforms.
The problem of design remained. In my earlier days teaching online, my university had a large and well-funded online teaching department staffed with technical experts and Distance Learning Specialists. If I wanted to change a sentence or paragraph, I had only to send a note to the Distance Learning Specialist attached to my course. Or even a whole paragraph, or to add a new link, or most often to repair a dead link. But the course as a whole had to stay as it was designed unless funds became available to do a complete redesign. This did happen every few years, especially for my first such course, which had been built before there were many online, academically rigorous sources.
But budget cut backs – never spoken of as such, but having worked in big business for 20 years prior to entering academia, I heard the off key recessional of money right away. Now if even a link breaks mid way through a term, the smaller Distance Education department that replaced three former university teaching support units, will not correct the problem – I have to wait for the period of time before the next term the course is offered, to have the link replaced. This, of course, means that places where I have new evidence, or a new perspective and wish to rewrite a page or a paragraph must wait also.
I get around this problem by linking a Prezi where I can write what I want or by annoncing the change in the Announcements area, and by talking to the students in the YouTube videos I put on the announcements section of the course site. But, the original text remains in place until the next offering.
Being a Sessional/Adjunct means I have no access to the thinking of those in the university hierarchy to suggest changes, or find new ways to improve this situation. I could, if given temporary access to the HTML, rewrite sections – I did so one term when by accident they gave me access. I am no expert in HTML, but I knew enough to find the URL I wanted to change, and cut and past a new link into the correct place. I could too, replace a word, or add a comma. But that was an error on their part.
Budget constraints make an already barely flexible teaching form inflexible. But that is the world in which we teach now. There is money for capital expenditures, but rarely for operating expenses. I shall continue to apply bubble gum, bandages and to glue bits and pieces to the body of my courses each term.