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2015 June 25 - 08:06 am

Summertime and the Spirit of Sunshine

Spring has sprung; fall has fell; summer’s here, and it's hotter than usual.

Thus spake the apocryphal poet, using license, in an ungrammatical ditty announcing that, as the medievalists wrote, sumer is icumen in.

But what does this seasonal shift mean, really?

For us at the community college, it is a time to reflect upon the recently completed academic year, to ponder upon plans for a new one, and perhaps to offer a few courses aimed to entice and invigorate, as well as to educate.

At least one of the institutions where I work takes good advantage of the summer in offering lots of courses online, providing cheap and convenient alternatives to those whose family and work demands might be even more overwhelming during June, July, and August than they are during the standard academic year.

And at least a few news events of recent days remind me that work online can also offer the kind of safe haven absent in the face-to-face.

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, a New Yorker magazine cartoon famously showed us in 1993. In my own courses in French language and culture online, students with Pakistani roots have written of their experiences as boat people from Vietnam, while admitting ignorance of the meaning of the term "boat people"; Asian students born scarcely two decades ago describe their harrowing days as prisoners of communists in Vietnam during the 1970's, and white students who have been incarcerated for more than 15 years describe their personal experiences as civil rights activists marching to get out the vote for Barack Obama in 2012. 

And so, I wonder, how odd is it that a hot news item of the past couple of weeks should involve a young white woman who "identifies as Black"? And how strange is it that discussion should rage over the transgendering of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn? 

How much of this should matter, how does it matter, and how should we as teachers treat it in a virtual world whose reality is probably at least as ineffable as it is impermanent?

Since it is now officially summertime, I suggest that a good way to treat these questions is to let the sun shine in.

Notably, let us continue to demand the "data-driven," the details, the facts of each matter. Let us use the journalist's 5 W's and an H and instill that spirit of inquiry in our students: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? has this information surfaced, developed, manifested itself, made itself "important?” What makes this information matter? What does it mean that something should matter? Does it/should it matter to everyone...or even to anyone? Does it matter long-term, or at least for a longer time than it takes to review and render "viral" on YouTube? 

And how do we demonstrate that our responses to the aforementioned questions are "objective" or "subjective?” 

Furthermore, as teachers, how do we give grades, assign points, to students' responses in these cases? If a student of mine submits a supposedly expository essay that exposes him as a teller of tall tales, but the essay is well organized and thought-out, using good grammar and sophisticated vocabulary, what do I do? If that same essay is submitted by three students, which student did the research, and which ones are hoping to profit? In some cultures, group work is the ideal, and no essay is to be submitted that has not been "touched" by all, a practice performed more easily online than it may be otherwise, but we are teaching individuals, are we not? Where does the "collaboration" end that is touted these days by our fellow professors, particularly online, and when does each student's journalistic insight begin? When do "lone wolf" prisoners receive praise for learning how to seek out answers, to do research, to work with others, and when do they receive admonishment for plagiarism? 

These are things that we must teach, and then we can hope that we have instilled in our students a spirit of sunshine that will enlighten their analytical techniques, so that they may decide on their own what to submit as their own and what to think about others who may "identify" alternatively. 

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