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Teaching Online: My Biggest Takeaway

When it came to teaching online, I was a skeptic. Could it be an effective way of teaching and learning? Maaaaaybe. But could the experience be as good—as joyful and meaningful and warmly human—as a face-to-face class? I doubted it. I was convinced that, for me, all the joy was in the classroom experience and in conferences with students. In person, in other words.

But last year I thought I should give it a try. It was 2017, after all. Plus, sometimes I like to see if I’m wrong.

This past year, I taught two classes that were fully online, as well as a hybrid class, and I’m happy to report that I was wrong: these experiences have been just as interesting and fulfilling—for me, and, I think, for my students—as my face-to-face classes.

What was the key? Instead of using written forums, I used voice and/or video to make the experience more personal and human.

Let’s be honest: forums suck. Nobody wants to make posts, and nobody wants to read them (including the teacher). So you have a bunch of posts with the bloodless quality of all perfunctory writing. When you set up forums, you’re more likely to get student compliance instead of engagement. As a result, learning lags and the class starts to feel like a slog.

But when you and your students communicate through voice memos or videos, something different happens. Everything feels less distant, less detached. More personal, more immediate. Everyone becomes more . . . human. You all get to know one another and actual engagement—with each other and with the material—becomes possible.

Want to try it? For voice memos, try poking around your learning management system (Moodle and Canvas both have a voice recorder baked into their feedback studios, I know). Alternatively, you can just use a free app on your phone. The one that comes with the iPhone is solid and simple: you just record, type in an email address, and off it goes with a swoopy sound.

image from flipgrid.com

For videos, check out Flipgrid, which is now free for educators. Flipgrid is basically a video version of forums: Students can post short videos, and they can reply to each other’s videos in a thread. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually intuitive and easy. I’ve used Flipgrid now for several different classes, and all my students have been able to figure it out within a couple of minutes.

So count me as a convert. I’ll wrap up with a sentence that I would not have imagined writing a year ago: Teaching online can not only be as effective as face-to-face education, but it can be every bit as personal and interesting and satisfying.


JoylandJoyland by Stephen King

When I was young and people found out that I wanted to be a writer, their reaction was always the same: “Oh, you’re gonna be the next Stephen King, huh?”

Oh, did that make me bristle.

No, I informed these Philistines. I was going to be a Real Writer (whatever the fuck that meant). Stephen King could keep pumping out his trash; I was going to write Real Books.

At that point, as you may have already guessed, I had read exactly zero of King’s books. Now, after finally reading a couple—THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON and JOYLAND—I would have a different answer to that old question.

Yes, please.

JOYLAND is just the kind of story I would love to write. By that, I don’t mean a coming-of-age story set in an amusement park with mystery elements and supernatural overtones. I mean the kind of story that seduces a reader. The kind of reading experience that feels like a crazy affair—on your mind all the time, even when you’re not together. Especially when you’re not together. When can I see you again?

How does King do it?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I wish someone could tell me, because I’d like to do it, too.

King certainly doesn’t need my stamp of approval, but what the hell, I’ll give it to him, anyway. Sorry for slagging on you when I was young and dumb, Stephen. Keep writing Real Books and I’ll keep reading them.

View all my reviews


This book, like most of my books and stories, was a surprise. I began to learn the nature of such surprises, thank God, when I was fairly young as a writer. Before that, like every beginner, I thought you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity, and dies.

The introduction to DANDELION WINE by Ray Bradbury


In retrospect, I am astounded I could let go of the drama of being a suffering artist. Nothing dies harder than a bad idea.

THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron


Sometimes I end up with swarf at the bottom of a document—little phrases that fall like crumbs off a table. Sometimes that swarf looks like a weird poem.


This is how writers fall in love: they feel complicated together and then they talk about it.

Leslie Jamison, EMPATHY EXAMS

If you don’t know how to do it, do it wrong.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is a real mixed bag. Mark Manson is the kind of dude who quotes Bukowski and tends to make sweeping statements that sound good until you really start thinking about them. But there were a handful of eye-opening moments in this book, including this little anecdote:  

“When I was in high school, my math teacher Mr. Packwood used to
say, ‘If you’re stuck on a problem, don’t sit there and think about it;
just start working on it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, the
simple act of working on it will eventually cause the right ideas to
show up in your head.’”

Manson uses this anecdote to serve a larger point about motivation; it put me in mind of writing. Specifically, it put me in mind of Mike Rose’s study that I wrote about a few months ago:

Composition scholar Mike Rose compared people who got stuck in
their writing with people who got their writing done. He found that the stuck
group tried their best to follow rules like the ones at the top of this post.
When they struggled, they stopped. The people who got their writing done also
struggled, but they didn’t stop. They abandoned the rules—Well, I guess I’ll just have to do it wrong—and got their writing

Which makes me think of

Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers” by Nancy
Sommers. According to Sommers, here’s one key difference between the two groups: Students think they know what they want to say at the start of a project; experienced practitioners write to figure out what they mean to say. 

There’s an intersection point between these three pieces, I know there is. Maybe it’s this: The insistence on getting things right, right away, might be the most effective form of writer’s block.

Or, to put it another way: A good writer sees badness and wrongness as the stepping stones to goodness. 


The word ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to love.’ The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his ‘real’ vocation.

The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it.

THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield