Reinterpreting the ‘Self’ in Online Higher Education

Kyle2013Kyle Harley,  KUWC Tutor

As online educators, we all reshape our identified ‘self’ when transitioning from on-site teaching to an online medium. In my role as tutor, this transition was gradual.  It never really set in until one late night while tutoring, a question popped into my head, “Who are you?” After digging out the book to read the exact passage, I remember that one of my favorite characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Caterpillar, held a conversation with Alice that applies directly to my, and I suspect ‘our,’ predicament:

“Who are you? said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I ca’n’t explain myself. I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar. (Carrol, 1981, p. 34)

Whether we like it or not when we work online, our students and fellow coworkers, do not “see” in the same way we were used to while physically in the classroom.  Technology helps with the assimilation process through programs that temporarily allow face-to-face communication, but does that really make a difference in the long run? Who are we? How do we define ourselves as online educators?

Luckily, the answer remains quite simple: We are the digital replicas of our perceived self, and that can come with both a host of solutions and further complications when interacting with our students.

Upon tutoring for the first time online, I realized, whether I liked it or not, I was simply a projection of whatever ‘self’ I wanted to identify with while in that session.  These students do not know my face.  How can we solidify exactly who our true “self” is? The only true response to this question rests with the individual educator.

This message hit home rather sternly when reviewing a student’s paper on cyber bullying.  This student felt that individuals who participated in online bullying were expressing themselves in a digital form that contradicted their physical ‘self.’ This paper made me realize that the only physical ‘things’ separating myself from the student consisted of two screens that, when turned off, reflect our images of our actual ‘self’ right back to us. Needless to say, I was not happy with the reflection in the fading computer screen.

The reason I found myself so unhappy with the ‘self’ in my screen revolved around my inconsistencies when helping students. When I say inconsistencies, I do not mean that some were helped and others were not; instead, I mean that I approached each student differently, almost awkwardly.  What sort of ‘self’ was I creating?

I asked myself: “Are you actually being yourself in front of these students?” My answer, “No, I was not being my actual ‘self’ with these students.”

The beauty, and to others the beast, of online education really boils down to our limited ability to actively express our true ‘selves’ in an online educational medium—to actually ‘interact’ with individual students. Sure, we can project ourselves onto screens to put a name to a face, but that identified ‘self’ only lasts as long as the broadcast. Our job, just as when we were in front of students on-site, really should focus on one objective: helping the students accomplish their goals.

We all wear many hats per day—whether we are placing our parenting hat on or our horror-movie loving hat atop our head, at the end of the day, our job remains the same: to simply help students. It took some time to realize that the digital ‘self’ need not be such a prominent figure in an online medium. Instead, and I wish I would have possessed this knowledge when first starting, our ‘self’ in online higher education remains secondary to our presupposed ‘self’ on behalf of the students: educators.

I have since identified my online ‘self,’ and I am actually proud of what I see now. Through these tiny moments of just asking myself a silly quote from a children’s story, I now know, when I shut off my screen and see my reflection, I am looking at an online educator that does not need a physical ‘self’ to help these students succeed. When you shut off your screen, what sort of reflection do you see through our very own looking-glass?

Carrol, L. (1981).  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  New York: Bantam Dell.

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1 Response

  1. starknotes says:

    I appreciate this entry so much, Kyle! It is very appropriate that Lewis Carroll came to mind, as it is a text that appeals both to children and adults, particularly when it comes to the subject of developing identity and coming of age (again and again). I remember trying to develop an online identity through the old AOL account days in the 90s, and then having a Live Journal, and eventually having one of the first Facebook accounts back at Oxford in 2005. The whole time, whether I was trying to project the image of power nerd or the intellectual party gal (grad school was competitive in so many odd ways), I always tried to seem like someone who has herself together. When I was trying to project that image personally and professionally, I realized how the online image of someone who always is put together and on track was a. not true to myself and b. causing my tutoring to suffer, especially online. As I helped pilot an asynchronous tutoring service in my grad school, I saw myself taking on a haughty tone with students, not being as directive as I should have been. I was the aspiring Shakespeare scholar, and these were students who cared more about football than learning. Except I wasn’t happy with Shakespeare as my research focus, and my distance tutoring students didn’t have time to watch the games, because they were in class on Saturdays, when they were not at work in the hospital or at the assisted living facility.

    It didn’t take long for me to try to get more comfortable in my skin. Now those who follow even my professional social media identity can see that I’m just a human being who has successes and failures, and I want to share both kinds of experiences with my colleagues, and I want to share both kinds of experiences with my students. It is good for me to ask that question, “Who are you?” (although for me it’s less Lewis Carroll and more The Who that comes to mind with that question) to unsettle and re-settle myself in that role of online educator as often as it takes to maintain a healthy presence with our student writers. Thanks for reminding me of that question and the reasons why we should ask it.

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