Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Support for Ophelia.

We've received a number of supportive notes for Ophelia from Oxnard. We've chosen to feature this longer post:

I am sorry to hear about the loss of your mom. My sincere condolences. I'm so sorry to hear that you couldn't take the briefest leave of absence from your online teaching to attend to your mom's hospitalization, hospice stay, death and then funeral. It must have been agonizing to continue online teaching under such stressful circumstances. And I'm so sorry that while you did your best to fulfill your half of the bargain, you students did not fulfill their half of the bargain. I have also taught online and can relate. Your story reminds me that an online professor's unspoken social contract with one's students is tenuous at best.

Those of us who teach online teach naked. The online professor is stripped of the support system that comes with a normal teaching job - namely an office, a computer, internet access, telephone, office supplies, admin support and, last but not least, a community of colleagues. All of that, the support provided as a matter of course to the normal professor, the online professor must somehow provide for him or herself. You have no one to turn to for anything, except yourself. You even have to find a way to pay your own health insurance and fund your 401K. You are teaching without a net, and no-one is there to catch you if you should need some help, as you needed when your mom suddenly got sick. But you tell yourself that teaching this way is going to be OK. An unspoken bargain is thus struck. You will do your job and the students will do the work. When you fulfill your end of the bargain, and they fulfill theirs, things feel alright. You are clothed in the knowledge that, at the least, your efforts are valued by your students, whose questions you thoughtfully answer, and whose papers and tests you carefully grade.

By not doing their work when you -- against all odds! -- did yours, your students exposed the shallow social contract that binds together online professors and students. As you write, "Why should I want to help students -- why did I go out of my way to help them -- if they in turn treat the class like this?" You had already suffered enough indignity in the form of low pay, no benefits, and no support system. The institution who hired you offered you NOTHING when you needed to do something that normal human beings occasionally need to do -- attend to the ill, bury the dead, grieve. The students were all you had left to keep you motivated, and they failed to live up to their part of the bargain. Your grief is entirely understandable.

Ophelia, I am so, so sorry. I wish that we were colleagues who taught under normal circumstances. I would have filled in for you, and you probably would have done the same for me.

I can't offer much by way of comforting words. All I know if that this is not the way its supposed to be.