Genre Lag and Online Instruction

The content for new genres is usually grafted from old genres. Many of the first written texts — ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, to Ireland’s The Tain, to India’s Vedas — were transcriptions of epic poems that were told orally, sometimes for hundreds or even thousands of years before they were written down. But what is entertaining when told over an entire winter — or even years — can seem a bit slow and repetitive to a person reading it in a book, particularly with the repetition and mnemonic devices (such as Homeric epithets like “white-armed Hera”). We don’t need the same features in a written text we might read over a few days as we do in a poem we are listening to around a fire over the course of an entire season or longer.

Newer genres have followed the same pattern. Many of the first radio shows were classical concerts and vaudeville acts. Many of the first T.V. programs were radio news, variety shows, or dramas that included the innovation of showing the people talking. Many of the first “talkie” movies were plays, and initially the only camera angle was the front view an audience would see when looking at a proscenium stage. The first websites were printed texts posted online. Many of the first youtube videos were basically home videos.

Film clip of actor in front of the orchestra pit
Film clip of actor in front of the orchestra pit
“42nd Street” 1933 film adaptation of a stage play

With any new genre, it takes us time to figure out how to best use that genre. We need to go through the learning curve, go through a trial-and-error process, play with it, to find out what its strengths are and how to best engage the reader, viewer, or listener. It took millennia for written literature to fully separate itself from oral storytelling, for authors to realize how they could use spacing on the page to communicate visually, and how stories and poems that are meant to be read should present information in a different way than stories that were meant to be heard. It took several years for film directors to start to play with the zooms and camera angles that film allowed, but viewing a stage performance did not. It has taken us a couple of decades to go from web pages of static text to pages designed to be read on screens, with hyperlinks, images, and shorter blocks of text. Similarly, youtube videos have evolved into their own sets of genres and sub-genres designed to engage viewers within their ten-minute medium.

Although online instruction has been around for awhile, and although many long-time online instructors have already been exploring and improving on advantages offered by that format, many of us had only recently begun to teach online and hybrid courses. Many more of us did not begin until COVID-19 forced them to move our courses online, often with a week or less to transition. Often this transition to online instruction, and our likelihood of moving to hyflex this term, has centered around putting our in-person courses online by recording and posting lectures, or by having students take quizzes online and turn in papers online.

Genre lag still permeates the design of our instructional technology. Course management systems like Canvas include many innovations, but they are still designed around the idea that the instructor will send out content to the class and that students will view and respond to each student’s work individually; it has few robust systems for fostering interaction among students or for creating spaces for students to collaborate.

Zoom has been a godsend since March, but it is largely designed around, and being used for, allowing an instructor to provide lectures to a screen full of thumbnail faces instead of a lecture hall full of faces in desks. Its “interactive” features such as polls and chats also give students only limited ways to share information or to interact. Breakout rooms are useful but they can be clunky because they don’t allow the instructor to monitor all the rooms simultaneously (the way we could monitor multiple table groups in a classroom). Plus, we can’t administer groups unless we are in the main classroom, so if any student has trouble getting into a group (which can happen with some browsers), we have to leave the breakout room we’re facilitating and go back to the empty classroom to place that student in a room again.

As with other genres, online instruction is its own medium, with its own strengths and weaknesses. We can’t teach online the way we have taught in-person classes, because people process information differently in online formats than they do in classrooms. We have to adapt our teaching to the strengths of the online format.

A lot of us are still trying to figure out what that will look like. For me, transitioning to online instruction is raising questions about traditional course structures, and what else they could look like if we’re not bound to specific locations or perhaps to specific times. I’m starting to ask:

As we move forward with exploring online instruction for a more diverse group of learners than we have had in previous years, we will have to adapt our teaching to the new medium, and consider how to create courses that utilize its strengths, rather than simply shifting our classroom instruction onto Zoom and a course management system.

Written by

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and current professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16

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