February Teaching Roundtable: Teacher Immediacy in the Digital Age

Two human hands coming out two seperate computers, reaching out for each other. Isolated on a white background

I became interested in the topic of immediacy in teaching—students’ perception of the physical and psychological distance between teacher and student (as defined by Gorham)—by reflecting on my own early teaching experience. As a young college instructor, I was often concerned about my authority in the classroom and what I was projecting to my students. I would let the students call me “professor” and fret about my intellectual authority. Every class felt like a test that I might pass with flying colors or miserably fail.

A few years into teaching, I began working as Coordinator of Writing Tutoring at Baruch College and was suddenly working closely with undergraduate students on a daily basis. We worked collaboratively to create tutoring documents and discussed tutoring issues, searching together for solutions. The barrier I had been so anxious to maintain began to feel like tinsel armor. I realized I could be a leader and guide while also being an equal collaborator in pursuit of knowledge and good practice.

I was reminded of this moment in my career when reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, a text that provides practical insights into the ways we can foster teacher immediacy alongside an awareness of the sociostructural barriers to immediacy that we work against in our classrooms. Hooks writes, “When I enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester, the weight is on me to establish that our purpose is to be, for however brief a time, a community of learners together. It positions me as a learner. But I’m also not suggesting that I don’t have more power. And I’m not trying to say we’re all equal here. I’m trying to say that we are all equal here to the extent that we are equally committed to creating a learning context.” I like this clarification of what some may perceive as a threat to the necessary order of the classroom. Hooks isn’t pretending that all hierarchy can or should be dispensed with, but that everyone is equally able to contribute to the common pursuit of learning within the course.

In our roundtable last week on teacher immediacy, Simone Puleo, graduate instructor and PhD student in Comparative Literature, and Shawna Lesseur, Assistant Director of First-Year Programs and PhD candidate in Political Science, joined us to talk about their own immediacy practices in the classroom. Simone addressed the traditionally rigid hierarchy of power between student and teacher as it is reinforced by classroom architecture. Puleo’s answer is to “just leave.” He advised instructors to literally get outside the structure of the classroom when they can while providing “surgically” precise guidelines for the class to stave off the chaos that can set in when classes get outside. Shawna spoke of the ways that she creates immediacy and power balance with students in her First-Year Experience courses. Early in the semester, students help to create the syllabus, deciding on course topics of focus. They also help define common criteria for successful writing by reading blog posts online and detailing what makes pieces of writing succeed or stumble. In this way, both content and criteria are co-determined by students and teacher.

In discussion that followed, we worked to suss out the balance between connecting with students on common ground and maintaining professional boundaries that are respectful to teachers as laborers. One of the points that came up in our roundtable was a concern that a more “student-centered” approach can mean excessive and/or outside-of-job-description labor on the part of graduate and part-time instructors. In response, graduate instructor Sarah Berry gave an explanation of the way she makes her labor visible to her students through her language. She explained that she will say things like, “In reading your drafts, I saw that one thing we need to pay more attention to is…,” signalling that she has spent time thinking about class activity in light of reading student work.  

Another concern raised was that a “student-centered” approach may reinforce the identity of student as consumer. Shawn Lesseur responded to this concern by saying that in her classroom students cannot play a consumer role. Rather, they are co-creators of the learning experience and won’t succeed in the class if they take a passive, consumer stance. Associate Director of First-Year Writing Lisa Blansett echoed this by describing the classroom she aims to create as a space for “collective improvisation.”

Director Scott Campbell reminded the group that writing and teaching are never quite “immediate”; that is, writing mediates human activity and relationships—between people, ideas, and other writing. Nonetheless, as Scott and Shawna explained, sometimes highly mediated spaces (including online course spaces like HuskyCT) can be the best places to foster students’ sense of immediacy (that is, a lack of psychological, if not physical, distance) because they allow teachers to focus on student writing and the ways it mediates relationships.  Ultimately, mediation and technology can work in the service of, rather than against, the project of immediacy in our classes.   

Differences of opinion in our discussion emphasized that the distance or proximity instructors feel comfortable with in relation to their students is, in part, a personal matter, but the dynamic we choose to foster is not without political implications. Critical pedagogy asks that we be whole selves in relationship to other whole selves and take responsibility for the political stakes of the relationship between teacher and student. When we do not, we, in hooks’ terms, “erase our bodies” and the political position and histories that goes with them. This “encourages us to think that we are listening to neutral, objective facts, facts that are not particular to who is sharing the information.”

The project of immediacy, then, is about more than creating a psychological closeness that predisposes students to think well of an instructor and a class; it is also a political effort that aims to make visible the power relationships we inherit so that students can write with a more critical awareness of their own and others’ positions.


**Update: Published 3/2/2016 on Chronicle of Higher Ed, the article “Read and Unread” pays special attention to the forms of digital communication that are most reliable for connecting with students.


Works Cited

Gorham, Joan. “The Relationship Between Verbal Teacher Immediacy Behaviors And Student Learning.” Communication Education 37.1 (1988): 40. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.