Break Everything ASAP: Reclaiming Electronic Pedagogy

by Evan R. Jones, UNC Chapel Hill, Department of Communication

This essay is about breaking things. It is a call to all you hard-working instructors, regardless of rank or title, to break your teaching methods and rid yourself of what does not work in the online teaching space. It is an essay about why instructors should embrace messiness, contradiction, and frustration. It is also about realizing how teaching, failure, and success are inextricably linked.

In my case this realization happened while dealing with two courses I planned to teach. One was cancelled, one was not. One involved months of preparation and scouring the internet and calling in favors and using a dust-caked film studies degree; the other required hail Mary emails and four weeks of non-stop heavily-caffeinated video production. One changed my entire outlook on teaching; the other did not even get through the planning stages yet made all the difference when it came to delivering the one that did.

In the spring of 2020 I accepted an offer to teach media production during a summer session. Spend a month helping students learn digital video and sound editing while talking about Italian horror movies? Perfect. A dream for an excitable movie aficionado more comfortable discussing color temperature than Foucault.

However life had other plans.

COVID's spread meant our university's classes were re-designated as remote-only affairs. Syllabi were re-worked. Plans were re-arranged. After some discussions I was informed my media course was not going to happen due to doubts about its viability as an online offering. This is where failure comes into the picture.

No amount of prep work or discussion will truly prepare an instructor for the bitter disappointment of feeling like they did not achieve what they set out to do. It is even worse when they do not even get to “take a crack at it.” Sure, things happen; courses get rescheduled, people get sick, students choose not to enroll, etc. But it is an invalidating feeling. It stings.

Like any graduate student I coped by doing what we do best: Complaining. While I griped rhetorical scholar (and my friend) Katrina Marks told me they had just received a summer fellowship. This meant I might be able to teach the summer course they were originally assigned. By the end of the day, thanks to a few faculty members and a crushingly efficacious departmental staff, I was invited to helm an online introductory rhetoric class. I relaxed, and then immediately un-relaxed and sat there, wondering how I was going to do this. For hours.

Here is where failure returns... but in a good way.

Online teaching can be an often-stilted, awkward endeavor. The thought of explaining Gorgias and Kenneth Burke over Zoom while trying to ignore the outside world is un-nerving; like we are supposed to teach from inside an aquarium locked in an abandoned museum which just happens to be on fire and pretend everything is alright. Like instructors and teachers are supposed to ignore reality while helping students explore it.

Then it hit me: Nobody had walked into my office, taken my media course plans, and rammed them into a shredder. Those ideas were still there. They could still be used. Life itself was not working “normally.” Why should I?

The cancellation “failure” created exciting possibilities. Despite being assigned to teach a different course I could still produce media, vary lecture styles, and employ mixed pedagogical methods in an interactive fashion. This was an opportunity to deploy media ideas in another realm, and to make every session a chance to play with course concepts and content delivery approaches. The class could explain rhetoric through a rhetorical approach to media-making; we could talk about how rhetoric functions in the ongoing process of creating our actual course contents.

Our class functioned in a flipped manner. We (all of us!) gradually worked through texts while seeing how different media technologies affected how we understood them. We took notes on readings and on how we talked about them. We asked questions. And we adjusted; queries, content, approach, all of it. By the third time I taught the class, with performance scholar Jessica Noe assisting, things were even more dynamic. Everything had been “road tested,” and the course was exciting and fluid; different every day.

Instructors have been re-working everything during this pandemic. Although taxing, this does present opportunities. Why not take advantage? Teachers, parents, Makers, circuit benders, crafters, and tinkerers of all kinds should allow students to indulge their interests, passions, and ideas in ways which are as much about subversion and self-actualization as they are about regurgitating information. Let them try new things. Change as you go. You are not forsaking your duties; you are being present, active, and empathetic in trying times to help your students.

Reinvention is easier said than done. Engineering a course involves time, resources, patience, and flexibility. It also requires instructors to be OK with messiness, and to learn that you become a more effective teacher by practicing communication under both good and bad conditions. And it involves failure. Dislike your teaching approach? Unhappy with the lesson you taught? Break it and put it back together again. You may stumble, but soon you will fail in a productive way that teaches a stronger lesson than you might have otherwise. Which is, oddly enough, success. Then you can do it again. And again. You do not break a course to walk away from it; you break it to make it better over time.

The remainder of this article offers advice to instructors in similar situations.

Use What You Have (Plans, Lessons, Infrastructure, Technology, Time, Tools). Then Re-Use it.

Figuring out how to present a lesson in a way that works well is a challenging task regardless of the venue. In online teaching contexts we might feel the need to first focus on the particulars of making short films or video essays or interactive lectures or games. However, I suggest people start by designing the whole course. Emphasize student engagement while identifying possible complications. Craft a syllabus, then go over it and look for potential problems. See how they can be “worked around.” And then redraft the syllabus. This approach should (and probably will) persist during the course. It is a process of refinement.

Then look at what is available to you. In my case I had a camera, audio equipment, and editing software, so I made videos. But I did not start media-making until clarifying the nuts and bolts of the class, which for me was a difficult task. Take the syllabus out again; see what to highlight, what to jettison, and what to change. Streamline and focus on the ideas you want to stress. I foregrounded these videos and made sure everything connected to them, but only after designing a thorough outline.

Make use of what is already there. School has a content management system license? Put it to work. Need to have a daily reading quiz? Drop three questions into your course podcast file at various times and let students answer online. Participation? Same as your daily quiz. Office hours? Be on Zoom for 30 minutes to an hour after the lesson goes “live” on YouTube. Student has an issue with the video? Make MP3 audio available (Audacity is free!), with and without music, via Dropbox.

Find the best way to express ideas in a manner that lets students work with them. Again course boundaries and expectations should be solidified first; focus on finding the optimal way to explain what you are doing before engaging in content creation. My advice is to take a day just to plan. Even a half-day can work. Think about the most direct way to teach these ideas, which lightens your load and cuts to the core of the course.

Plan for Gaps

Gaps will happen.

Things will break. Outputs will fail. Sound will cut out. An upload will not complete. A reading will not be optimized properly (make your PDFs accessible! It is 2021!!). A typo will end up on-screen. A student will have a bad connection.

It is better to plan on accomplishing “less” in the digital teaching space and do so in a way that permits people to fill in gaps on their own than to preemptively solve every conceivable minor problem. It also allows student voices to impact course design. This brings us back to planning; be sure and build in time to address problems and to shift things.

Plan for gaps, too.

Think of gaps as chances. Email is often used as a catch-all clarification method, but email expectations can be unreasonable; a friend has an “after 24 hours” policy to give better responses. In a teaching context open digital office hours are great for addressing gaps. Actively and regularly encouraging students to reach out and talk is vital; you do not want 25 deer staring at your educational headlights after you explain why St. Augustine is important. Create opportunities for conversation as often as you can.

You may want to upgrade tech and various apparatuses as problems arise. This often creates more gaps; you will have to learn new things and re-arrange others. I cannot over-stress the importance of reorienting readily-accessible consumer technology – both antiquated and contemporary – for use in teaching. Do not get hung up on “new.” Something goes totally wrong? Push back the formal lesson and do an online Q and A, then upload the lesson the next day. Offer lecture notes to students and hold open office hours for people who need assistance.

Ask “Them”

Despite this being a bit of a “me” essay I do want to focus on creating a “we” and crafting a communal educational environment. These environments can (and should!) function at various scopes and in various spheres. The use of creative prompts, basic digital infrastructures (synchronous or not), and non-hierarchical group exercises can re-invigorate and re-orient learning environments. This necessitates experimentation and assessment.

A shortcut? Ask “them,” be they students, colleagues, or collaborators, how things are going and how to improve. This is another gap to consider; it is teaching after all, and what works in some circumstances may not cut the mustard in others. Turn to the “we.” Hear out suggestions and try them. All courses change, but by employing a generous and inquisitive spirit to “break” electronic pedagogy we can recognize what does and does not work, simultaneously fostering a sense of camaraderie while embracing a form of positive (albeit often unpredictable) communal chaos.

We are now in a position to re-design learning – and not just learning spaces – in novel and inclusive ways which acknowledge different contexts, voices, and levels of access. Lean into the mess. See what works. Use what you have. Recognize the importance and validity of interactive technology while noting how societal and cultural factors constrain their accessibility and use. And if your initial ideas are not working? In the words of nobody you would read in a peer-reviewed journal: “Toss 'em.” Ideas are a dime a dozen; finding the ones which allow learning to flourish is priceless.

So do not be afraid of failure. It is temporary. And it is part of learning and teaching. Go forth! Break things! Have at it!

About the Author

Evan R. Jones is a PhD student in the communication program at University of North Carolina. His research is centered on analyzing abandoned structures and what they mean to different stakeholders and community members. He may be reached at