Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Online History class

I am taking a series of online history classes, all taught by different teachers, each one a qualified PHD. Each class is an intense study requiring five to six hours of reading each day. Compared to the usual semester class, these classes are hundred yard dashes instead of marathons.

One of the most interesting aspects is the venue and the professors'.

The meeting venue is like a classroom, only set up in cyberspace at a place called Webex. It's an ingenious enterprise that allows scholars and neophytes (like me) to join in discussion of facts, philosophical plundering, historicism, and puzzle-of-the-past construction. The learning curve is steep and rocky.

The professor, an expert in his slice of history, is placed in the large screen. And like the old game show Hollywood Squares, each student is framed and visual. When a student answers a question or takes over the conversation, his image takes over the professor in square one.

Before the class goes live, in the five minutes before the starting gun goes off, each person pops up on the screen. Most likely they aren't concerned about whether they are in the fish bowl being observed. But in those few minutes, personality is revealed. Especially the professors.

The first professor sat down before class with a fat cigar, a swirl of smoke masking his face. It was his pre-class ritual of preparation and relaxation. Compared to the next two professors, he was the constant. Always framed in the same place, always dressed in a business white shirt. As the night progressed, his office darkened, his face aglow from the computer reflection. His ideas about history were set in stone, and if a student came at a different angle with a new historical perspective, he couldn't see it. He was never interrupted by children, animals, or backyard noise.

The second professor was an Emma Stone doppelganger. She was delightful and her online personality included a weimaraner dog who wasn't happy until he was sitting in her office chair behind her, looking over her shoulder. We often had two professors: the chirpy, intelligent red head, and a somber faced dog who only needed spectacles to complete the image.

I half expected the third and current professor to fit somewhat into the mold of the two previous, but this one takes home the original sticker The screen has accidentally switched back on the unsuspecting professor while it should have been solely on the student. There he was, a long back scratcher vigorously working underneath his shirt, his elbows propped high in the effort. This same professor likes to chew on the end of a cigar, and is interrupted by outside-the-door antics of his two daughters to which he must excuse himself to squelch.

The best part about this professor is his table-side manners. After a student gives a long discourse, he will respond, "That was a very good answer, but you're completely wrong." Perhaps this intimidates some of the students, but it helps everyone filter and think--excellent skills to develop in the 21st century, or as we look deeply into the past, had they been more utilized, they may have changed the very history we study.

When others' peculiarities are so on display, it makes one wonder (me), what stands out as I'm on the screen. Some nights, my study has been a revolving door. Unaware they will be projected to the whole class from my computer camera, my family members have walked in out of curiosity, necessity, and revealed, I assume, my quirky life dimension.

The first on screen appearance was Tony in his biking shorts and shirt. On another night, the entire family had gathered for a birthday party from which I had to excuse myself early. One by one, and spaced at least five minutes apart, the departing grandchildren came in to give me a hug goodbye. They understood the serious nature of the class and respectfully whispered and exited quickly. They behaved better than the adults. Endearing. Then came son-in-law carrying a baby in one arm and a piece of strawberry topped tres leches piece of cake, which I should have minded that everyone had to watch me eat. Then came my 33 year old daughter who couldn't resist a moment of silliness. She danced.

Was I embarrassed? No.  In this class we learn and decipher more than history; we bring our history with us.  When we enter one another's homes, we enter each others' lives. House cats and grandchildren parade on screen, housekeeping or lack of housekeeping is evidenced by overcrowded and unorganized backgrounds. Decorating tastes are revealed by wall-to-wall maps or Love is the answer wooden cut-outs hung on the wall. Unfinished walls and ladders show a room, a life, in progress.

 One night, a man whose comments I loved, was extra prolific. His head was always positioned in the lower half of his computer screen, and we were left to stare at the space around him which appeared to be a study complete with shelves and a closet. It started to bug me that he left his closet door open and from it spilled his unorganized contents. Why doesn't he shut the closet door? I wonderedIt took me two nights to realize my own onscreen presence included a view of my open closet doors.

There are few things as revealing as the past; but one circumstance is always up to the task--it is the profound recognition of mistakes in the present--and that above all, changes history.

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