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Online Learning

by Jenny (best parts by Scott Rice); photo by Richard Bessman

Professor Scott Rice, retired professor of Children's Literature and Rhetoric at SJSU

My good friend Scott Rice, recently retired professor of  children’s literature and former chair of the English department at San Jose State, sends me such erudite emails in such volume I just can’t keep up.  He dispenses wisdom by the pound, and I’m left feeling blessed, impressed, and smart as a doorknob.  He’s also the author of my favorite grammar book, Right Words, Right Places and the founder of the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest.  I’m ever paranoid that a fragment of one of my emails might get a prize each spring.

Right Words, Right Places by Scott Rice - on LitWIits blog post

Click to purchase — my own copy is too well-worn to share!

The topic of online education is not-so-dear to his heart, so I knew he’d have plenty to say about the recent NY Times article about SJSU’s objection to online ed that I forwarded to him yesterday.  In fact, he’s written an unpublished book on the subject, Moneychangers in the Temple — you get a faint clue to his stance in that title — and he had a related opinion piece, “The Online Commute,” published in the NY Times himself back in 2000.  I understand his objection.  Most of us appreciate the opportunities that online courses present, but we’re wary of their tendency to keep kids computer-bound and affect their social lives, to say the least.

Sure enough, here came another off-the-cuff, humblingly eloquent, thought-provoking email response from Scott. With his permission, I am pleased to share that email here.

Nothing sets us to thinking so much as the thinking of other people, people to whom we can respond immediately and directly, people who can respond to our questions, accept or challenge our suggestions.  The process is fluid and dynamic.  Few, however, seem to understand what an education is.  The powers want to turn our colleges and universities into trade schools for white collar workers, factories to churn out graduates with a limited range of work skills, graduates who will do and believe what their bosses tell them, graduates unqualified to lead intellectually independent lives or to be stewards of a democracy.  But then we hardly have one of those any longer.

We are just pretending that virtual space is as effective a place to learn as brick-and-mortar classrooms.  The real objective is to spend even less on education than we do already.

I would like to add that many good ideas are born in our down or informal time–over coffee cups and around water coolers.  More formal settings somehow encourage conventional thinking, at least in this reporter’s opinion.  In fact, I’d bet that many get some of their best ideas AFTER a meeting, after they’ve had time for the ideas to germinate and make connections. For that reason I preferred to have a more informal environment in my classroom–but informal, not familiar and loosey-goosey with everyone calling one another by their first names.  There was a Sociology prof who would sit cross-legged and barefoot on his desk in the kind of attire I wear to clean my garage.  The message–“You can trust me because I am authentic, unlike those stuffed shirts in ties.”  Myself, I think that his style signaled disrespect–for the material and for the students.  I usually wore ties.

To requote his first sentence, Nothing sets us to thinking so much as the thinking of other people, people to whom we can respond immediately and directly. The other day he and I were having lunch and he was leaping from subject to subject, punctuating his cynicism with illustrative anecdotes, rhetorical questions, and his deep laugh.  I was sitting there smiling, trying to keep up with him as usual, and failing.  When he excused himself for a moment, a lone diner a few tables away looked up at me.

“That one’ll keep you thinking,” he said, shaking his head  “Wow.  WOW!  Everyone needs at least one friend like that.”

I wish Scott hadn’t retired before I could take one of his highly esteemed Children’s Lit courses, but his daily emails are free lessons in character, politics, rhetoric, writing, and life.  His words are always in all the right places, first time out of the pen — er, keyboard.  I hate to tell him this, but I’m privileged to be his unintended student in his unintended, awesome online course.

Jenny Walicek

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