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Remote Teaching and the Revival of Time-tested Styles and Tools

By Amirpouyan Shiva, University of British Columbia, Winner of the 2021 CASCA Award for Teaching Excellence (Instructor)

Interactive teaching has been all the rage for some time now. One of the first challenges posed by the transition to online instruction was the transformation of effective in-person interactive tasks into equally interesting online activities. Online instruction disrupted interactive teaching, but it offered a good chance for another method of teaching: interpassive lectures—a teaching style that, in my opinion, deserves more attention and recognition.

Interpassivity is a term coined by Austrian cultural theorist Robert Pfaller to describe the delegation of enjoyment. Canned laughter in sitcoms perhaps epitomizes interpassivity. Watchers of sitcoms are not expected to do anything—not even to laugh. The sitcom tells them a satiric story, and as Žižek stresses, it laughs on their behalf too.

Good, interpassive lectures are like a good sitcom. Not only does the instructor skillfully teach the topic, but they also understand (and enjoy) it for the students as well. I have very positive memories of sitting through lectures where the professor never asked students their opinions about the topic, did not break the students into groups to discuss a question between themselves, nor did the professor lead forced debates. Instead, the instructor simply spoke for the whole class time to deliver a very clear lecture. If the professor asked a question in the middle of the lecture, it was not meant to be answered or discussed by students in any shape or form. The professor themselves would answer their own smart, calculated question—just like a sitcom that with the addition of canned laughter enjoys the show on behalf of the viewer. Those lectures, for me, were most effective and resulted in a deep understanding of the topics. Early into the transition to online instruction, when students were replaced by small squares on the screen, frustrated about spending time on, at the time, half-baked interactive tasks in awkward breakout rooms, interpassive lectures got another chance to prove their usefulness.

Online teaching platforms turned out to be a suitable medium for interpassive lectures. They, moreover, gave visuals a new life too. Instead of being projected several feet away on walls in bright classrooms, the visuals are now displayed on high-resolution computer screens merely a few inches away from students’ eyes. In the past year, my students consistently agreed that visuals, including PowerPoint slides, work better in online instruction than they did in face-to-face classes. PowerPoint slides, incidentally, pair very well with interpassive lectures, as did their predecessor, blackboard notes, with old-fashioned lectures. The PowerPoint, in online teaching, functions as a blackboard whose content and progress can be planned in advance. Online teaching visuals can be text-heavy just like blackboard notes, because they are displayed near the viewer’s eyes. In a way, PowerPoint slides in the context of remote teaching combine the advantages of two versatile classroom fixtures that, before the pandemic, were being utilized less frequently than in the past: blackboards and document cameras.

A slide from the close reading of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message in Anthropology of Media.
A slide explaining the link between the scope of analysis, the methodology, and argument in Ordure and Disorder: The Case of Basra and the Anthropology of Excrement by Hayder Al-Mohammad in Anthropology of the Middle East
A slide from the close reading of Marx’s Coat by Peter Stallybrass in Contemporary Anthropological Theory.

I certainly recognize and appreciate that my students have different learning styles and therefore plan, design, and incorporate a variety of interactive elements into my teaching both remote and face-to-face—ranging from active learning activities to small and large group discussions and from engaging fun games to multimedia group projects. However, I have been motivated by the affordances of the medium of online teaching platforms, since the beginning of the pandemic, to place a heavier emphasis on well-planned lectures and well-thought slides. Besides the options for formulating various interactive elements, the future-oriented medium of online teaching can also be used to enhance the time-tested style of straight lecturing. I use this style mainly when I want to do a close reading of complex texts. With lectures and visuals, I can walk students through the text and show them not only what the argument is, but how the author constructs it. The abrupt change in teaching made us rethink our pedagogical approaches and strategies. We had to pay careful attention to the affordances of learning technologies. Additionally, this abrupt change has given us an opportunity to try new things and give some old ones, including interpassive lectures, a second chance. Particularly when used in combination with well-designed visuals, online interactive lectures can be very effective since they make the most of both old and new methods of teaching

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