American Dreamers Online: One Professor’s Approach to Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities

Professor David Zimmerman

The increasingly diverse student populations on university campuses around the country provide educators with exciting opportunities to innovate their teaching methods.

To understand how professors in the English Department have responded to changing student needs, we turned to Professor David Zimmerman, the Department’s Director of Undergraduate Teaching and Learning. With the Learning Support Services of the College of Letters and Science, he adapted his introductory literature course “American Dreamers,” which explores literary representations of social mobility in America, for online instruction during the summers of 2018 and 2019. In the Fall of 2022, the course will be offered as part of the new School of Human Ecology online degree in Personal Financing, the first fully online degree offered by UW-Madison.

An experienced and skilled educator, Prof. Zimmerman had never considered himself to be adept at online instruction, having always placed the most value in traditional classroom teaching, especially in the humanities. However, he’s attentive to the demographic changes in the student body that would benefit from instruction that is “not constrained by classroom schedules and sizes and can serve students who otherwise can’t take them.”

We asked Prof. Zimmerman some questions about how he approached his course adaptation:

What do you want readers to know about the mechanics/logistics of online instruction? Were there unique struggles or opportunities with the materials you assigned or the way you communicated? 

Online pedagogy is very different from face-to-face teaching. At first, I thought it would be straightforward to convert my lecture course to an online format, but I learned quickly that online learning, especially online discussion and interaction, presents different opportunities and challenges. Teaching online, for example, allowed me to produce my lectures in podcast form, with musical interludes and sound effects, with each podcast being 15-30 minutes. The most difficult part of designing the course was crafting discussion activities that advanced in discrete daily stages and produced new insights, claims, and concepts along the way. Another challenge, and a genuine frustration of mine: there’s not as much real-time interaction with students as there is in a face-to-face class. To me, much of the joy of teaching lies in that real-time back-and-forth engagement with and among students in discussion and even in lecture. Online there is some opportunity for real-time interaction by video with individual students and groups of students, but it’s much more limited and less boisterous.

In addition to learning the literary content, your stated learning outcomes on the syllabus focus on critical reading, thinking, and writing. Do those change at all when you’re teaching online? 

Maybe for other courses and instructors, but not for this course. We (I and my TAs) still expect students to become attentive readers of literature, clear and compelling writers, and original and critical thinkers. The course content remains the same.

Is there something unique students get from online instruction that they might not get in a traditional lecture hall/classroom?

In online instruction, students often have more time to reflect on the course material, the discussion prompts, and other students’ observations. This often prompts more student participation, more attentive contributions to discussion, and for this reason more productive interactions. In classrooms, students may be reluctant to talk because they are shy or they need more time to gather their thoughts. Asynchronous (non-real-time) online discussions avoid these problems, and many students enjoy them for precisely this reason.