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Over the past (very turbulent) month, I’ve been working on describing digitized media from Collection C388, the Robert Byrnes papers. I started my work on this collection the week before spring break, and for that reason my conception of the collection is overshadowed by the circumstances around my work on it. However, the transition to remote work over the past few weeks has highlighted one part of this collection in particular; a film series Byrnes produced in 1959 on the history of Russia. It stood out to me because of its intended use, which was as a correspondence course. I found myself in the interesting position of transitioning to remote learning while working on an approach which was used 60 years ago.
In some ways the contrast is pretty stark; Byrnes’s approach and our own are on opposite ends of a technological and educational revolution. The ability to speak with my classmates despite sometimes immense physical distance is extraordinarily powerful. In some ways, I imagine that the correspondence course of 1959 faced some of the same challenges as we do today. The lecture and the classroom are institutions with centuries of tradition. Physical, shared learning spaces were as or more important back then as they are now. The same can be said of student-professor interaction. There are few things which are valued more in the pedagogical process.
That said, there are some successes and failures with the Byrnes course which I think we can apply to our own attempts at remote learning.
One thing that Byrnes really succeeds at is his presentation of his material. As a lecturer and presenter, Byrnes is smooth and articulate on camera. He outlines his subject in clear terms and speaks on his subject matter with a formal yet conversational style. I think this sort of clear and direct presentation style is really important for remote learning; without the physical cues of a classroom and the pressure to reduce distraction during class, it is important to simplify and clarify a message for students.
Something else I thought was really important to the success of Byrnes’s lectures is that they don’t rely on graphics. This is something that I think we especially, as students and professors who rely on PowerPoint, could learn from the presentation of the past. We use presentation slides for a reason, but it’s important to consider their role in a classroom setting. Students look at the professor when they’re presenting information, so retaining that cue also helps retain attention. By using graphics sparingly and intentionally, they can serve their intended function; as a teaching aid, instead of as a teaching crutch.
One downfall of Byrnes’s lectures is that they lack student interactivity. This is a genuine success of our modern educational tools. The ability for students and professors to talk is one of the most valuable aspects of a classroom environment, so its remote replication should be seen as a huge advantage.
While Byrnes’s lectures demonstrate clear understanding of the topic, the ability to engage his knowledge and ask interesting questions would elevate the experience greatly. Since this is one of the advantages we retain with an online format, it is something we should turn to often in our lectures. In my few weeks of online instruction, I have yet to see student questions engaged with. I see this as a lack of integration with the system on Zoom; the tools for question asking/answering are there, but professors have to make use of them. Real integration of the tools we have for online teaching would improve the experience greatly. For example, Zoom includes a chat bar in its client; professors could use this feature to get information and field questions from students, while allowing moderation to ensure that there isn’t chaos in the audio channel. It will be interesting to see how teaching styles adapt to the tools available online; to succeed in this environment, a different skillset and teaching style is necessary, and I’m interested to see how learning changes over time as a result of this abrupt change to online courses.
One last downfall of Byrnes’s lectures is their bias. In many ways the lectures are a product of their time. An American series on Russian history, in 1959, is doomed to bias as a result of the political climate of the time. While we are more aware of this issue today, it is just as important (or more so) to examine our discussions and beliefs for bias in our time.
Byrnes had a lot going on in the course of his life. These video lectures form an early part of his work, but his examination of Russian history, and the events of his time, never stopped. He was still thinking, writing, and speaking on Russia and Eastern Europe through the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lived through some of the most serious international crises of the 20th century, and indeed of modern history. To study an area of the world which was subject to so much bias, so much uncertainty, and so much speculation, must have been uniquely challenging. I hope that we can apply some of Byrnes’s perseverance in the difficult times that we’re living through, and continue to be the best students, researchers, and professors we can, no matter the circumstances.