Thursday, March 26, 2015

Social Presence and Relateability

This week has been rough in the office.  We learned that our colleague - and my former professor - Pepi Leistyna passed away. Details are scant at the moment and everyone in the department is in a state of shock as his death was quite sudden and unexpected.  I was going to write a blog post about about my history with him, how I knew him as a person when I worked in Media Services (good ol' AV department) where he used to pick up VHS players on carts to show clips of films in his courses; how he influenced my development as a learner and a scholar; and finally as a valued colleague when I started working in the department of Applied Linguistics.  While I think this is valuable, and certainly part of the process, I think there is another area to home in on, thanks to this week on #HumanMOOC: Social Presence!

Social Presence is defined as:

...the ability of learners to project their personal characteristics into the community of inquiry, thereby presenting themselves as ‘real people.’ 

Here I want to talk a little about the social presence of the instructor.  I, and every other student who has been in Pepi's classes, knows that Pepi had incredible social presence. Pepi never taught online, and he was a lecturer in his style of teaching, but you never felt bored in his classes.  There was no script to follow, no monotone voice, no scribbling on the blackboard.  What you got was an intellectual engagement for the duration of the class - and that class happened to be lecture driven, in there was Pepi at the front of the room, but his style allowed for a lot of back and forth with students in the class, going "off topic" to explore related areas that are brought up, and artfully getting back "on topic" to make sure that we were all on the same page.  I don't like lectures, I've even fallen asleep in undergrad lectures before, but never in Pepi's classes.

Pepi rarely used new technologies in his course. He still brought VHS tapes and DVDs to show us parts of videos that would inform our discussion for the evening. Wikis? Twitter? Flipgrid? HA! no, that didn't happen - but it didn't matter.  Pepi also basically had one major paper due at the end of the semester, and that was pretty much what your grade was based on (at least that was the case when I took 603 and 618 with him), so not a lot of group-work in or out of class. You could submit parts of your paper in chunks, receive feedback, and rework before you submit your final version at the end of the semester, but I don't know how many people took him up on it.

Pepi accomplished his content goals, and had an incredible degree of social presence, even among alumni who graduated years ago! How did this man do this? After reading facebook posts that have come in after the announcement of Pepi's passing, blog posts from students and fellow alumns, and emails sent to our department email the answer seems simple: relateability.

Pepi could relate with others, and others could relate with him.  It wasn't just that he was energetic in his courses, even when he was feeling sick and low on energy, it was that he brought in his own personality to the courses.  He could discuss, and connect materials from class with what was happening in the world.  If students brought up an example, he could augment it by showing that he cared enough to know what they were talking about.  Yes, there is the teaching and the advising that is part of the job, but he also knew how to weave in non-class things such as his passion for music, travel, and photography.

With Pepi it wasn't all about business, it was also about relating to you as human being.  With some of the emphasis that we put on tools and technologies for our online courses we sometimes get infatuated with the sound of our own voice that we don't often enough think about relating to our learners (it should be noted that this can happen even without technology mediation in campus courses ;-) ). We might not be able to relate to every aspect of our learner's backgrounds - for instance I have a hard time relating with those who are (or want to be) corporate instructional designers. I have never been a corporate instructional designer, and don't want to be one.  However I know enough about the corporate world from my other education that I can start to relate with my learners at some level.

Being able to relate, I think, is something that cannot be taught. You can certainly learn to fake it until you make it, but it is a skill that you, as an educator, need to practice and improve. I don't know if Pepi learned it, or he was naturally a guy who could relate to others, but he certainly had mastered this skill.

I'll close two things. First, with my favorite Pepi quote: "If you are not angry, you're not paying attention".  It's not that Pepi was an angry man - for from it - he was one of the most relaxed people I've ever met. The point was that there is a lot of injustice in the world and if you are not moved by it to even acknowledge it, then you've taken the red pill.

And, finally, one of the few video lectures of him on YouTube (this is from around the time I was about to graduate from the applied linguistics program).




Pepi, you will be missed...
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