As I sent off my last batch of padded envelopes filled with handwritten thank you notes and local chocolates, something came to mind: my experience integrating virtual visitors into my classroom for the first time m recalled the changes simmering in many corners of higher education. .
I knew the tours would be informative. I knew they were going to ask me to learn more about video calling and give up some control over the content and logistics of the class. What I didn’t know was that they would inspire me to think about access to scholarly voices for students in geographically remote areas, demographic representation in the academy, academic work, and professional development .
Digital tours offer a creative and cost-effective solution to improving access to new ideas and information for students in hard-to-reach places. But my experience this year raised questions about things beyond whether the digital format made it easier for students to learn.
I teach sociology at Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Washington. Head east from Seattle or Portland and you’ll reach Walla Walla in about four hours (or fly in from Seattle). Nestled in the valley of the Blue Mountains amid wheat and sweet onion fields and vineyards, our city is flanked by a high desert to the north and west. Spring and fall are beautiful, unless you have seasonal allergies.
We have snow in the winter and our summers are dry and hot. It’s an image that often surprises first-time visitors, who imagine evergreen trees and the ever-present rain of the Pacific Northwest when they think of Washington State. Our valley has many riches to offer, but bringing guest lecturers to campus can be expensive, time-consuming, and at the whim of fog gods – freezing or otherwise – that can thwart even the most cautious travel plans.
Much more important to note is the challenge my institution must recruit and retain faculty in a rural, isolated, demographically homogeneous, and conservative area. Walla Walla isn’t easy for everyone to visit, and despite the valley’s rich history and social and cultural offerings, it’s not easy for everyone who works here to feel at home.
This is how the idea of live video lessons in my classes came about. What I lacked in funding and the ability to control time, I made up for in social connections and guts. I thought if I asked the authors of the material I assigned (some of whom I had met, some of whom had not), surely one or two would say yes. The chocolates sweetened the deal. Turns out all nine agreed.
Talk about a pleasant surprise! The areas of expertise of these authors covered intersex identity, globalization and surrogacy, masculinities, experiences of Latin American and Asian students, intersections of poverty and race in adolescent employment in urban settings and wealth in charter and private schools on the East Coast, among other topics. Visitors also included a discussion of research methods and how their own identities may have influenced the topics they research.
It is essential to emphasize that the expertise and identity of many authors were different from mine. On my campus and yours, issues of representation, listening, and speaking up for others (rightly or wrongly) permeate our daily conversations. The fact that our student body is more racially diverse than our faculty, for example, means students of color may not see many faculty who represent their own voice.
In sociology, we continually ask ourselves who can study, write and talk about whom – those who are insiders or those who are outsiders or those who may be what Patricia Hill Collins called “strangers inside.” My students are used to hearing my stories and my interpretations, that is, those of an able-bodied, titular cisgender heterosexual white woman. This year they were influenced by a wider range of voices, albeit in the form of faces on a screen in front of 25-35 students. The importance of such representation became particularly clear to me when, on her way home from a particularly engaging visit, a student of color who grew up in an urban area shared, “I could see myself in her and in the stories she shared about young black and brown children.
Many of these courses included a dialogue between me and the lecturers, focusing on the overlaps in our research. It helped students think about some sociological puzzles and see what it looks like for sociologists to engage in scholarly discussion, which is increasingly happening in digital spaces. These conversations have also helped me in my own work. Whether it concerns the ethics surrounding qualitative research, the reflexivity and the role of the researcher, or the corpuses of literature to be referenced, my research has been enriched by these visits at the same time as the understanding of the students on the actual functioning of sociological research has increased. The intersection between teaching and research has become visible to students.
While these sessions inspired me and the students, they also uncovered some issues in higher education that can be troubling. First and foremost, my guests provided their expertise and labor for virtually no compensation. It’s already true that in-person guest lectures vary from campus to campus and within our campuses when it comes to compensation, with some speakers getting five figures for a start address and others, well, getting a nice box of chocolates and a friendly deal to return the favor in the future.
I have given guest lectures which have come with a wide range of compensation. All have been rewarding. But sorting out the norms and rules of this type of exchange is new territory, and particularly salient here because the visits weren’t in person. I submit that this clearly constitutes academic work and should be noted and recognized as such in tenure and promotion considerations.
And while my guests’ motivation wasn’t to get students to buy their books (they already had access to them, and our guests were really happy to participate and share their ideas), it’s also true that more and more more publishers now expect authors to market our own work, although we see little benefit. And work like that associated with virtual tours may fall disproportionately among scholars who are already doing more work by virtue of the groups they represent.
And what about my job? Certainly, this kind of teaching may seem less since my voice was less present than usual, and indeed the preparation of the visits took less time than a lecture or a discussion plan. But there was also a lot of work on my part, including figuring out which program readings would make good conversations, inviting guests and scheduling based on their availability (which didn’t always fit the sequence of course topics), manage student tasks associated with tours (I had students prepare questions ahead of time), introduce guests, navigate stressful technology issues, debrief, buy gifts using the right numbers budget and digest student feedback.
These comments were overwhelmingly positive, but sometimes criticized the course’s sequence, the inherent social awkwardness of the format, and the lack of clarity about whether and how to incorporate visitors’ words into their articles and reviews (how to cite this type of course using ASA citation style again?).
Finally, as a sociologist invested in determining the social meaning of face to face versus virtual interaction, I can say that in-person visits by scholars provide students with an additional opportunity to perceive the interaction as real, likely to inspire further conversations, and even more accessible. So making virtual tours more “real” for students was also part of my job. I knew there had been some success in this regard after a student mentioned that virtual conversation had a practical use, as it is likely that future careers for students will increasingly involve this type of communication.
These virtual tours make more voices accessible to students, provide a less costly and time-consuming educational adventure for all parties involved, and inspire additional professional or personal collaboration with scholars we often only see in passing during a annual conference. My advice to anyone looking to add these virtual tours, or add more, is to couple these benefits with thoughtful consideration of student work, representation, and expectations. At the institutional level, it is of course necessary to have the technology adapted to these interactions (we used Zoom), as well as colleagues with technological expertise to troubleshoot.
For now, as we continue to sort through the standards of this type of academic exchange, it’s also helpful to have plenty of padded envelopes on hand to send chocolates to academics kind enough to share their ideas with. enthusiastic students in distant places.
 My guests, to whom I owe more than a thank you note and a small gift sent in a bubble envelope, included: Tristan Bridges, Georgian Davis, Caitlyn Collins, Ranita Ray, Christo Sims, Elizabeth Armstrong, Gilda Ochoa, Shamus Khan, and Sharmila Rudrappa. All have given me the OK to include their names here and discuss their visits in this article. I could write nine more essays about these virtual tours and what students learned from them.