In his treatise on health, Renaissance physician Castore Durante recommends pleasant discussion, entertaining lessons, and regular discourse as not only healthful but also prophylactic. An especially pithy passage tells us that
Since virtue and strength increase with food, wine and pleasant odors, with peace and happiness, and by leaving behind things that depress, and by conversing with friends, it is therefore worthwhile to listen to agreeable stories, fables and pleasant discussions, with music and songs, and with entertaining lessons.1
Writers as various as Marsilio Ficino, Michele Savonarola, and, more famously, Giovanni Boccaccio emphasize the importance of pleasant and enlightening conversation as a way to maintain mental and emotional health during an epidemic.2 We’ve learned remarkably similar lessons during the global quarantine of the past few months, discovering that human contact, even if virtual, is critical. Zoom hangouts, Skype conversations, digital conferences, and virtual reading groups help maintain a sense of normalcy (as well as sanity) and foster a critical sense of community in uncertain times. Online in 2020 as in the Florentine countryside in 1348, conversations create community in the face of dissolution.
The importance of conversation as a way of maintaining connection is certainly relevant to our newly and unexpectedly online classrooms. Research has shown that a sense of community is one of the most important ingredients for teaching and central to healthy learning.3 This is doubly true for online classes; decades of research in online teaching have shown that a sense of community is crucial for keeping students engaged. As Suzanne Young and Mary Alice Bruce point out, “students who feel a sense of connectedness and psychological closeness rather than isolation are better prepared to become more actively involved with online learning and the resulting higher order thinking and knowledge building.”4 More specifically, a successful online course is based both on personal connections with classmates and on academic content.5
As early modernists, we are often reminded of the importance of community by our subject matter. But creating a community online presents challenges that the architects of early modern civic life and print culture could not have anticipated. Trying to find a sense of community in the digital classroom, particularly without experience teaching and learning online, can be daunting and frustrating for us and for our students. At first, we tend to focus on, and to mourn, what is missing: the Socratic atmosphere of the face-to-face classroom; the organic flow of live discussion arising from unexpected questions; the crucial feedback we get from students’ reactions; and all of the verbal and nonverbal cues that shape effective dialogue. Moreover, there is no chatting with students in office hours or running into them on campus; nor, for the most part, is there the pervasive and precious sense of collective intellectual endeavor.
In our desire to talk to our students, we often default to trying class discussions on Zoom or other similar platforms to simulate these on-campus learning experiences we long for. Indeed, one key error we can make in approaching online teaching is trying to create a sort of virtual simulation of the on-campus experience. As Jesse Stommel notes, “the first mistake of many online programs is that they try to replicate something we do face-to-face, mapping the traditions of on-ground institutions onto digital space.”6 As a result, online classes often feel less successful, leaving both us and our students frustrated in an already tense atmosphere of uncertainty. Given the difficulty, and often impossibility, of recreating online what we love most about on-campus learning, instructors should avoid dwelling unproductively on what they cannot achieve. Thus, the ultimate goals of the traditional classroom can only be reached if, in our online teaching, we pursue them by a different route.
This is not to say that discussion becomes less important in an online setting. Researchers in the pedagogy of online learning have been tracking the key ingredients of the face-to-face classroom, including productive discussion, for decades, and “online discussion has been used to bridge the interaction gap between the two learning environments”.7 Facilitating group discussion is particularly important, since “a community is based on what groups of people share and do with one another, not how or where they do them.”8 In most cases, effective online discussion is one of the lynchpins of creating community in online courses. But there are several effective methods for achieving this kind of discussion, and some of them are counterintuitive. The robust body of literature on this matter points clearly to the principles that follow.
In structuring online interaction, it is important to have students help shape the discussion and, often, take the lead. We can take a page from the Decameron and designate a king or queen to manage discussion, letting this temporary sovereign choose the theme or focus and call on classmates for contribution. Our students are fluent in online discussions of various kinds and have them all the time on Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, and reddit. We can facilitate this by letting them coalesce into groups on their own without picking them. They are more likely to continue a conversation amongst themselves if they are not forced into a particular conversation structure chosen without their participation. Further, we can use active learning techniques such as problem-solving to focus their attention: give them a problem to solve, a research task, or a resource to put together for the class. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, we can accept that asynchronous discussion tends to work best, whether on a discussion platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams, or on platforms provided by an institution’s learning management system (LMS). Not forcing discussion into a compressed time frame often allows it to develop organically.
We should also avoid the natural impulse to force discussion by requiring it as part of a grade or counting it as participation, as this has proven to be less effective.9 There is even less incentive for a student to engage in productive conversation online if it feels unnatural. We should avoid becoming discouraged, or considering a student community unsuccessful, when we see only a handful of students participate at times. As with face-to-face classrooms, research has shown that only a fraction of students engage in online discussion; yet students who do not contribute may still be listening and learning.10 Without grading participation, how can we both ensure and measure success? Even in a virtual setting, a sense of community is tangible, and we will know it when we see it just as we do in conventional on-campus settings. Students are talking amongst themselves, engaging with the material in constructive ways, and also, perhaps, posting memes and pictures of their pets.
When teaching early modern topics and texts, we can easily present students with models of community to follow. Humanists knew they belonged to an intellectual community, religious communities thrived, guild membership coalesced around professions, confraternities united neighborhoods, academies shared scientific knowledge, courts coalesced around rulers, and neighbors hung out with one another in piazzas. Early modern subjects could readily articulate the numerous committees to which they belonged. Presenting these lively community members to students as a model to emulate for learning and support is a natural place to start in our search to create online communities of learning. We may not all be able to go to a villa in the Italian countryside tell one another stories, but with intention and perseverance we can create an intellectual community with our students that produces great things.
Amanda Madden is visiting lecturer in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication and is affiliated faculty with the Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) at Georgia Institute of Technology. She teaches scientific communication and research methods and recently coedited a volume on blended learning for MIT press. She has published on teaching history with video games and is currently finishing her monograph on vendetta violence in early modern Italy.
1 Castore Durante, Il Tesoro della sanità (Venice: Andrea Muschio, 1586), 46, as quoted in Martin Marafioti, “Post-Decameron Plague Treatises and the Boccaccian Innovation of Narrative Prophylaxis,” Annali d’Italianistica (2005): 80.
2 Marafioti, “Post-Decameron Plague Treatises,” 69–87.
3 There’s a robust body of literature on learning communities in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) field. See Chun-Mei Zhao and George D. Kuh, “Adding Value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement,” Research in Higher Education 45, no. 2 (2004): 115–38.
4 Suzanne Young and Mary Alice Bruce, “Classroom Community and Student Engagement in Online Courses,” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 7, no. 2 (2011): 219–30, at 220.
5 Young and Bruce, “Classroom Community,” 221.
6 Jesse Stommel, “How to Build an Online Learning Community: 6 Theses,” 19 May 2020.
7 Strommel, “How to Build.”
8 Young and Bruce, “Classroom Community,” 221.
9 Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “The Discussion Forum is Dead: Long Live the Discussion Forum,” Hybrid Pedagogy, 8 May 2013.
10 Tiago Cunha, David Jurgens, Chenhao Tan, and Daniel Romero, “Are All Successful Communities Alike? Characterizing and Predicting the Success of Online Communities,” in The World Wide Web Conference (New York: Association for Computing Machinery, May 2019), 318–28.