Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Man on the moon

I confess that I arrived at last night's videoconference full of doubt. The plan had been hatched last spring in Montreal at the AAR's board of directors meeting. John O'Keefe, a professor at Creighton University, had bonded with me over the past couple of years; we were fellow technophiles and enthusiastic about taking our pedagogy into the twenty-first century. Over breakfast in Montreal we came up with a way to combine our classes. He would be teaching ecological theology; I would be teaching process theology. His syllabus would have a unit on process thought; mine would have a unit on ecology. If we could just make those units coincide, then we had the perfect opportunity to get our students together.

And so this semester we contacted the appropriate technical people on our campuses to make use of the videoconferencing facilities available to us. It was a lengthy and worrisome process, with personnel out for long periods of time or not as communicative as we might have liked But finally we had confirmation -- the test call had gone fine, and we were set to go.

I showed up last night convinced that something would go wrong. (After all, my babysitter had canceled that morning, and I'd spent the day fretting about just making to to the session.) Fifteen minutes before class was due to start, and I was kicking myself for not calling that day to confirm plans with the IT department. But ten minutes before class was due to start, the technician showed up and opened the door -- and voila, we could already hear chatter through the speakers. The call had already come in and been connected, and all that was left on our end was to turn on the cameras. The technician showed me how to control the cameras and audio, and then left me in charge. I was shocked; far from being a monumental undertaking requiring intensive cooperation and expertise, the whole thing was ... routine.

We enjoyed a spirited hour of conversation -- nine or ten people on their end, a similar number on ours, and a guest speaker to get us started. My students enjoyed answering the Creighton contingent's questions about process theology; I think it surprised and delighted them to be the experts in the discussion. The differences between the two groups became clear in a way that led to much comment, especially in the level of religiosity (my students being all over the map from atheist/materialist to Hindu to evangelical Christian, and O'Keefe's group being mostly Catholics and theology majors).

We ran fifteen minues over before I felt like I had to shut things down, and afterwards everyone left our room still talking and arguing. O'Keefe sent me an e-mail to tell me that he and his students had retired to the campus pub (there's another difference right there) and talked theology for ninety minutes.

And it was easy. The equipment was all there waiting to be used; all we had to do was come up with a time that worked for both of us. I'm already scheming ways to connect up my classes with others every semester.

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