Online Classes: Promoting Critical Thinking

Delta Winds cover 2010Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Online Classes: Promoting Critical Thinking and Cooperation between the Sexes

Deanna L. Tocco

For the past couple of weeks the students in our English class have been reading and analyzing works by two authors, then re-analyzing those texts in relation to a specific synthesis question. The two texts I chose to read are Adrienne Rich's "Taking Women Students Seriously," a short essay from On The Contrary--Essays by Men and Women, and a second short essay, "Taming Testosterone" by Jeanette Blonigen Clancy from the The Rule of Mars--Readings on the Origins, History and Impact of Patriarchy. In my small workgroup of three students our focus has been this question: How might teaching online students, rather than traditional on-campus students, change the focus of concern for these authors? Would these authors be happy or upset to see students writing in an online environment rather than in the traditional on-campus setting? Rich's text focuses mainly on concerns pertaining to the suppression of women in the educational arena while Clancy's focus is the suppression of women in patriarchal societies and how that has brought about violence in our world. Rich's conviction on mastering the art of critical thinking and Clancy's belief that we must have cooperation--not domination--between the sexes led me to analyze the online classroom environment in relation to these two skills. In doing so I came to the conclusion that the online classroom environment does a far better job at promoting critical thinking and cooperation between the sexes than does the traditional classroom setting.

In "Taking Women Students Seriously," American poet and feminist Adrienne Rich addresses what it means to be a woman student in a man's world, a world that she believes has been organized by and for men. She explores woman's role as a second-class citizen from 1947 through the late 1970s, reminding us of a time when women did not receive an equal education or equal opportunity in the workplace. She attributes this discrepancy, in part, to men viewing women as prey. But she also contends that females had been indoctrinated to believe that assertive or aggressive behavior by women would leave them unmarried, thereby making them failures. She calls on women educators to challenge their female students to expand their thought processes and to master critical thinking skills. She closes by saying women must be cognizant of what has caused their self-depreciation if they are to become critical thinkers and successful competitors in a man's world.

In educator and writer Jeanette Blonigen Clancy's short essay "Taming Testosterone," she addresses women's dominant role under matriarchy and their submissive role under patriarchy. She lists reasons for the societal shift to the latter, including both agricultural technology and womb envy: the theory that man envied woman because she could produce, nourish and raise a child with relatively little contribution from a man. Clancy gives modern-day evidence of societies absent of violence and war, which she attributes to the absence of male need for domination in those societies. She also touches on the reality of biological aggressiveness in males, but shows evidence that violence and aggressiveness are actually learned behaviors. She closes by saying that only through female relationality--cooperation, absent of domination--will mankind be able to experience true worldwide peace.

It is clear from the texts that both authors see women as being suppressed in a male-dominated world. However, how they view this male domination is very different: where Rich focuses on the effects of man's domination over woman, Clancy's focus is on the consequences our society experiences because of male dominance and aggression.

According to Rich, women are being prevented from obtaining equal education and workplace advancement due to man's view of women as prey. Rich states, ". . . on many campuses--Rutgers for example--where traversing a street lined with fraternity houses, she [woman] must run a gauntlet of male commentary and verbal assault" (168). Rich goes on to say, in regards to rape of the mind, that "Most young women experience a profound mixture of humiliation and intellectual self-doubt over seductive gestures by men who have the power to award grades, open doors to grants and graduate school, or extend special knowledge and training" (169). Rich claims that these acts cause women to be hesitant in their actions and result in a continued cycle of suppression where women fail to speak up, both in the classroom and in the world at large--where they fail to assert their ideas and their beliefs out of fear of male retribution. Rich claims the only way to break this cycle is through women becoming critical thinkers, who can collect, analyze and synthesize data and who can apply what they've learned to the real world. I believe that Rich's concerns would be greatly dissipated in the online learning environment of today--a learning environment that goes a long way in promoting critical thinking while also serving to eliminate the issue of women as prey.

Clancy views the consequences of male domination somewhat differently. Her focus is on violence and war. She gives evidence of societies where violence and aggression were non-existent: ". . . the earliest societies were neither patriarchal nor militaristic. In the art of these societies, there was a conspicuous absence of the portrayal of violence, conquest, domination, or the destructive effects of war such as master/subject imagery" (303). From this we can deduce that these were peaceful societies, societies in which cooperation and open communication would have existed. So how did these peaceful societies come to be? What did they have that current societies do not? I believe one of the biggest differences has to do with the way people think. To have peace, there had to be open communication and cooperation between the sexes. The citizens had to be able to look at each other's point of view, to analyze the issue from all angles, and to use common sense, experience and reasoning before coming to a workable solution for all involved. In other words, they had to think critically.

So, what would Rich and Clancy think of today's online learning environment? Would they consider it a step in the right direction? I believe they would. I also believe that they would be thrilled with students writing in the online environment. I base this on the fact that in the online environment students are able to read the postings of 20 to 30 other students. This exposes them to many views different from their own and serves to broaden their way of thinking. This is a positive aspect of online learning that is virtually absent in the traditional classroom environment. So how well does the online class environment address the two main concerns of our authors? Let's take a look.

Rich's main concern is that women do not receive an equal education; that they are often afraid to speak up in the classroom and voice their opinions because they are treated as prey. This concern has been mitigated to some degree in the online classroom environment where "speaking up" is much easier to do because a student can voice his or her opinion somewhat anonymously. It's not that other students in the class don't know who is posting the response, because all postings list the name, and sometimes the picture, of the student who is submitting the post. But in an online environment you never have to meet your classmates face-to-face, so this creates an illusion of anonymity. Students, and more specifically women, no longer have to feel like they have a sea of eyes looking at them, waiting for them to say something foolish or inadequate. With the fear of ridicule dissipated, women may feel more at ease contributing new ideas and participating in class discussions. Women may also feel more comfortable contributing to class discussions because online classes offer students the flexibility to do their work at a pace that is comfortable for them and that works with their schedule. This freedom allows the student time to process information and come up with logical responses before replying to fellow students' or professors' inquiries. In other words, it alleviates some of the fears that are present in a traditional classroom environment. The online class environment creates a safe haven in which students can feel free to openly express thoughts, views and opinions. It allows students to create dialogue with each other and provides them the opportunity to see issues from others' points of view. In short, it promotes critical thinking.

In addition to promoting critical thinking, online classes require discipline, cooperation and communication between student and instructor and also between student and student. This requirement is applicable equally to men and women. In fact, some instructors, as part of the course curriculum, require students to participate in small workgroups. These workgroups can be made up of both men and women and can serve to promote better communication between the sexes. In a traditional classroom setting women may be more inclined to gravitate toward other women when discussing topics of study. But in the online environment the instructor may assign men and women to the same workgroup; women may even feel comfortable enough to invite men to participate in their workgroup. Members of each workgroup come to rely on dialogue and feedback from their fellow workgroup members in order to maximize their learning experience. This type of learning environment not only promotes cooperation between the sexes, as Clancy feels is so crucial, but also advances students' critical thinking skills, which are often lacking in the traditional classroom setting. Clancy's view that cooperation between the sexes will lead to world peace may be a tad overreaching, but it is definitely a starting point. For if we have open communication and a willingness to cooperate with one another, we have the beginnings of a peaceful environment, and this, in turn, may lead to more conducive learning. As time progresses and more students take advantage of this new opportunity, Clancy's dream of cooperation between the sexes may yet transpire.

I believe that the online learning environment creates many opportunities that many men and women may not have had. Mothers can take classes without having to leave home--allowing them to balance both family and educational demands. Working professionals are afforded the luxury of still working full time, while also having the advantage of continuing their education--something that is crucially important in this day and age. In addition to these two key advantages is the bonus that critical thinking and cooperation between the sexes--two skills that are immensely important to a successful life--are promoted in online learning courses. Both of these are learned skills; they are not second nature and they don't just magically develop. They are skills that must be taught and nurtured in order for one to become proficient at them. Unfortunately, in the American educational system critical thinking has traditionally not been a staple of learning as reading, writing, and math have been. In the classroom we are taught from a very early age to memorize. Memorize the alphabet. Memorize multiplication tables. Memorize spelling words. Memorize, memorize, memorize. And memorization does have its place in education. But more important than mere memorization is teaching students what to do with that information once it is memorized. Teaching students how to apply what they've learned to their own life--how to reason and come to logical conclusions--this is what is important.

In school, the skill of reasoning--the ability to think, to understand and to draw conclusions in an abstract way--is something that is rarely taught to students. But it is a skill that is crucially important. Teaching students how to analyze what they've learned and to apply the knowledge to their everyday, real-life world has been lacking in the classroom. But online learning actually promotes these skills and forces the student to interact with fellow classmates and instructors in a way that does not happen in the traditional classroom. Take for instance my current online English class. In this class we have been encouraged to interact with each other, to toss out ideas and have other students respond. This is encouraged and expected from both male and female students. This type of teaching has created a dialogue between the students and the professor that has forced us to rethink some of our ideas. It has allowed us to expand our views and thought processes so that we better understand the topics we are studying. In other words, we are honing our critical thinking skills. At the same time, we have also broken down the barriers of communication between men and women. We interact with one another and work together as a regular part of our classroom assignments and this has promoted what Clancy envisioned--cooperation between the sexes. I don't ever recall taking a traditional, on-campus class where either critical thinking or interaction between the students was as prevalent as it has been in my online courses. I can only imagine what life must have been like for women in the era that Rich grew up and taught in. Equally hard to imagine is a world where men devalued women so much that women's thoughts and opinions didn't matter. This was the reality of the world that Rich grew up in so I can see why she is so adamant about women pushing themselves to master critical thinking. For doing so would allow women to follow their dreams. In her lifetime, Clancy witnessed the negative effects of patriarchy on not only women, but on our entire world. Neither Rich nor Clancy liked what they saw and they sought to change it. Maybe, just maybe, their work has helped to promote the educational environment we have today.

Rich and Clancy have brought to the forefront issues that affect not only women, but also our society as a whole. While many of Rich's concerns have been rectified over the years, the concerns that Clancy had are still quite real. As our society and our world continue to evolve and work towards equality between not only men and women, but amongst all humans, there is no better place to start than with our educational system. Hopefully, the online classroom environment will serve as a catalyst in which the skills of critical thinking and cooperation between all humans can be nurtured and instilled--providing a solid foundation for the betterment of women and towards world peace.

Works Cited

Clancy, Jeanette Blonigen. "Taming Testosterone." The Rule of Mars--Readings on the Origins, History and Impact of Patriarchy. Ed. Cristina Biaggi. Manchester, CT: Knowledge, Ideas and Trends (KIT), 2005. 301-10.

Rich, Adrienne. "Taking Women Students Seriously." On the Contrary--Essays by Men and Women. Ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983. 165-71.