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As I was sending out my last batch of padded envelopes filled with handwritten thank-you notes and local chocolates, something occurred to me: my experience incorporating virtual visitors into my classroom for the first time called to mind changes simmering in multiple corners of higher education.

I knew the visits would be enlightening. I knew they’d require me to learn more about video calling and to relinquish some control over classroom content and logistics. What I didn’t know was that they would prompt me to ponder access to scholarly voices for students in geographically remote areas, demographic representation in the academy, academic labor and professional development.

Digital visits offer a creative and cost-effective solution to enhancing access to new ideas and information for students in harder-to-reach places. But my experience this year has sparked questions about topics beyond whether the digital format facilitated student learning.

I teach sociology at Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Wash. Head east from Seattle or Portland and you’ll hit Walla Walla in about four hours (or hop a flight from Seattle). Nestled in the valley of the Blue Mountains amid rolling wheat and sweet onion fields and vineyards, our town is flanked by high desert to the north and west. Spring and fall are glorious -- unless you suffer from seasonal allergies.

We get snow in the winter, and our summers are dry and hot. This is an image that often surprises first-time visitors, who picture evergreen trees and ubiquitous Pacific Northwest rain when they think of Washington State. Our valley has many riches to offer, yet bringing guest lecturers to campus can be expensive, time-consuming and at the whim of the gods of fog -- freezing or otherwise -- which can thwart the most careful travel plans.

Far more important to note is the challenge my institution faces to recruit and retain faculty members to a rural, isolated, demographically homogeneous and conservative area. Walla Walla is not easy for everyone to visit, and, despite the valley’s rich history and social and cultural offerings, it is not easy for everyone who works here to call home.

And so the idea of live video lectures in my classes was born. What I lacked in funding and ability to control the weather I made up for in social connections and guts. I figured if I asked the authors of the material I assigned (some of whom I had met, some not), surely one or two would say yes. Chocolates sweetened the deal. Turns out, all nine agreed.[1]

Talk about a pleasant surprise! These authors’ areas of expertise spanned intersex identity, globalization and surrogacy, masculinities, Latino/a and Asian American student experiences, intersections of poverty and race in urban teenage employment, and affluence in East Coast charter and private schools, among other topics. The visitors also included a discussion about research methods and how their own identities may have informed the topics they research.

It is essential to emphasize that the expertise and identities of many of the authors were different from my own. On my campus and yours, questions of representation, listening and speaking on behalf of others (rightly or wrongly) permeate our everyday conversations. The fact that our student body is more racially diverse than our faculty, for example, means that students of color may not see many professors who represent their own voices.

In sociology, we continually ask ourselves who gets to study, write about and speak about whom -- those who are insiders or those who are outsiders or those who may be what Patricia Hill Collins called “outsiders within.” My students are used to hearing my stories and interpretations -- that is, those of a cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual white woman with tenure. This year they were influenced by a wider range of voices, albeit in the form of faces on a screen in front of 25 to 35 students. The significance of such representation was made especially clear to me when, on the way out after 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 kids.”

Many of these classes included dialogue between me and the speakers, focusing on overlaps in our research. This helped students think through some sociological puzzles and see what it looks like for sociologists to engage in scholarly discussion, which increasingly occurs in digital spaces. These conversations also helped me with my own work. Whether it was ethics surrounding qualitative research, reflexivity and the role of the researcher, or bodies of literature to reference, my research was enhanced by these visits at the same time students’ understanding of how sociological research actually works grew. The intersection between teaching and research became visible to students.

As much as these sessions inspired both me and students, they also uncovered some issues in higher education that may be troubling. First and foremost, my guests provided their expertise and labor for virtually no compensation. It is already the case that in-person guest lectures vary across and within our campuses when it comes to compensation, with some speakers getting five figures for a commencement address and others, well, getting a lovely box of chocolates and a friendly agreement to return the favor in the future.

I’ve given guest lectures that have come with a wide range of compensation. All have been gratifying. But sorting out the norms and rules of this kind of exchange is new territory, and especially salient here because the visits were not in person. I argue that this clearly constitutes academic labor and ought to be noted and recognized as such in considerations for tenure and promotion.

And while the motivation of my guests was not to get students to buy their books (they already had access, and our guests were genuinely happy to participate and share their ideas), it’s also true that more and more publishers now expect authors to market our own work, despite us seeing few of the profits. And labor like that associated with virtual visits may fall disproportionately among those scholars who already perform more labor by virtue of the groups they represent.

And what about my labor? Surely this kind of teaching may seem like less since my voice was less present than usual, and indeed the preparation for the visits took less time than a lecture or discussion outline. But there was plenty of labor on my part, too, including figuring out which readings on the syllabus would make for good conversations, inviting the guests and scheduling according to their availability (which didn’t always align with course topic sequence), managing student assignments associated with the visits (I asked students to prepare questions ahead of time), introducing the guests, navigating some stressful technological glitches, debriefing, buying gifts using the correct budget numbers, and digesting student comments.

These comments were overwhelmingly positive but occasionally critiqued the course sequence, social awkwardness inherent in the format and lack of clarity about whether and how to incorporate visitors’ words into their papers and exams (how does one cite this kind of lecture using ASA citation style again?).

Finally, as a sociologist invested in figuring out the social meaning of face-to-face versus virtual interaction, I can say that in-person visits from scholars carry with them additional opportunity for students to perceive the interaction as real, likely to inspire further conversation and even more accessible. So, making the virtual visits more “real” for students was part of my work, too. I knew there had been some success in this regard after one student mentioned that the virtual conversation had practical utility, since likely the future careers of students will involve more and more of this kind of communication.

These virtual visits make more voices accessible to students, offer a less expensive and less time-consuming pedagogical adventure for all parties involved, and inspire further professional or personal collaboration with scholars we often only get to see in passing at an annual conference. My advice to anyone who wishes to add these virtual visits, or add more of them, is to pair these benefits with thoughtful deliberation about labor, representation and student expectations. At the institutional level, of course it is necessary to have the technology suitable for these interactions (we used Zoom), as well as colleagues with technological expertise to troubleshoot.

For now, as we continue to sort out the norms of this kind of academic exchange, it also helps to have plenty of padded envelopes on hand to mail chocolates to scholars kind enough to share their ideas with eager students in faraway locations.

[1] My guests, to whom I owe far more than a thank-you note and a small gift sent in a padded envelope, included: Tristan Bridges, Georgiann Davis, Caitlyn Collins, Ranita Ray, Christo Sims, Elizabeth Armstrong, Gilda Ochoa, Shamus Khan, and Sharmila Rudrappa. All of them gave me the OK to include their names here and discuss their visits in this piece. I could write nine more essays about these virtual visits and how much the students learned from them.

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