For some of my peers, online teaching remains a pale doppelganger of “real life” teaching. There’s no doubt it isn’t for everyone. Whenever this debate perambulates the corridors of my campus, I can’t help but recall my first foray into the virtual realm. A young pup professor up in Wisconsin, I’d developed an Irish Literature online class that would culminate in a two week trip across southern Ireland.
Nearly twenty students signed up, no doubt more enthused by the travel than my teaching. Unlike the traditional classroom, these spectral students haunted my imagination from their first introduction. Donna and Val, octogenarian cousins from some far corner of Wisconsin; Steve, an avowed alcoholic with zero filter; and Harvey, a 50-something goatherd who lived in a mud hut with no electricity outside Madison and who had to take two buses to the public library to complete his homework each day. My mind seized on such details.
All semester we “spoke” through an online portal. Students responded to the readings, but because of the general anonymity they also found opportunities to relay very personal information. Val had recently won a prestigious literary prize; Joyce’s “The Dead” prompted another to recall a high school beau lost to disease; Behan recalled a father lost to cirrhosis; Steve kept the levity with his rants about the mortality rate on my reading list. And yet until we met at the airport any images of Harvey or Donna or Steve were illusory.
As I found them huddled around their luggage at Milwaukee International, most needed no introduction to me or each other. I found their virtual presence often eerily echoed their physical selves. I’d probably developed the most curiosity over Harvey, whose lifestyle choices evoked a version of the Unabomber while his eloquent writing suggested something more academic and effete. Instead, here stood a quite good-looking, well-groomed and gregarious fellow amusing Val and Donna with stories about his goats. While the group quickly drifted into cliques, I was struck by how well everyone got on. It was as though they’d all known each other for an eternity.
That is until on our way through Waterford, where Steve and Harvey conspired with our bus driver to make a quick stop. The driver detoured to a little cove just off the road. Steve and Harvey had planned to “baptize” themselves in the Celtic Sea and both stripped down to their skivvies to run toward the icy waters. Steve was round and pink and full of life, but as Harvey’s shirt came off there were audible gasps from even the 18-year-old women on the trip. Harvey’s goat tending ways had given him the ripped abs of a Chippendales dancer. They emerged from the frigid sea with shivery-tight skin, heightening the effects of Harvey’s chiseled physique. It was like watching Neptune rise from the depths. With Steve.
That night at the hotel I heard a screaming match coming from a nearby room and went out to investigate. I pounded on the door, too tired to remember whose room was whose. To my surprise Donna opened the door and stormed past me: “Bitch!” she called over her shoulder. I turned to Val, who looked weirdly demure: “I saw him first,” she explained. They’d been fighting over Harvey. I sat down with Val, fifty years my senior, to chastise her to act more her age before we started to laugh. “Tell me more about that literary award,” I said, hoping to keep us off the topic at hand.
“Oh mercy,” she said. “It was a big contest. They asked for an essay on what one thing divides and unites all people. I knew the answer right away.” I certainly didn’t know the answer right away, so I urged her to continue. “How we deal with the dead. The bodies, you know. Every culture has to deal with that, but we all do it our own way. I won an entire Encyclopedia Britannica set. Plus $500 that I put toward this trip!”
The next day our bus driver took a wrong turn on the way to Cork, so we decided to cut out a museum and lunch in the town where he’d stopped to get his bearings. On a hill near the only café in town stood the remains of an enormous castle. After everyone finished their sandwiches we walked up to explore the ruins under a roiling cloud bank threatening to storm. When it came time to leave I’d corralled everyone but Harvey back to the bus. I began anxiously searching the ruins until I spied him stretched out in the graveyard before a crumbling headstone, hands entwined behind his head gazing up at the angry heavens. “Harvey?”
“Oh, sorry,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “I feel so connected here. I got lost thinking about time. Ever do that?” I nodded. “We’re just hurtling through the cosmos; little blips. Like so much ghostly data. But that’s okay,” he said, taking in the ruins and the endless verdant hills. “These little moments where we connect are just so beautiful.”