Published: Jan. 21, 2013

It wasn’t necessarily the poem that made them nervous, but the question that followed: "Can any of you relate to the narrator?" asked instructor Jenna Montazeri after they had finished reading "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams:

"Have you ever done something wrong and displayed false remorse?" pressed Montazeri. Perhaps not surprisingly, she received only a few hesitant replies. It is a situation that many instructors encounter, especially those who encourage students to discuss uncomfortable topics. She had hoped for a lively discussion that would eventually evolve into a photography project. "Okay then," said Montazeri, not about to give up. "Let's go to the computer lab and login to Skype Chat."

"It was a completely spontaneous decision," said Montazeri, later. "I actually think I got the idea from conversations I had with my husband early on in our relationship. Sometimes we would sit across the table and chat with each other over Skype. Sometimes it's easier to share things that way."

In the computer lab, the atmosphere shifted dramatically. As soon as the class settled down in front of their computers, the steady sound of typing filled the room and the first stories started emerging. A student who worked in a grocery store wrote that she deliberately crushed a rude customer's eggs and then made up a lie about how guilty she felt. Another student admitted that she pretended to be remorseful when she broke up with her boyfriend despite having already found a new lover. The conversation became increasingly intense, and even the students who rarely spoke in class contributed. Yet, aside from the tapping of keys and the occasional giggle, the room was silent. They did not speak a single word out loud.

Jenna Montazeri is a graduate part-time instructor (GPTI) in her third year at CU Boulder, currently teaching Photography I. She doesn't allow laptops or cell phones in her class. In fact, her technological tools typically date back to the early 20th century. They spend most days in the dark room. She often prompts her photography class with a piece of literature or a concept that her students re-interpret through photography. Montazeri has always encouraged students to take part in intimate discussions, but it took her a while to realize that Skype could be a tool to help students open up and be more engaged.

"I'm surprised by how well it worked out," she admitted. "On that first day, I asked them to share something that was potentially embarrassing, and it was easier somehow for them to make their thoughts physical, and for the conversation to be mediated through a computer screen. They could hide a little bit."

Teachers typically use Skype to connect students with people that they would not otherwise be able to communicate with. In November 2012, Time magazine ran an article about a new platform called "Skype in the Classroom," where teachers shared ideas about cross-cultural exchanges that introduce students in the U.S. to students and experts in different parts of the world. In the CU art department, Skype is often used to foster conversations among students, curators, gallerists, and artists in NYC and LA.

In Jenna Montazeri's classroom Skype is not used to connect people in distant places, but to help students talk with the person sitting next to them in a different way. In fact, instead of collapsing the distance between people, Skype actually creates a barrier that unexpectedly helps students connect on a deeper level. "Students told me that they would never have had that conversation if not for Skype," said Montazeri. This experiment in technology-mediated communication removed the potential embarrassment of public confession and students were able to express themselves more honestly. "In the end we all really started to trust one another."

Article by: Ashley E Williams