Dec 12, 2018
Over a year ago, we published a series of essays on teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age. As part of this series, Sunny Yudkoff shared her resources for working with Yiddish radio materials, Paula Teitelbaum reflected on how she integrates Powerpoint presentations and multimedia materials from the internet into her classroom, and Kolya Borodulin discussed the design and execution of the growing body of Yiddish language courses that he and others teach online under the aegis of the Workmen’s Circle.
As a Yiddish Studies journal published solely on the internet, we are particularly poised to reflect on the way that the digital infuses our learning and our scholarly lives at all levels, up to and including language instruction. Our series on teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age provided some pragmatic strategies and suggestions for the classroom, but left us with further questions about the challenges and rewards of learning and teaching Yiddish online. So we decided to continue the conversation about digital language pedagogy where we left off, this time bringing together language instructors who teach and think about online courses to answer a series of questions that we posed in order to reflect on the state of online Yiddish language learning.
What follows is our conversation with Isaac Bleaman and Sheva Zucker, who both have taught online courses for the Workmen’s Circle; as well as Adi Mahalel, who teaches a shared (via live-streaming) Yiddish course at the University of Maryland, College Park, offered to the Big Ten universities; and Carla Meskill, Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University at Albany, State University of New York, whose research and teaching explores new forms of technology use in language education. We are grateful to all of our participants for taking the time to share their thoughts with us.
Can you tell us a little about yourselves and your relationship to online Yiddish language instruction?
Isaac: My first experience with online Yiddish teaching was in 2014, when I coordinated a webinar taught by Sheva Zucker as part of the Leyenzal, an online resource that allows intermediate and advanced students to connect with Yiddish experts around the world (primarily through original pre-recorded lectures delivered in Yiddish). To my knowledge, Sheva’s was the first ever webinar to be conducted in Yiddish, and its participants called in from the US, Israel, France, Switzerland, Argentina, and India. Over the past few years, I have become a Yiddish teacher myself, working in both in-person classrooms, at the YIVO Summer Program, the Yiddish Farm, and the Workmen’s Circle in New York, and virtual classrooms through the Workmen’s Circle.
Adi: I have been occasionally teaching blended online and in-class Yiddish language courses for advanced beginners at the University of Maryland, College Park for the past several years. This in addition to regular in-class Yiddish courses. This fall we are offering a shared course with other universities for beginners, where on top of my UMD students, students from several other universities participate via live stream.
Carla: As a language teacher educator, I first assigned my graduate students to use Newsgroups as a supplement to their teaching English as a second language (ESL) in 1993. Prospective teachers used this asynchronous platform to engage learners in online ‘conversation’ while feeding back models of correct language use. The ESL students were very responsive to this form of conversation as a means to improve their speaking, writing, and comprehension. Since then I have engaged in a large number of research projects on optimal forms of interaction in online courses, especially language courses.
Sheva: I started several years ago when Kolya Borodulin asked me to teach an online class (or classes) for the Workmen’s Circle. I was a little dubious about it, I’m not that into technology, and certainly at the beginning there were technical glitches, but I see that it can be an amazing thing, especially for Yiddish. It kind of tickles me to think that I would be the poster child for online teaching since really, I am such a dinosaur technologically.
What got you interested in teaching using online platforms in the first place?
Isaac: When I was nearing the end of my BA and looking into my options for graduate programs in Yiddish, I realized how many barriers there were for students who wanted to acquire language proficiency (and cultural literacy) at intermediate and especially advanced levels. Even if a student has the financial resources and geographic flexibility to enroll in a graduate program, he or she still has to choose just one program, and in most places that means working with just one or two experts in the field. Yiddish studies is a small community, but its practitioners live all over the globe. The easiest way to learn from multiple teachers is by using online platforms. That was the impetus behind my Leyenzal project, and I think it’s one of the reasons why the advanced Yiddish seminars offered by the Workmen’s Circle have been received so positively. Language classes at all levels are benefitting from the use of online platforms. I was honored to be invited to teach language classes online with the Workmen’s Circle.
Adi: We simply wanted to boost our enrollment stats for our Yiddish courses, and to ensure we’d have enough students for the more advanced level courses.
Carla: Early in the history of the internet, there were bilingual sister classes being set up as internet penpals around the world. Students of all ages practiced their respective languages and learned about one another’s cultures. I found this fascinating.
Sheva: Quite simply, I was invited to do it, and accepted, with some trepidation. Why trepidation? A number of reasons. I, myself, am not very technically savvy and am not a huge lover of technology. For example, I use my cellphone as little as possible and am barely literate in it. I worried that there would be technical difficulties (which there were, and sometimes still are, but less so) which would make class extremely unpleasant. There is nothing worse than screaming, “Berl, du herst mikh” (Berl, do you hear me) and getting no answer from Berl because he, in fact, does not hear me. Luckily, I have technical help at all times. This doesn’t mean that there are no technical issues, but at least it’s not my fault. But most important, I worried that it would be impossible to create a warm, supportive atmosphere online, that that something magical that sometimes happens in class could never happen online. I’m not sure if I can say if it ever does or not but there are other kinds of magic.
What has surprised you about teaching Yiddish online?
Adi: I can say that I am enjoying taking on the technological challenges that come with live streaming teaching, the more general ones and the ones that are more particular to Yiddish, like it’s unique script. The Yiddish script, as we all know, does not appear on most keyboards. Online Yiddish keyboards are slower. So in the live stream class, I either get a good camera angle on the board, or I use an app that screens my ipad sketches on the shared screen. Outside of class time I do print things for my students who need their texts punctuated and that takes a bit longer.
Also, live streaming allows me to see them and them me throughout the class, so I develop a version of regular in-class dynamic with my remote students.
Isaac: I would echo Adi’s comments about developing a regular classroom dynamic over time. I was initially concerned about needing to constantly mute and unmute students to minimize distracting background noise, or monitor the thumbnails of students’ faces to see who was raising a hand. Over time, though, I got used to these issues, and students have been very understanding and accommodating, as well. I still do face technical problems when it comes to typing in Yiddish on the “whiteboard” — the classroom software often puts punctuation on the wrong side of the line or will unexpectedly change the size of my text — but these are relatively minor challenges.
Carla: I have been surprised by how powerful each form of interaction can be: asynchronous, synchronous, text, audio, video, and especially by how combinations of these can be used by language teachers to orchestrate their classes.
Sheva: I’m surprised at how much I like it and how much it’s actually like a real class. I see everyone and they see me and each other. I can even divide the students into groups, which I do quite a bit so that they get more of a chance to read or answer and be active. I won’t pretend that there have been no glitches on the road, but as the students and I get more used to it, it gets easier. I remember the very first class I taught, my cursor completely froze up. I couldn’t move the page up and down, I couldn’t point to the line I needed. Many of my documents have line numbers but I don’t think this one did because I remember having to explain to the tech person, who knew not a word of Yiddish, where I wanted the cursor to be. In addition, I couldn’t hear some of the people. They had issues which had to be solved. There’s nothing like screaming, “Ir kent mikh hern” and nobody answers, or saying something and there being a several second delay. It was a nightmare. But many of these difficulties have been overcome and now classes generally go smoothly. I’m surprised at how a rapport actually has developed among students. When I come into class I often see them talking, either in English or Yiddish, about whatever, almost as if they were sitting in the same room.
I’m surprised at how a rapport actually has developed among students. When I come into class I often see them talking, either in English or Yiddish, about whatever, almost as if they were sitting in the same room.
What are the particular rewards or opportunities that online learning offers?
Adi: I am happy I have the opportunity to spread academic Yiddish language teaching to universities that otherwise would not have it as part of their course offering. And I enjoy communicating with people whether they are nearby or remote. In the end it boils down to that. The technology makes it possible to a very reasonable degree.
Carla: It’s particularly important to me that online courses create learning opportunities for all regardless of geography.
Sheva: The main one would be accessibility. Yiddish classes are getting to people all over the world. Let’s face it, most places even in America don’t offer decent Yiddish classes. If they do offer anything it is elementary and no higher. Now all levels of language learning are available to people all over the world, and with some of the best teachers in the world. Very advanced students, among them many Yiddish teachers, are now studying online with Yitskhok Niborski. What an amazing opportunity! I’ve had students from Australia, China, many places in Europe, South America, probably all the continents. My first semester I had someone in Bali. Apparently, the best internet connection he could find was in a café. We actually saw the server bring him a drink. It was quite hilarious.
I’m not sure if all internet Yiddish classes offer this possibility but the Workmen’s Circle classes get taped and then students can watch the class on their own time. I don’t think people who can actually get to class decide to watch instead, but for those who want to review a part of the lesson, have to miss, or live in a time zone where they actually can’t find a class to fit their schedules this is a wonderful feature.
It also does create a national and international community of learners. While nothing, in my mind, beats going out for coffee with someone who is in the same room as you, connections do get formed. Some of the students go to Yiddish programs such as Yidish-vokh, KlezKanada, programs at the Yiddish Book Center, and they meet each other, share rooms, and form friendships. One American student traveled to Poland this summer and met in-person with two of her Polish classmates.
What are some of the greatest pitfalls of online Yiddish language study?
Isaac: A number of the staples of in-person language teaching are not possible online, or at least not feasible through the software I have used: small group work, discussions or dialogues with many participants, singing Yiddish songs, to name just a few. And while it’s arguably easier in an online class to make sure students are all on the same page in our textbook — the book is open right in front of them, and I turn the pages — most of my students have preferred to use physical copies of the textbook during lesson time so they can flip between the reading passage and the glossary, or between the exercise we’re doing and the relevant grammatical tables.
Adi: Well, there are always challenges when you are pioneering something: this was the first shared course offered by our department; the first shared language course (at least by our university); the first academic shared Yiddish language course ever. For example, one difficulty has been in sharing materials and communicating outside of class time with students from different universities via one shared platform. Luckily, I had various people helping tremendously along the way to get it going as smoothly as possible.
Sheva: Well, it’s still not face-to-face, or it’s only face-to-face, without the rest of our bodies. The screen is very good but it can’t replace live interaction. You can’t dance in class or play Lemekh Zogt (Simon Says). There are definitely times where something goes wrong with the technology. The wrong page appears, I can’t hear the students, they can’t hear me. It’s still not clear to me if it’s because of something someone has done wrong or if it’s just a glitch. Students disappear (especially when I put them in groups), there is an echo. People don’t have their headsets, which is a disaster and ruins the class for others but they still want to participate and it’s hard to tell them not to. At the beginning I felt like I was shouting down a cliff, unsure if the answer would ever come. Or I’d say something funny and the laughter seemed very delayed. These don’t seem to be problems anymore but I’m not sure if they aren’t or if I’ve just gotten used to them. Also, I hate looking at myself for an hour an half but it’s unavoidable.
Carla: One problem we’re facing is the trend toward automation [such as one finds in app-based language learning tools like DuoLingo or Babbel]. While there is a place for automated language practice, we know too well its limits. Plus its something learners can be encouraged to do on their own, on their own time. It is not the same as an online language course. Authentic interaction with others serves to keep learners engaged and working at mastery while providing opportunities to use the target language productively. Much advocacy needs to be done to educate the public, especially administrators, as to the differences [between online courses and app-based language learning tools.]
What are some strategies you, or others, have developed to deal with challenges of online language learning?
Sheva: The biggest challenges are technical, how to avoid some of the things I mentioned above. If anything, I am much more organized and well-prepared in my online teaching because I know that something may not work out and so I need to have Plan B ready. You have to learn what you can and cannot do. The class can work in groups but it’s not great to sing a song in unison because it comes out like a round rather than a unison song. I find that I have to be much more explicit when I give instructions. For some reason when I put the students in groups it seems to take a long time for them to figure out what to do (even though I’ve just said it) or to figure out who should read first. I can’t just turn towards them to tell them what to do. Writing spontaneously is harder. I do it sometimes but, more often, if I know I’m going to want to write something, even a vocabulary list, I prepare it as a document beforehand so as not to have to write on the whiteboard. You really can’t have students writing on the board, I don’t think. If you can, certainly it would be problematic in Yiddish because they don’t have the letters or type poorly.
Adi: I try to engage students from different schools with one another as much as possible, and thus enjoy the coolness of this kind of Star Trek-ian live video communication. I use apps to help me communicate handwritten material in Yiddish, in case the blackboard isn’t clear enough via the video camera. I alternate between a live camera and a shared screen, thus shifting visual focus, and increasing the segmented sense of the class that is suppose to decrease boredom. At this point I’m also starting to become a something of an expert in camera work, a topic I had zero knowledge about beforehand. You can’t have a last minute handout in such a setting, if the students are expected to write on the sheet. Stuff like that need to be prepared at least hours in advance and cannot be improvised.
It is my hope that online Yiddish courses might actually increase the enrollment in in-person courses and summer programs, especially at the intermediate and advanced levels which normally suffer from small enrollments.
What do you think are the implications for online learning in terms of enrollments in Yiddish language courses?
Isaac: If learning Yiddish online is just as effective as learning it in a classroom, then one might expect the increase in online Yiddish course offerings to lead to a decrease in classroom enrollment. However, I don’t believe this is a cause for concern. First, most of the students in my online language courses have not been college-aged, they work normal business hours, or they do not live in areas where they can easily enroll in an in-person course. If not for the online course they probably wouldn’t be studying Yiddish formally. Second, it is my hope that online Yiddish courses might actually increase the enrollment in in-person courses and summer programs, especially at the intermediate and advanced levels which normally suffer from small enrollments.
Carla: Agreed! Students who would never have had the opportunity to study a LCTL (less commonly taught language) now do.
Sheva: I generally agree with the others. It has opened up a world of possibilities for people all over the world who previously could not get a decent Yiddish class, or any Yiddish class, for that matter. I suspect it might detract slightly from live adult Yiddish classes (not college classes). I’m thinking primarily of New York, maybe Boston, places that actually offer in-person classes. People who might have shlepped 45 minutes to an hour each way to a class now sometimes opt for online. Is that such a bad thing? Not if the teacher is good. Thus far not many colleges offer online classes. (I am curious about what Adi is doing). The generally only once-a-week online classes don’t replace college-level courses. Granted, colleges could start using online courses but I’m not sure why they would unless it meant they could cut teacher salaries, and I’m not sure why that would be the case. I suppose colleges might also opt for online courses because of space concerns. Yes, it would be unfortunate if a university that previously offered live Yiddish classes decided to offer only online Yiddish classes or told students to take the language online somewhere else. But I don’t see that happening too much since online language classes, like in-person language classes, tend to be in real time and participatory, so these theoretical universities couldn’t really herd students into huge online lecture halls. I would say fifteen students is about the limit for successful language classes both live and online. I suppose some universities do herd students into massive online Spanish classes, and that’s awful, but halevay we should have to worry about such numbers in Yiddish.
Years ago there was a live Yiddish class at University of Michigan that had students at the University of Minnesota join by computer. I suspect this was a little technologically clunky for the Michigan students but offered the Minnesota students something they could not otherwise have gotten so they probably didn’t mind technological challenges. I suspect things like this might be easier now technologically.
Adi: I absolutely believe that online courses lead to increased enrollment. That was our goal to begin with and it’s been paying off. We’ve probably doubled the number of students we will have for the Beginners II course compared to our previous enrollment in non-shared courses. Universities with no access to Yiddish learning can now enroll in our course. And in general I would say that online learning is attractive to students.
How do you think online Yiddish learning might affect the job market for Yiddish instructors?
Isaac: The possibility of teaching Yiddish online is creating new opportunities for Yiddish instructors to earn a living and gain valuable experience working with diverse students. Unless universities are encouraging their students to enroll in online courses for credit instead of hiring their own full-time instructor (I don’t believe this is the case), then online teaching can only increase the quality of candidates for those more traditional teaching jobs.
Sheva: I don’t think it will affect the already terrible university job market much. As the number of people wanting to study Yiddish increases, which it miraculously seems to be doing, online teaching will open up jobs for people. It’s probably not full-time work but it’s something. It also increases the possibilities for private tutoring.
I also think it increases the level of the teachers. Teachers who before may have had no one in their area from whom they could learn can now take advanced level online courses.
Adi: I think it’s a valid question for online teaching. In the case of Yiddish, the common scenario was that a particular university did not have a Yiddish instructor, and then consequently seized upon the shared course option. As I see it, it hasn’t been a case of ‘let’s get rid of our language instructor since we can enroll remotely in a shared course instead.’ And to be honest, if that kind of thing did happen, what realistically can you do? As Sheva says, the university job market was terrible to begin with.
Are there unique problems or approaches to online Yiddish instruction that differ from such instruction in other languages?
Carla: The one factor that I’ve come across in this discussion of teaching Yiddish online that I have not encountered with other languages/language educators is the lamentation that dancing is not possible in online classes. I have, however, seen dance courses that are fully online and they are marvelous. So, kick up your virtual heels!
Adi: The short answer to your question is that for Yiddish being technologically innovative is a question of survival; it’s an innovate or die kind of scenario. Maybe it’s just my feeling, but Yiddish university learning is characterized by a small number of enthusiastic learners. They make a greater effort to get their ‘Yiddish fix,’ including seeking out online courses when the learning is not offered in their home institutions. Going forward, the main question on people’s minds won’t be “in-class teaching vs. online teaching?” but rather “What particular kind of online methods do you incorporate in your teaching?”