In “The Invisible Audience and the Disembodied Voice: Online Teaching and the Loss of Body Image,” Joanne Buckley offers a very personal reflection on the possibilities online education offers professors and students with physical disabilities. Buckley, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, found that her “experiences teaching writing online have been the most experimental, fruitful, and often the most intimate work I have done, mainly because I feel freed from the real—and perceived—constraints of my physical body.”
Buckley’s paper is based largely on the contrasting responses she has received in online as opposed to traditional classroom settings. She believes that in the online environment she is unencumbered by the biases that unfortunately confront physically handicapped professors. But not only professors: “The absence of barriers between students that may result from differences in age, race, and gender seems to help make communication among students easier and less restrained.”
Furthermore, while it is obvious that the online classroom relieves disabled students and professors from the physical constraints of inadequately designed classrooms, Buckley argues that the online classroom also confers psychological benefits. To a list of benefits that includes the privacy needed to write well, greater opportunity for participation, and personalized pacing, she adds “the chance to avoid being judged by one’s physical appearance.” Buckley also believes that greater credibility attaches to her person when she is communicating in disembodied venues. Finally, Buckley also contends that her wheelchair as well as the difficulty with which she stands up to write on the board or use the overhead projector amounts to a significant distraction from the actual content of her teaching.
For all of these reasons, Buckley is hopeful that the disembodied experience of online education will create opportunities for students to learn and express themselves without having to deal with the prejudices that sometimes shape fully embodied interactions. Moreover, the professor or student is freed not only from the bias of others, but also from the anxieties that attend the anticipation of such treatment. The online space then, precisely because of its disembodied character, becomes a utopian space where pure minds engage free from the complications attending the body and its particularities.
Underlying Buckley’s analysis is the assumption that the body and the self (or, selves) are only contingently related to one another. So, for example, she approvingly cites the following observation by a person interviewed by Sherry Turkle for Life on the Screen: “why grant such superior status to the self that has the body when the selves that don’t have bodies are able to have different kinds of experiences?” Likewise, she borrows Emerson’s metaphorical rendering of soul and body as dreams and beasts respectively and suggests, again following Turkle, that computer mediated communication can, for a time, hold “the beast at bay in pursuit of the dream.”
For those with physical disabilities, a technology that enhances access to educational opportunities is a welcome development. Buckley reminds us that most of our thinking about online education is conducted through the lens of those whose bodies are whole. But one wonders whether in its hiding from view the body and its particularities, online education does not perpetuate, to some degree, the very prejudices it purportedly overcomes. In fact, such prejudices are not overcome at all. It seems preferable to bring students together in a fully embodied context so that whatever prejudices exist are not merely bracketed, but rather confronted and truly overcome.