Faculty Spotlight: Nicola M. Imbracsio, Ph.D.

Nicola Imbracsio graduated in 2010 with a PhD in early modern English literature from UNH. Before completing her PhD, she worked professionally in Boston theatre and earned her MFA in Directing from Emerson College. Her current work largely focuses on the body in early modern drama and literature– specifically the ways in which the body is performed, received, considered, and contested by both literature and culture of early modern England. In addition to teaching, she is working on various projects concerning the performance representations of corpses, plagues, bodies, decay, decapitation, and disability.  She is a director, performer, and puppeteer… and training for a half-marathon.

Dr. Imbracsio has been teaching in the classroom for over 10 years, and online since 2009. She was attracted to teaching online by the challenge. “I was asked if I wanted to try teaching Shakespeare online. Initially I thought ‘that sounds impossible!’ since so much of my courses incorporate performance. However, I am very much dedicated to making Shakespeare available and accessible to all people, and I see on-line/ distance education as a means to that mission. No one should be denied the opportunity to study literature simply because they are unable to sit in a classroom 3 hours a week!”

Online Teaching Style

Over time, her role in teaching online has gone from controlling the experience to having students take a more proactive role in the course.

“…this can help build community with students and really influence their literary journeys!”
Originally, Dr. Imbracsio provided all the definitions and background information for her topics. Now she asks the students to prepare pages on an author or a poet or a play’s performance history. She says, “In that way, the online environment has really helped me shift the responsibility for student learning away from ME (as controlling the learning experience) to the students (as participants in their own learning experience). Moreover, I’ve witnessed on how this can help build community with students and really influence their literary journeys!”

Dr. Imbracsio’s style of forum involvement has also changed over time. “When I first started teaching online I was all over the discussion board. I checked it every hour and when something came up (a misunderstanding, a question, a puzzlement), I was the first to respond. Then I realized—who is really learning anything here?? So, the next time it happened, I decided to sit on my hands and wait it out… and sure enough, another student offered an answer to the question (brilliantly, of course) and I was so excited to see the exchange among students on the question. I continued to sit on my hands and watched the discussion roll on! Now, I just intervene is there is a gross misunderstanding of facts or I feel that I need to push a student a little more (‘Why do you think this is so?’ or ‘Can you give an example from the text?’)—but otherwise, I’m a silent observer!” Dr. Imbracsio’s forum questions, ranging from explorations of gender to the social uses of comedy, are framed in ways that allow for full participation by all the class participants, not just the first few who respond.

Humor is also a critical component in building an online presence and community. Dr. Imbracsio frequently includes short, fun video clips from sources like YouTube, including “Shakespeare Brief and Naughty” and “A Bar Joke Told in Chaucerian English.” These enrichment links, along with her recurring chats and warm, friendly posts in the forums, carry her love for the subject through to her students. This shared enthusiasm has led some of her students to form a book club outside of class (“Granite State Lit Wits”), carrying on their reading community even after the term has ended.

Although students now take center stage in Dr. Imbracsio’s courses, she still supplies plenty of resources to help provide context for the challenging material in her courses. In her Shakespeare class, she provides a video clip of a historian discussing the Battle of Agincourt, and another of a Japanese production of As You Like It.

Challenges

One challenge Dr. Imbracsio is still working with is the difficulty of incorporating improvisation into her classes. “I’m a theatre person who teaches English lit, and my F2F [face-to-face] classes involve a lot of spontaneity—I miss that in an online course where the class has to largely be laid out a head of time.”

In addition, she would really like her online students to be able to perform the works of theatre they are studying. In this area, she has been helped by attending the USNH Academic Technology Institute in Keene, where she had a chance to experiment with innovative tools in the company of other instructors. She notes, “I think that we can get carried away with the technology gizmos and forget about what technology can really achieve (and what it can’t) for us in the classroom. It’s important that good pedagogy is supported with effective technology.… and not the other way around!” She has put what she learned to good use. This year her British Literature students will each record a recitation of a poem using Jing to link with their online “pages” on that poem/ poet. She writes, “I’m pretty excited about hearing my students’ voices and getting them to ‘personalize’ their literary experience!” She is also exploring assigning students to “stage” a scene using Xtranormal, including asking students to defend their interpretative choices, a component from her previous face-to-face classes that she has missed being able to incorporate online.

The one piece of advice this theatre professional offers to faculty who are teaching online is this: “I think you need to be comfortable with your own online persona—I think you need to develop an online persona (if you don’t already have one).”

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