I'm not OK - photo by Ryerson student Nick Armstrong

“Not OK”: Pandemic Pedagogy & Why We Need to Gather Again, Differently

This is the first in a series of blog posts by members of the Studio for Media Activism & Critical Thought, leading up to our Mayday! Speakers’ series, May 25-28. Watch for it!

My last real world student meeting was with Ming (not her real name), an international student from mainland China. A smart and excruciatingly shy graduate student,  I could tell she was struggling, so I set up weekly in-person meetings.  Weeks earlier, she had blurted out, apropos of nothing, or so it seemed: I wish I could be invisible.

The next day, Ryerson campus closed, and we switched to online teaching, overnight. When we met as a class, Ming would usually turn her camera off. Overnight, she got her wish: she became invisible. But the truth of the matter is, that invisibility and the loneliness that accompanies it, existed long before the pandemic began.

Those last three weeks of the semester, I had a lot of zoom meetings with students, including Ming, to make sure they were OK. Those calls were surprisingly intimate (I asked them keep their cameras on); students zooming in from bedrooms and kitchens, from substandard housing, from parents’ living rooms, from residence. I saw vulnerability, fear, and resilience in their eyes. Some feared losing their housing; others had lost jobs; some didn’t have their stuff with them since they moved back home. One student was back in Hamilton with her parents, another in Winnipeg, yet another in North Carolina, in childhood bedrooms with pink walls & stuffies, or basements with band posters on wood-paneled walls. I asked them how they were staying sane: yoga, Barbie videos, dog cuddling, Youtube, meditation, painting. We tweaked their final projects, and the privations of the pandemic became a creative opportunity. Before, most were doing videos; now it’s soundscape, podcast, infographic… I was able to see my students with more clarity and honesty than I have all semester.

Online pedagogy can provide greater intimacy, yes. But I think we’re also finding that it is fatiguing; that it is hit and miss; that we lose the quick question from the shy student after class; the impromptu hallway conversation; the very proximity of classroom teaching and the unpredictable, often delightful (and, yes, sometimes miserable)  affects that flow from that. The classroom is, or should be, a contact zone, a place where we encounter one anothers’ humanity.

But the fact of the matter is, we’ve been losing contact for some time. A month before the pandemic, I had to evaluate a sessional instructor. His lecture was well prepared. His Powerpoint presentation glowed with the hours of effort he’d put into it: photos; short film and news clips; quotes from esteemed theorists. In a class of about 65 I could see only one student with their head up, watching the screen. Every single other student was bowed in deference to a phone or a laptop. I could see what they were doing there, and taking notes was the least of it. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, online shopping. They scrolled langorously through their feeds: there was nothing urgent or necessary there. I left the class with feelings of loneliness and despair. Digital expert Sherry Turkle has long argued that this kind of behavior is a symptom, not a cause. “Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed – and only for the parts we find useful, comforting or amusing” (qtd in Berg & Seeber, 74). Students, positioned as consumer by the neoliberal university, learn to instrumentalize every aspect of their education. That they do not have sufficient life experience or education to edit out large swaths of the professor’s lecture is a truism that professors know, but cannot say – for fear of getting a lousy evaluation, be it from student or colleague.

 So why even bother going back to the classroom? Affect theorist Teresa Brennan wrote about affect the way we now talk about the corona virus: “the energetic affects of others enter the person, and the person’s affects are in turn, transmitted to the environment” (8). We could say that there is currently both a global transmission of a virus, but also of feeling. It is why, in Canada right now, the general conversation is characterized by nationalist sentiment and benevolent authoritarianism. Our leaders are using battlefield metaphors, asserting militaristic chains of authority that we seemingly have no choice but to follow.  But Brennan argues that there is also affective transmission in which people “take up opposing positions in relation to a common affective thread” (9). We’re seeing that with mutual aid initiatives, and with a wave of radical online webinars. But the classroom can also be a place for students to disagree with the university’s ‘common affective thread’. At its most effective the classroom can be a heterotopia – Michel Foucault’s notion of institutional spaces that are ‘other’ – disturbing, contradictory, transformative.

It remains to be seen whether Zoom’s corporate grid can provide that same transmission of contradictory affect. Perhaps, via its limitations, it will remind us of what we’ve lost:  education’s common, rather than merely private good. Pedagogy as a site of citizen-building, moral education and critical thinking.

Two weeks into the pandemic, my students were already missing the campus, and even the classroom.I’ve been telling them to let their profs, chairs and deans know this. Universities have been eyeing online education for a long time, and it has slipped into the academic schedule with varying degrees of success and failure (remember MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses? No? That’s because they bombed). 

If you had asked any of my students, two months ago: would you prefer to come to class by staying home?  – most of them would have said, Hell yeah. They   work in retail, or in restaurants; they have long commutes and long days, and transit is expensive. But now, they have no access to equipment (they are media production students, most of them); they have siblings and pets distracting them; they can’t focus. They are realizing, with great and sudden clarity that the classroom is irreplaceable. Besides delivering knowledge, it potentially does two things: it provides community, and it provides a space away from home, whether it’s their parents’ suburban house, a cramped apartment with an abusive partner, or a room in a boarding house. The university places them in an encounter with people different from themselves; it equalizes them, to some extent. There is the potential for visibility and community.

In their groundbreaking book, The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber proposed an approach to teaching and research that would follow the tenets of the slow food movement: community, sustainability, and mutual aid. Written four years ago, the book was scoffed at by any academic I talked to. The time poverty, the competitiveness, and resulting alienation preclude most of us from valuing community over status. But I think, slowed down by a virus, we may be in a position to reconsider what Berg and Seeber argue: “well-being takes place intersubjectively, between people, rather than being an individual achievement” (81). Like Brennan’s theory of affective transmission, happiness and true collegiality emerge from embodiment, but not only that. We need also to build an academic culture where we are present for one another, overturning the neoliberal imperative to rush by, to work all the time, to value individual success over our common humanity.

At the final class of Social Justice Media, held via Zoom, I asked my students to identify one thing that stood out for them in the course. One 4th year student, we’ll call her Paula, said, “this class made me realize that for years I’ve just been going after marks.  I’ve missed out on all the other things the university has to offer”.

Indeed, it was Turkle asked us, years before the pandemic, to be aware of what we miss when we use our devices as a defensive shield in public; her admonition, from 2017, is prescient: “When we ask what we ‘miss’, we may discover what we care about, what we believe to be worth protecting” (76).

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