By Mollie Kervick
Things are not normal. This may come as a surprise to many of us, especially those of us in academia where the pressures to meet deadlines, generate writing, submit articles for publication, and teach vulnerable students are more acutely felt than ever before. As a graduate student instructor of a composition course, a teaching assistant for two sections of a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course, and a fifth year PhD student trying to finish my dissertation before my funding runs out, I’ve had to do more juggling than ever before to get through the circus that is this semester.
There is, of course, much to say about the fact that many of us feel this pressure to work as if things are normal during a pandemic.
But when we take even a brief moment to pause and consider the state of our teaching and learning, it is clear that business is not as usual—it cannot and should not be. It is vital (as in life-giving) for instructors to acknowledge this in their classrooms in order to help our students, and ourselves, navigate this difficult psychic landscape.
Academic organizations such as the Modern Language Association have called for instructors to practice care for their students and themselves and in what remains, I want to offer three tenets of pandemic pedagogy that have guided my teaching and care practice this semester.
1. Radical Vulnerability
Facilitating a culture of care starts with the instructor. It is up to us to model for our students the ways in which compassion, understanding, and respect play out in learning communities, especially when those communities gather in digital spaces that many are still learning to navigate.
Start with radical vulnerability. We should let our students know that we are human beings with feelings, obligations, strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and upsets. Being vulnerable in the classroom does not mean divulging personal information about ourselves that we’d rather not share (though that may work for you). Instead, being honest about something that is difficult for us or something that we’re still learning may open student’s eyes to the fact that we don’t have all the answers.
For example, before this semester I had never held a discussion section using WebEx and during our first few meetings of the semester it showed. Whether it was failing to figure out the ins and outs of the hand-raise feature, or botching the settings for breakout sessions, it was clear that I wasn’t an expert. I told my students that I needed help and they offered it to me. It can be that simple.
Learning to fully trust my students has been the most transformative lesson of my teaching and care practice. Willing to be vulnerable in the classroom can help our students see us as real people beyond the “instructor” or “teaching assistant” title, but it is just as important to remember that our students are complex people with multiple belongings, obligations, and roles just like us.
Trust is easily put to the test when holding synchronous, remote class meetings, when our bodies and minds are separated by physical distance and our words are mediated through various technologies. When only one third of the participants in my 25-person discussion section have their video turned on, how can I know what the students behind the blank icons are doing? Are they listening? Are they engaged? Are they even there at all? Teaching a remote course in which you discuss topics such as racism, sexism, and sexual violence, complicates the synchronous video sessions when we consider that many students may be in an environment where those kinds of conversations may put them at risk if overheard by family members.
Though there are moments when it feels like we may be speaking into the digital abyss, trusting our students will always see us through. Yes, there may be students who try to take the easy way out or deceive us. Still, believing students have good intentions and are doing their best not only treats them with the respect they deserve as adults in our communities, but allows us to move beyond doubt. In doing so, trusting students creates space for us to really think critically about what our students, and what we, need.
3. Radical Care
Practicing radical vulnerability and trusting our students helps to foster a practice of radical care in our learning communities. Like radical vulnerability and trust, radical care can look like many different things. It can mean telling students that their health will always be more important than a quiz or an essay. It can mean telling a student that you are proud of them. It can mean extending a deadline even when no students have asked for it. Radical care can seem small yet mean everything to how our students think and learn.
Radical care is a practice and a promise. It is showing our students that we care for them beyond the work they do for our courses, but as people trying to make it through. It is a promise to see them through caring eyes—even through layers and layers of digital divides—and teach them to see others in the same way.
I dream of a future in which my students don’t feel the need to prove their loved one passed away by sending me a death notice or obituary (true story). I dream of a future in which my students don’t feel obligated to send me an email from a hospital bed to apologize for being ill and missing a deadline (true story). I dream of a future where care is not radical, but normal.