We are delighted to share two further responses in our conversation on online pedagogies. In last month’s issue, Lee Skallerup Bessette kicked off the dialogue with her piece ‘Teaching Online in Extraordinary Times,’ and Naomi Milthorpe and Jessamy Perriam reflected on the importance of trying to make connections, and keeping pedagogy simple, in these testing times. These next two responses, by Alexander Jones and Sean Michael Morris, reflect on the need for resilience and the paradoxical importance of knowing when to admit defeat.
Thoughts on Admitting Defeat
Alexander Jones, Trinity College Dublin
While the experience of online teaching for the past couple of weeks has done little to convince me that it is inches away from becoming the new normal, much of this may be down to the dramatic circumstances under which my students were suddenly having to work. On the day I opened up the online discussion boards that my first-year students were going to use to discuss Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger, college sent an email to students living in halls asking that they move out immediately as part of the shutdown of campus. Students with family in Ireland were given a day, and international students just two.
After substantial pushback there was some relenting on this, but at the time people were naturally panicking about having to move their lives off-campus with little notice. I knew that most of my students would be caught up in this, especially those on study abroad programmes, or those who otherwise wouldn’t have support networks available at a moment’s notice, so the next morning I sent everyone an email of my own: forget the discussion boards, give me a week and I’ll get back to you with an alternative.
Even with the intention of giving a sympathetic response to the situation, this felt like an admission of defeat, the failure of an educator to educate. While certain colleagues of mine were pulling out all the stops to ensure as smooth a transition as possible to online platforms, I had merely chosen, in effect, to not teach. I was also concerned that, in stepping back, I had unconsciously promoted an idea that education in general during an emergency was farcical, or that I was adding to a sense of instability and collapse that seemed pervasive.
It has been encouraging, in light of this, to get certain responses from students. Some were, as suspected, having to travel overseas at a moment’s notice, and weren’t able to engage with any of their online tutorial substitutes that week. One volunteered to organise groups on social media to help classmates share ideas and talk things through in a way that was more casual and immediately accessible. There is also perhaps a parallel with current discussions on the value and ethics of grading during crisis. I found this, from Adam Rosenblatt, particularly relevant:
Faculty members ditching their old grading schema to serve students’ mental health needs in a time of crisis should be reminded that every day in our classrooms there are good students, students who care about learning and want to succeed, whose mental health also feels precarious—who are in crisis, coronavirus or no.
This holds true for much conventional pedagogy. Ceding the traditional authority of the teacher has democratising possibilities: I hope those social media groups go ahead, and that they give students the support they need.
Small surrenders can be part of the wider toolset that we draw on to make classes work compassionately during difficult times. We owe it to our students to admit defeat at times like this because they need to know that they aren’t alone in feeling lost and displaced, and that they have viable advocates for their anxieties in the human elements of the systems to which they are subject. We all have good students; they remain good students even if we put a pause on being good teachers.
 Adam Rosenblatt, ‘Committing to ungrading, in an emergency and after’, The Chronicle (March 27, 2020), <https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2020/03/duke-university-gradin-coronavirus-covid-19-public-health-crisis-emergency-thinking-ungrading-pass-fail> [accessed 27/3/2020], (para. 9 of 16).
Pandemagogy: Teaching in the Time of Covid-19
Sean Michael Morris, University of Colorado Denver
Over the past few weeks, a trove of resources and writing about teaching online or remotely has surfaced in every nook and cranny of the internet. Advice from experts, learned individuals, long-time online teachers has littered Twitter, Facebook, blogs, journals, newspapers, podcasts, radio, and TV. Each bit is flotsam on the rocky sea, promising some reprieve from the struggle, but none of them quite enough to keep a drowning teacher afloat. When what we need is a boat, what we have in its place are snippets of best practices, recommendations for digital tools, and strategies for ensuring students don’t go astray.
But here’s the thing. All of online learning —from carefully designed courses inside a virtual learning environment, to massive open online courses (MOOCs)— has never focused on the one thing teachers and learners need right now: resilience. All of online learning, even in its most radical forms, is in the business of business-as-usual, of sustaining a status quo appearance of education which will not offend or disturb, but which will instead mollify detractors and cajole students and teachers both, exactly by seeming like the familiar and offering the lowest common experience. To that end, online learning has consistently, stubbornly kept to a foundation in behaviourist educational philosophy and research-based methods (even to the point where, recently, empathy can be based in research). Until now, over 20 years into the (potentially excessive, definitely exhaustive) propagation of online learning across education, those behaviourist, technicist, positivist approaches are seen as the only way to teach and learn at a distance.
The problem is that, in a disaster like this pandemic, the rigidity of those instructional methods simply.don’t.work. What is called for now is a pedagogy which more closely resembles compassion than instruction, kindness than quantitative results. The pedagogy forwarded by Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Maxine Greene, Henry Giroux and others—that is, critical pedagogy—provides so much better a toolset for responding to a crisis than any pedagogy that favours rank-and-file instruction. Critical pedagogy encourages active, critical reflection on the world and on one’s own participation in it; further, critical pedagogy supports a responsive, flexible intelligence by investigating and amplifying agency and recognising the complicated but undeniable relationship between theory and practice. Under the umbrella of critical pedagogy, teachers and students ask questions, determine possible answers, question those again, and always work toward practices that protect and enable everyone in the community.
Critical pedagogy, in short, teaches resilience—of mind, of body, of spirit, of heart. And it forms a foundation for practice, a habitus, out of which we teach and into which we may retreat to find new ways to respond to challenges or crises. Or pandemics. Critical pedagogy itself doesn’t come with manual, no operational methods like backwards design or ADDIE or SAMR (in fact, there are no acronyms in critical pedagogy at all). Instead, it requires the teacher—who is both theorist and practitioner—to read the world and respond/teach accordingly. In a pandemic, in a sudden, brutal shift to nearly every learner across Europe and North America working remotely, we have no need for teachers or students who can scrawl right answers to questions on an exam; we need minds that can think, analyse, digest, imagine, consider and reconsider, and who can act toward the benefit of all.
TMR will be publishing further responses to this dialogue throughout the month of April. As always, we warmly encourage your ideas, contributions or thoughts. Please feel free to get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @modernistudies.