When the reality of the pandemic first hit early in 2020, I was teaching a course on Chaucerian adaptation at one of UConn’s branch campuses. It was my first time teaching at UConn - Avery Point and I was really enjoying my two-day excursus down to the shore. The Avery Point campus is truly exquisite; surrounded by water, the tiny campus is known for its marine biology program and environmentalist course offerings. But being in an English classroom didn’t feel too out of place: My students and I began to refer to our class as “Chaucer By the Sea,” despite the distance in content from the lighthouse and lapping water just outside our classroom. Chaucer, after all, lived out the majority of his life in a tiny apartment overlooking the Thames River at Aldgate in London.
It was the first week of March when UConn called off on-campus classes. Instructors and students took refuge in their homes and began the process of “distance learning,” “online teaching,” learning in “synchronous” or “asynchronous” courses, etc. It was a learning curve for all of us as we transitioned to seeing and hearing each other exclusively over the computer screen (what I missed most was not being able to say “goodbye” to them at the end of the semester). Many may believe an English course - especially one on a premodern author - is a work of solitary reading and thinking. But English courses are some of the more animated and talkative classrooms on a campus. This is because we need community to help us understand and articulate all that we know and all that we do not know. We need community to help us encounter the world.
Anxiously, I began to anticipate the fall semester and how I might best assist students who, despite the emotional weight and health risk of this global pandemic, maintained enrollment at the university and moved ahead with their education. Many scholars and teachers have been talking about the changes in their classroom dynamic and how they are adapting their pedagogies to the dynamic that emerged. Even major news outlets like NPR and Time have singled out space to address the impact that quarantine and social distancing has had on teaching. There is a lot of good to have come out of this new digital teaching experience: things are more flexible and adaptive in many ways. But I do have less of a sense of how students are doing: an email or a Zoom meeting might give me information about how a student feels about a particular reading or assignment, but it is wildly difficult to ascertain someone’s needs in a consistent and helpful way in this dynamic.
I do not claim to have any answers, nor do I want this post to turn into a solution-based “tip” for instructors. Rather, my own frustration in feeling disconnected from my students has only reinforced the pedagogy that animated my teaching since I started doing it nearly ten years ago. What I’d like to offer here is to articulate the basis of my pedagogy, that is, what I think are the two fundamental choices that educators have when interacting with students (digitally or otherwise):
We can choose compassion or discipline.
In our interactions with our students, we often have to make one simple choice: compassion or discipline. When a student sends us an email that they might not make an assignment deadline, or when a student disappears for two weeks, or when a student writes an ambitious paper that misses the prompt's objective - we have a choice on how we respond.
There are very few instances when a teacher should choose discipline. Consider your memories from school: which memories stand out to you? Which interactions do you look back on with fondness? Which interactions make you cringe or feel ashamed? Students will learn far more about navigating human interaction from a teacher who meets their needs with compassion. In other words, compassion is a tool of expansion whereas discipline is a straightening device.
As educators we must opt for expansion - the expansion of love, of ideas, of an emergent worldview, of possible futures. We need to show our students that education is not a matter of right/wrong, yes/no, black/white, but rather a space to cultivate reactions and responses to the changing world around us. Within those reactions there may be reactions that are more encouraged than others. For instance: racist, transphobic, homophobic, xenophobic, ableist, misogynist language is not 'taking a position', it is simply hate. Compassion does not mean doormat, does not mean lenient, does not equal deadweight, does not mean free-for-all. Compassion asks us to draw our students into a community, to encourage them to make connections with the people around them, and, most importantly, for us to understand that the process of expanding one's mind is not easy.
Many scholars have theorized pedagogies of compassion. Here I am thinking of Paulo Friere, bell hooks, Bettina Love, Abdullah Sahin, and others. These scholars have called upon educators to "teach the whole person" and redefine the power dynamics between teacher and student in the classroom. In Teaching to Transgress (1994), bell hooks recalls her experience as a graduate student, where learning was maintained by discipline:
In graduate school the classroom became a place I hated, yet a place where I struggled to claim and maintain the right to be an independent thinker. The university and the classroom began to feel more like a prison, a place of punishment and confinement rather than a place of promise and possibility.
The thought that my classroom could turn away an excited student - deflate their joy and watch them whither - is my living nightmare as an educator. As Catherine Denial has written, "...kindness as pedagogical practice distills down to two simple things: believing people, and believing in people." While the choice between compassion and discipline has been on my pedagogical radar since graduate school, it has come full circle during our current pandemic crisis. Education is different now, that is simply true. Some professors are using this digital apocalyptic education setting to surveil students (yes, there is a story circulating about a professor who is making his students film their laps while taking a test). If the opposite of surveillance is "carelessness," which most thesaurus' seem to agree upon, then please, someone tell me how surveillance operates as a technology of care? It simply cannot.
Compassion over discipline. I have learned far more in my years of schooling from teachers who gave me the benefit of the doubt, took my fears seriously, understood where I was coming from, believed me. Believed in me.
Denial, Catherine. "A Pedagogy of Kindness," Hybrid Pedagogy. Aug. 15 (2019): https://hybridpedagogy.org/pedagogy-of-kindness/
Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: (Bloomsbury, 1970).
Harwell, Drew. "Mass School Closures in the Wake of the Coronavirus are Driving a New Wave of Student Surveillance," The Washington Post. Apr. 1 (2020): https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/01/online-proctoring-college-exams-coronavirus/
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. (Routledge, 1994).
Love, Bettina. We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. (Beacon Press, 2019).
Sahin, Abdullah. "Education as Compassionate Transformation: The Ethical Heart of Islamic Pedagogy," in The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education. Ed. Paul Gibbs (Springer, 2017): 127-137.