Work/Life: Is there even a distinction anymore?

Dear Kim.

Last week, a friend suggested we work together on a project.

Possible answers swirled through might head: Absolutely! Let me check my schedule and get back to you? That’s a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, idea.

Image result for no good very bad
A picture from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

“Yeah …” I managed. “That might work. Let’s talk about it more next time?”

“Sure!”

The conversation flowed on, but I can’t help but reflect on it.

To contextualize (and because I have friends that read this blog), this person is well outside of academia (yes, such people exist in my life!). My friend is totally lovely. I value them immensely. And also: the thought of working with them made every muscle in my body tense up.

In doing a bit of soul searching, I think my full body resistance to working with my friend is that I view my roles as friend and as collaborator differently. As a friend, I’m a supporter, a cheerleader, a patient listener. As a collaborator, I have ideas, impulses, and opinions. I also have skin in the game, so I sometimes state, and advocate for, my opinions. For a friend that hasn’t experienced me in work-collaborator mode, I suspect that distinction would be a little jarring.

But I realize that in this weird new Zoomiverse, the distinction between my different selves is slipping. As everyone keeps noting, the pandemic has flattened our experiencing, putting our teaching, writing, learning, and socializing lives in front of a screen. And that screen is often the same screen, in the same location, in the same home, that one has been in for months.

Image result for computer screen
Does this blank computer screen feel frighteningly familiar?

How, precisely, is attending a Zoom screening of a theatre show for a class I’m teaching distinct from watching a Netflix show for pleasure before bed?

How, exactly, are department meetings distinct from teleconference family check-ins?

Is there any real distinction between my professional and personal selves (other than the fact that professional me wears nicer shirts) now that those selves spend all their time in front of a computer?

More importantly, do the distinctions between work and non-work activities matter at the moment? Should I be trying to protect those boundaries? Or is it a time to let them go?

Any thoughts for a drifting online teacher?

– Kelsey

Balancing? Or drifting away?

Oh God Kelsey, WORD.

I’m having an especially hard time with this one lately. Maybe it’s the wintry conditions here in southern Ontario (not -36C, sorry Calgary! But still stupidly cold by our standards), or maybe it’s FEBRUARY, or maybe it’s just that we’re coming up on T-minus-almost a year ago.

I look at the staircase that links my kitchen to my office and I think: dammit. It’s the stairs again.

I WISH.

One of the paradoxes of COVID is this: we’ve been in the same space, more or less, for a year now. Because that space has had to open up to contain our entire worlds, our worlds have also had to shrink to fit the space of our homes, our screens. The thing that seemed kind of unusually cozy (even a bit like an adventure??!) at the start of it all (permission to stay home!!!) now feels not only unbelievably stifling, but like a recipe for emotional burnout.

The Infinity Staircase, after you’ve stared at it every day, fifteen times a day, for a year.

I’m struggling like you with these feelings, but I’ve come up recently with a couple of useful hacks for changing things up a bit.

FIRST: I bought some good wireless headphones. (Pro tip: if you work for a university in any capacity, email your line manager right now to find out if there’s a tech fund for people like you. Chances are there is, and all you need for top-quality wireless headphones is access to $300.)

How is this a game changer? I now leave not just my home space, but my headspace, when I go out walking the dog (or just myself). I do take some work calls on walks, but mostly I try to reserve walks for personal calls. The latter human interlocutors are more understanding about all the dog-meets-dog-shuffle-sniff-sniff noises, and it’s fun to share Emma’s walkies travails with said humans. It all adds up to a change of pace and space that I can attach, cognitively and in my muscles and bones, to pleasurable chit-chat. Sometimes, friends with dogs in other cities even take synchronous dog walks with me!

Kim and Emma the Dog out walking on a very frozen Lake Ontario. Kim enjoys the sun! Emma prefers the smells.

SECOND: try moving the screens around. (I realize this one might not be feasible if you have just one big screen you use for all the things; in that case, try the phone. I have never used my phone to watch videos, but perhaps I’m a luddite that way.)

My strategy is to reserve all work-related viewing for upstairs in the home office, and all home-related viewing for downstairs in the living-dining area. Whenever possible, I use my iPad (second hand and circa 2013 – seriously, this is all it’s good for now!) for Netflix, Crave et al. (Also for reading newspapers, an excellent after-dinner activity.) A change of place, and/or a change of screen, translates – as with the dog-walking-with-headphones – into a slight shift in how the tech is used, which can make a not insignificant difference to your sense of why you’re using it. I mean, if you think about it, our teaching and living technologies have always overlapped (from reading to walking to having coffee with people); it’s about the when, the where, and the how we frame experiences to be either “work” or “life”.

(And one more hack, which [maybe?] by now goes without saying… no screens in the bedroom, people. For me, this one is huge. Reading before bed is a pleasure no pandemic can take from you.)

A kitty cat with a good book and a cuppa. Let’s pretend it’s decaf! Seriously: all the other memes I could find featured thin white women reading in bed. WTF is up with that?

Now Kelsey, to your OTHER issue, the catalyst for this post.

I can’t speak to the project your friend proposed, or your interest in it, but if the big issue is actually your fear of letting such a collaboration fully and completely consume the thin sliver of matzo currently separating your two Kelseys, perhaps the best thing to do is to let your friend know that, right now, the prospect of any more work intruding upon your home-life relationships is more than your Zoom-ravaged heart can handle.

Tell them that as soon as it’s allowed, you’ll meet for a sunny coffee on a bench atop Mount Royal and talk about how collaborating as friends could work, and about what challenges it will inevitably create (you are so not alone here). Because at the end of the day keeping work and life separate isn’t just a labour of COVID; it’s an ongoing challenge for us all.

– Kim

The view from Montreal’s Mount Royal in autumn. We will meet again!

Welcome to the AC winter 2021 survival guide!*

Readers, welcome to 2021. Sort of like 2020, but colder, with more masks, and with slightly more hope.

The last few months have been a trial by bandwidth, and that’s not the half of it. Over the holidays Kelsey and Kim have been trying to work out what the AC can do to help us all weather the winter-semester storm as best we can. Welcome, therefore, to our ad-hoc AC survival guide, a series of short, dialogic posts in which we discuss emergent COVID-related teaching problems and what we’re doing to, um, cope.

Just to be clear, you do you. Both Kelsey and Kim endorse both Lisa Simpson and coffee as coping mechanisms.

Mostly we’re drawing from our experience, recognizing that it’s probably a lot like your experience. But we ALSO know that our experiences are specific to our bodies, lives, and circumstances: we are two white cis-women without kids home-schooling in the next room, and we are fortunate to have stable, well paid teaching jobs.

We know the experiences yielded by our privilege will inevitably mask stuff going on for others, and that’s why *we would LOVE it if you would reach out, in the comments, on FB or Twitter, or by email to tell us what’s going on with you, and what issues you’d like us to discuss in the survival guide in the weeks ahead.

Thanks in advance, and without further ado…

Lord help us all who did not train as lighting designers.

First up: Trouble in the Zoom Room

Dear Kelsey,

I’ve been trying to outfit my teaching space for routine large-class zooming (something I didn’t have to contend with last semester, when I was allowed to teach hybrid/in person). It has been… a time. I’m a bit, um, in need. And I know you are AMAZING at this kind of thing.

I had the great idea of turning part of my underused antique office cabinet into what I now call Dr Kimmy’s Cabinet of Zoom; the height and space of the top shelf are just right, and this way I can literally close the door on teaching or work calls when they are over. Ideal, yes?

Inspired by, but not the same as. Although I do consider Zoom a kind of horror flick at this point.

I thought I’d cleared the biggest hurdle when I landed a nice mic and webcam. The mic (a Blue Yeti Nano) and webcam (a Logitech Streamcam) are both terrific and improve the zooming experience immeasurably. But I forgot about one key thing: the part where I need to connect them both to my computer. Simultaneously.

My computer, for those interested, is a 2017 MacBook. It was purchased in a panic after I had a screaming row with my poor dad on the phone at my kitchen table, promptly dumped a full cup of coffee on my 2013 MacBook, and destroyed it completely.

My computer, alas, has only ONE port. It is a USB-C port. It is needed, in high-stakes high-energy webcam-plus-mic situations, as you might expect, to charge the damn computer. And of course, there is no dongle (aka “adapter”) on the market, not even from Apple, that will allow a 2017 MacBook with only one USB-C port to both run a USB-C peripheral device (like a nice mic, or a spiffy webcam) AND charge the battery at the same time.

This is what I’m dealing with. PC users, stop laughing.

My first question, then, is: WTF APPLE???

My next question – composed in haste while pushing the students into breakout rooms, disconnecting the peripherals, and plugging in the charger in order to suck at least a few more minutes’ worth of power into the laptop – is this:

Does ANYONE actually look good on Zoom?

Can a tolerable appearance (= not constantly looking at one’s image and worrying about the way the webcam has converted your ordinary human wrinkles into Utah-grade caverns) be achieved without a) enabling the ridiculous touch-up features (the feminist in me withers), and/or b) without suddenly, at 46, buying make-up for the first time and learning how to apply it? (The feminist in me slowly dies.)

The how-to videos suggest overhead lighting. For some reason, this makes things worse for me: not only do I not look better, but I HATE overhead lighting and so my desire to continue teaching into a screen drops precipitously as the will to go on leaks out of my toes.

They also suggest a snappy background, but I can’t achieve the coveted “all your books as background” look without fully rearranging my home office space, which is also my DVD-viewing nostalgia centre, AND my closet.

Well that would be convenient, wouldn’t it?

And don’t even get me started on what to wear!

Kelsey, help me do. What’s your solution to the multi-armed zoom monster? Do you have top tips on dongle use, lighting design, and best footwear for standing in one place for 90 minutes straight without wrecking your hips?

Gratefully,

Kim

Dear Kim,

Can we make a collective pact that when this whole thing *gestures wildly like a heron in a winter wind* comes to a close we will never speak of Zoom and its many distressing background issues again?

Great. Now, to your question: No, no one looks good one zoom. I’m sure numerous studies are being conducted on the subject (all held up in peer review, I imagine), and they will confirm this with hard, quantitative, evidence. For now, I offer my own Zoom space as solidarity.

Building off my ergonomic efforts last year, my Zoom space is fairly friendly to my body. The downside is that it’s a set design disaster. Because I spend many of my daylight hours in front of my desk, I’ve put the desk in front of the window (looking out right now far preferable to looking in… again). Sadly, because of the way the room is configured, this means my background isn’t uniform, and my mini freezer is directly in the middle.

A non-curated view of Kelsey’s potential zoom background, mini freezer included.

Helping matters, the overhead light is to the side of the desk, my floor isn’t flat so everything tilts, every so slightly, toward the center of the room, and I teach at night, so half the time the combination of overhead, computer, and outside light make my video tint blue.

So, what I’m essentially telling you is that a great deal of the time I appear on Zoom as a character from an early 2000s music video.

Also, hours into watching myself on zoom, I have come to the conclusion that everyone who has interacted with me came to long ago: goodness gracious am I expressive.

All of which is to say: I empathize.

To solving your issues, may I suggest a combination of strategy and surrender.

Strategy 1: Hide yourself from view.

While I think all of us should embrace our appearances and/or (in my case) very expressive selves, let’s be honest: it’s not totally ideal to be staring at yourself for hours a day. And you know what? Zoom has a button for that. You can toggle the view to hide yourself from view. I don’t do it super frequently, but it does offer one a break.

Helpful hint: check your frame before you turn yourself off.

Strategy 2: Fight the space.

Generally speaking this is terrible advice, but desperate times and measures here, my dear. I Zoom EVERY DAY. Attending to camera placement three times a day simply cannot be a thing. So, I’ve given up aesthetically pleasing furniture arrangement in service of a more reliable Zoom background; I’ve tilted the desk and monitor diagonally across a space where it would make way more sense for it to be parallel.

Kelsey’s “zoom cabinet,” aka: her office nook.

Strategy 3: Surrender. A lot.

Is my screen blue half the time? Why yes it is. Does my camera occasionally cut the top of my head out of frame? Yup. But, also, Zoom kicked me out of my own class meeting last week. So, really: not my most pressing issues.

And to borrow a move from your pedagogical playbook, I do think less than ideal Zoom aesthetics push back effectively against the creeping normalization of fake books backgrounds. Messy Zoom set-ups can remind folks that we’re all human and things are still weird, even in this new calendar year. Which, in this moment, is useful and even perhaps subversive (and feminist).

In short: fix what you can (may I suggest a new Zooming device?) and give in to the rest.

If nothing else, maybe you’ll learn to love overhead lighting? #2021goals

Over and out for now,

Kelsey

End of Fall 2020 Roundtable with Amber Fatima Riaz

Well folks, it appears we have made it to end of 2020. WHEW!

We’re closing out the Fall semester with a roundtable conversation featuring Kim, Kelsey, and Amber Fatima Riaz. One of Kim’s former PhD students, Amber is a professional academic editor who works across scholarly genres, from conference papers and manuscripts to journal articles. She has also been a postsecondary instructor at a range of institutions, from universities to public and private colleges. During this past fateful March, she was working as an administrator at a private college in British Columbia.

In our chat, the three of us reflect on this strange year, and what we’ve learned about college and university teaching as a result of the pandemic. The short version of our reflections: systemic thinking and structural change required! For the longer version, read on …

Dr, Amber Fatima Riaz

KS: Amber, where were you teaching when COVID-19 first hit?

AFR: I was working as a campus education manager at a private college [with a largely adult student base]. What they did was try to utilize pre-existing curriculum and translate it for the new teaching medium (synchronous video conferencing). They kind of marketed it like, “We are going to continue teaching as if nothing has happened. You [the students] will just be at home, using technology to see and hear your instructor.” We were lucky in a way, because, right when the pandemic hit, we were on March break. So, we had a full week of training on the video conferencing platform and we were able to push the technology to instructors who did not have access to computers, webcams, headsets etc. We quickly took down the student computer lab, ordered new headsets and webcams, and set up our instructors for a teach-from-home setup.

What fell apart was accessibility for students. The assumption was that the students would have their own laptops or desktops. But our demographic is adult learners or people launching a second career, looking for jobs and careers as soon as they completed their certifications and diplomas with us. We were looking at parents with kids learning from home, you know, or people who had never touched a computer before, who suddenly had to learn all of this stuff about technology while also continuing with the courses, as if the pandemic hadn’t hit. At the administrative level, behind-the-scenes saw a lot of upheaval. A lot of the teaching time went towards providing tech support along the lines of “how to access emails” or “how to upload a document” —that sort of thing. During the monthly “Strategies for Student Success” course that I was teaching, my classes quickly switched to tech support and troubleshooting, because a lot of the students were trying to manage the online classes on a smartphone. They had to access exams, textbooks, quizzes, everything on just a smartphone. It created major problems for the students. Instructors meanwhile were facing issues of how to maintain academic integrity. I’m also seeing a lot of university students who started in the Fall having to make bigger investments in tech, which wasn’t necessarily something that they had budgeted for.

Budgeting for school in Fall 2020 was a whole new activity.

KB: Challenges with technology are something I’ve seen a lot of too. Just a couple of weeks ago, I did this really great activity that involved an online board game. It combined a lesson on representation in video games, with essay writing, and the board game itself. And it worked beautifully. Except that the toggling between different kinds of screen sharing — which required functional wifi and a decent computer — meant that it was technologically inaccessible for some students.  And so it was frustrating because pedagogically it actually worked. But, it wasn’t as accessible as it could have been in terms of technology.

AFR: At the college level, I found that the tech—the use of computers to deliver curriculum with videos turned on—is what created issues of accessibility and also opened up new pedagogical challenges. While videoconferencing looks like an equalizer with students and teachers all in the same virtual space, it created a space where teachers defaulted to instructor-centered teaching models, because we lost the ability to foster peer-to-peer learning and help students engage in group work.

KS: I tried to mitigate the technical problems to some extent in the hybrid model that I developed for my class this semester. But what the hybrid model has revealed to me about virtual pedagogies has been really interesting.

I was teaching in an active learning space. So it’s got lots of pods and every pod has a projector, a smart white board, and a central computer that can do a bunch of things. So it’s ideal for distance learning as two students sit at a good space apart from each other at the same table, while others are on Zoom on big screens. I gave the students the option to come in live in person, or to be on Zoom, and to switch each week or stay in one or another mode, whatever suits. There are very sensitive microphones in the ceiling of the room and they can pick up ambient sound from anywhere so students don’t have to speak too loudly, which is great. But I’ve realized that because the camera is centrally positioned, it doesn’t really give a good view of anybody except me when I’m staring straight into it, and that’s only part of the time, when I remember to! The camera also has the weird effect for the students on Zoom of recentering me as the person in charge — even though the whole setup of the room is designed to decenter me, to create the spatial reality of a flipped classroom.

This made me think of how funny it is that the most de-centered, the most student-oriented, pedagogical methods are actually the most complicated to render virtually. It requires a huge amount of instructor dexterity. It requires TA Support. It requires tech support we’re not being given. So, virtual and hybrid models have actually reinforced the “sage on the stage” teaching methods of old that we all agree have limited use.

A return to past “sage-centred” models of teaching?

AFR: It’s almost the default setting! At our institution, I tried to decenter the teacher by encouraging the instructors to predetermine breakout groups ahead of time, then make room during the class for each group to exchange contact information—be it Facetime, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, whatever the group wanted. Then, the groups got to decide how they wanted to communicate. That helped remove the instructor from the group activity entirely. It allowed the instructor to simply monitor the fact that the groups were happening. And it allowed the students to meet on their own time. It worked beautifully because the groups got to decide how and when they were going to meet. The setup helped address the issue of accessibility, and decentered the instructor, but the onus was on setting up the activity properly in advance. Parents of young kids could look at the chat at 9:00 pm, that kind of thing, and the students reacted favourably to the setup, and to the freedom they were afforded.

KB: That’s fascinating. I tried to do that a bit too but got a different result. For example, I shortened class time with the explicit purpose that students could complete “homework” during that time but not be stuck on the Zoom while they do it. But, in the midterm feedback, students overwhelmingly reported being overwhelmed by the flexibility. Not just in my class, but across classes. So, I had to switch away from it. And something the students didn’t report but I think is implied is that they don’t quite have the time management skills yet for more flexible learning structures.

Teaching and learning in 2020, in one handy meme.

KS:  I’ve also had the same feedback, Kelsey. Students are getting lots and lots of extra work, or what they perceive to be extra work. I’ve tried to remind them: the thing is that it’s actually not extra. It’s just that you’re having to do more than you would if you were sitting in a class lecture half-listening. You’re having to be more active in preparing for class, and you have to take more responsibility for your own learning.

I don’t think there’s enough of a meta-conversation happening around that. It also reminds me that what we really need to do at university is to invite students to learn time management in a class about time management. We actually have one of those courses at Western (a class that reflects in a meta-critical way on the history and culture of university), which is very cool. But, it’s an elective. I wonder what it would mean to reconfigure first-year university around classes just like that? So students could be doing classes about learning styles and learning practices. Doing classes about time management, doing classes about accessing and utilizing resources, alongside other things, of course. But doing courses for credit that require you to actually actively investigate the reasons that you’re there, what you do and don’t know about taking care of yourself as a learner and a citizen.

In my classes I always try to create robust scaffolds so students don’t have to just encounter the meta stuff and then deal with it, but they can actually learn through it. I think that would be incredibly powerful if it could be facilitated more broadly in the early years of university.

Ideally, time management means not running away from clocks.

KB: I think one of the things implicit in all of the arguments regarding teaching in COVID-19 is that 18 to 25-year old students often don’t attend university for the education. Or at least not the education alone. They attend for the social aspect. They attend to experience the transition to being an adult. They attend to get a piece of paper they believe they need to get work in the future, have an adult life. So it makes sense that university gets incredibly hard when several of the reasons students are actually there get taken away.

AFR: We also need to be thinking about the demographies here. Because, if you look at the private college sector – where students are often immigrants, or people who are already in the workforce, or parents – it’s totally different. For these students, a useful education matters. They want their money’s worth. The classroom structure and course delivery structures are different. They’ll put in the time and effort, but only if it means they’ll get a good job at the end.

KB: So perhaps this is about openly acknowledging the different needs of a range students. It’s saying that learning information is one of the things that’s happening at university. But it’s not the only thing.

KS:  I often tell my students, the truth is, I remember very little of what I actually learned in my bachelor’s degree. I remember formative learning moments that were facilitated by excellent teachers using excellent tools. I remember all of the parallel learning experiences. I remember the honors English lounge on the third floor of the Humanities building at the University of Alberta. I remember the grounds. I remember being with friends. I remember discovering myself, but I don’t actually remember the core stuff.

AFR: And that’s so key. I think what I’ve admired a lot about the elementary and high school teachers right now with the pivot that they have had to do is that they understood that the contents of what they’re teaching right now doesn’t matter, right? None of them are focusing on the overall content, or the guidelines that say they have to complete X, Y, and Z by the end of the month. Each teacher is focusing on life skills, study skills, resilience, building up grit. This is going to be the “lost year.” At the university and college level, though, the focus seems to be so much more on the content, that we’re losing the larger connections and relationships.

KS: I think that speaks to the bigger meta of our conversation, which is that so many of the gatekeeping mechanisms at universities are driven by assumptions that we’re learning now are not true. Students don’t come to university just to learn stuff. Most students are actually not that tech savvy. They don’t have gadgets with all the bells and whistles. They don’t have the default study skills you might expect if you’re invested in the notion that your university only accepts the best minds, whatever that means. In fact, students are mostly young adults trying to figure themselves out. And for them, the experience of university is an embodied liminal journey from childhood to adulthood. And if that’s the case, we need to invest so much more time and energy into supporting tech access, creating a wide range of different learning experiences, and operating as a default with compassion, rather than worrying about just porting content online.

***

Amber Riaz Bio: Amber Riaz is a professional academic editor, and has edited academic manuscripts, journal articles and conference papers, working with academic presses as well as individual authors. Since earning her doctorate in English Literature, she has worked as a sessional instructor at both public universities and colleges in London, Ontario, and public colleges and private colleges in Vancouver, BC. Most recently, she worked as the Campus Education Manager at Sprott Shaw College’s Surrey campus in British Columbia, Canada, before being laid-off due to COVID-19 in Sept 2020. She has taught Academic Writing, Literature, and General Education courses, in addition to offering student support services and administrative and pedagogical support to the instructors teaching various courses at Sprott Shaw. She has presented conference papers on the representation of mothers in film, interstitiality in contemporary South Asian literature and on stereotypes of Muslims in various film industries. She has also published essays on the Partition of India, on the representation of the “burqa” in Pakistani novels, and on the mohajir identity in Pakistani novels. Her research interests include Postcolonial studies, Feminist literary theory and South Asian Studies, as well as the intersections of diaspora, religion, and migration in South Asian Literature in English.

To find out more about Amber, see:

The Labour of Kindness

AC Readers, the unthinkable has happened: We have made it to December 2020! Theoretically, I knew this was possible. Likely even. But, practically? Practically, I wasn’t so sure. And yet: here we are. Go team! And also: Let’s collectively commit to collapsing when the marking is done, shall we?

Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek collapses on a bed. She is all of us.

In the meantime, I had something happen last week that made me think about kindness and pedagogy.

Two weeks ago, my wallet vanished. I first noticed its absence on a midday work break walk. I reached my hand into my coat pocket, where it usually hangs out, but it wasn’t there.

“It’s probably in the apartment,” I thought. And then I forgot that thought because: 1. 2020 and 2. I had to teach right after my walk.

Later that night I went out to get ice cream (see: 1.) but was foiled: no wallet. I searched the apartment. It was not in any of the obvious places. Nor was it in any of the not-so-obvious places (why I thought I might have put it in the oven, I know not). After some deep reflection, I deduced that I’d lost it and/or it had been stolen, or on my way home from a nearby bakery.

This was deeply annoying and a huge hassle. But, after having my wallet stolen during my week-long compressive exams (thanks, world), I knew what to do. I cancelled the cards and then proceeded to have a short meltdown.

Actual footage of me in my wallet metldown.

Four days later, I accidentally stumbled upon a Facebook message from a stranger in my inbox (in the rarely checked “new message requests folder”). A human being had found my wallet! I replied to her message instantly. The next day, she messaged back. Having not gotten a hold of me, she dropped it at our local police station. An hour later, I visited the station and got it back – all money, cards, and crumpled receipts still there.

Faith in humanity: restored!

And I can’t help but think about all the steps she had to take to make this happen. This woman, a complete stranger, found my wallet on the street. She picked it up (in the middle of a pandemic), looked at the cards, searched me out on the Internet, wrote me a message in my first language (which was not her first language), and then when I didn’t reply right away she physically brought my wallet to the police station.

Her actions reminded that we often frame kindness as a moral act (it is the good or right thing to do) but forget the labour of kindness.

This thought has haunted my last few weeks of teaching.

Fall 2020 has been a kind of call to kindness in colleges and universities across Canada (where I’m currently teaching). Teachers have asked for kindness and understanding as we struggle to figure out technology and navigate online, blended, and in-person models on the fly. Students, drowning in the changes, are practically begging for kindness as they struggle with a truly weird and hard semester. Institutions are dolling out compassion and kindness in extended winter breaks and various student concessions. (Or so the email titles and headlines tell me.)

But what does kindness look like, exactly?

Certainly, flexibility and concession can be kindness. But they aren’t always. Let’s take a benign example: the deadline extension.

I’ve offered course deadline extensions this semester and in the past. And it’s usually met with sighs of relief from my students. But course-wide extensions (as opposed to individual concessions) can be unkind for the students who managed their time well or who consciously prioritized my class over another class or life responsibility. They can be uncharitable to students who have less wiggle room to miss the deadline near grade submission time. They can be unhelpful if they extend an assignment over a holiday break, meaning the students risk not taking time off.

Sometimes, actions that appear kind actually redistribute labour: by extending a deadline, I take the labour of setting and holding an expectation (first conceived during course planning and then performed in the class itself) and transfer planning and scheduling work onto the students.

The same is true, but even more amplified, at a structural level. I’m glad that post-secondary institutions are trying to support the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of staff, faculty, and students through concessions and extended holidays. Especially this year. Yet, I can’t help but feel it would have been kinder to make these decisions earlier. Could the winter break have been extended in the summer, as part of the planning for the year? Could concession policies have been integrated from the outset of the semester, at an institutional level? Would this, perhaps, have intervened in stress and crisis in advance of onset, thereby lessening their impacts?

To be clear, I think the fact institutions are acknowledging mental and emotional health is a good step. And remaining flexible and adaptable is the ethical, and kind, move in the circumstances.

But there is something to be learned from the fall semester: sometimes being kind is located in taking on, holding, and performing work.

As I begin to prep for my winter term courses, I’m actively brainstorming strategies to hold and perform the labour of being kind by doing the work in advance. Here are some ideas I’ve brainstormed so far:

  • More “choose between these two deadline” type scenarios, where students can meet the learning objectives of submitting assignments on-time while also selecting scheduling that best suits the broader parameters of their lives.
  • Deadlines with built in wiggle rooms (in the form of “late tokens” for example).
  • More in-class time to work on final projects, supporting the meeting of deadlines.
  • More advocacy for course-wide “off-ramp” options for students that are in crisis (such as an option to not write a final paper or exam but with the caveat of a maximum possible grade, for instance).

I will keep brainstorming, and update as is fit.

In the meantime, I hope everyone experiences the labour of someone else’s kindness, as I did with my wallet – now safely back in my pocket.

In Activism, So As In Fitness… And In Teaching (a post by friend of the blog Marjorie Hundtoft)

Many of our readers know that Kim often writes for the popular academic//fitness blog Fit is a Feminist Issue. A few days ago, FiFi blogger Marjorie Hundtoft, who teaches middle school in Portland, Oregon, wrote a superb piece about the links among activism, teaching, and fitness that really resonated for us with the conversation post we shared on 26 October.

Kelsey has been worried about losing the “activism” in her classrooms among all the Zooms and the COVID panics and all the other weighty stuff that is occupying our brains and sapping our energy stores as teachers right now; Kim offered some thoughts in response. Marjorie, though – who is living and working in one of several “ground zero” spots this US election cycle – had concrete ideas to share, and has graciously agreed for us to reblog her work here. We hope it is inspiring and joyful!

[The post below originally appeared here on 27 October 2020.]

A glorious sunrise over a verdant field. We here at the AC hope hard that tomorrow’s sunrise brings a truly brand-new day.

As we all look towards next week and what so many of us hope will be the end of an extraordinary chapter in American history, I find myself reflecting upon the last four years and how my life has been shaped in the face of such tumultuous times. I’ve always considered my work as an educator serving disadvantaged communities to be a form of activism and empowerment, but after the election of Trump, I found myself needing to do more.

I got involved in my union, started going to rallies and protests far more frequently, wrote more letters, signed more petitions, spoke out more often, and attended conferences to build my skills, network with other activists, and improve my effectiveness. During this time, I also became a better runner and a more consistent, and stronger, lifter.

These two parts of my world, my activism and my fitness, reinforce each other, give me strength, and feed my soul in complementary ways. In no particular order, here are some parallel truths I’ve noted between activism, living an active life and the perseverance, tenacity, and ups and downs of doing the work over the long term.

Everything counts. Do something.

Embrace practices that play to your strengths.

Embrace opportunities to bring up your weaknesses.

It’s never too late, and we’re never too old, to get started.

Focus on what can be done, not on what limits us.

There will be “seasons” to our efforts, which is absolutely ok. In fact, it’s necessary to acknowledge so that we have the energy to keep doing the work over the long haul.

Progress is rarely linear.

Having the time is about priorities and setting boundaries.

Most of our efforts would benefit from getting more high quality sleep.

It’s ok, and maybe even advisable, to specialize for a while and develop “your thing.”

Recovery is just as important as pushing hard.

“Balance” looks like different levels of effort and commitment at different points in time.

Don’t rely on motivation, which can be fickle; instead build routines and habits to keep doing the work when passions recede.

Nothing is more inspiring than finally getting started.

Accountability and community in the form of friends with shared values and shared efforts goes a long way.

A certain amount of discomfort is required in order for there to be growth and change.

Consistency trumps perfection.

Remember this work is a privilege.

Celebrate every victory, regardless of how small. (And then go out and do the next thing.)

And finally: avoid confusing the goal for the work. Even if I lift the weight, run the miles, and hold government officials accountable, the work is not over. Next week, whatever happens on Election Day, the work of my activism will continue. The skills I’ve learned in fitness to push through the hard times, to reprioritize my time as my needs change, and to focus on the process over the outcome have served me well as I’ve shifted my energies and gotten more involved in politics and advocacy. I really want to be on the winning team next week. I’m tired of feeling so angry, and hopeless, frustrated, and scared. My life in fitness has shown me that I can weather whatever challenges face me next, but I’m really ready to take a break from what feels like endless new hurdles and celebrate some victories for a little while! Whatever comes, I raise a glass to all of my fellow activists and the efforts you’ve made alongside me these past four years. It is an honor to do this work with you!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found organizing fellow educators, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again, in Portland, Oregon.