How to ‘Online Student’… From an Online Student!

Friends, are you in your Zoom box, staring at the Hollywood Squares of Students, wondering how it’s all going? Are you on the verge of panic as you push your ramblings through the keyhole of the Tardis, wondering WTF is landing? FEAR NOT!

This week, dispatches from the world through the screen: Kelsey and I are thrilled to feature the reflections (complete with awesome links to even MORE awesome reflections) of an actual, retail online student, the brilliant Akshi Chadha. Enjoy!

Akshi Chadha, our guest blogger.

Every summer, I decide I’m going to change my life. Summer is the perfect time—I have a long break from university. I am at home surrounded by my family. And, I have no expectations of myself except to, well, get my life together. The plans for summer 2020 were pretty straightforward: return home to India, catch up on months of sleep, start thinking about grad school applications, start working on my thesis, and eat nothing but Indian food.

I can positively tell you: none of these things happened.

The pandemic struck and suddenly I was stranded in London, Ontario, Canada, spiraling—contemplating my own mortality and worrying about my family. Things got to a point where I just wanted to get a flight out (which I never did), abandon everything, and never return, especially not to school. Why should I continue to be some oblivious student—an online one at that—when the world around me is on fire?

Because I’m anything but oblivious as a student.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been asking themselves if their education still matters. The pandemic has brought on a sense of futility by stripping us all of access, support, resources, connections, and space—all the things that facilitate our education. Managing work, family, and school from the confines of our personal space might make one question if being a student is really worth the extra effort that it is going to take. However, I’ve come to realize that even on the bad days, learning is a priority for me as it empowers me like nothing else. It equips me to be able to think about all that plagues the world, and how I’ve been a part of the problem, and how I can start becoming a part of the solution. It equips me to able to think. I am lucky enough to be pursuing something I actually love, learning from people I actually admire. And in a world shrouded in obscurity, such clarity about something is welcomed.

So yes, learning still matters to me. But online learning is daunting territory. For most of us, online learning has an ominous ring to it that makes us instinctively resistant. Yes, I want to be on campus, among my peers and professors. After all, it’s what I’m paying for. But I also want myself and everyone else to be physically safe and right now that notion supersedes everything else.

StockSnap_A3ZQ2UJTZ8

How I look (and feel) trying to figure out what is going on in my online classes.

With these priorities in mind, I’m trying to view online learning as a way to learn and connect with my peers and professors in a time when our safety depends on distance. Remote learning is inconvenient, however, it can become meaningful and effective if we try to view it as a solution to learning in a pandemic rather than an infliction.

So here I am: trying to keep track of a million Zoom invites, trying to actively engage with whatever is in front of me (a screen? a book? a baking sheet?), and trying to take charge of my learning in a way I didn’t have to before. Simply trying. And with this relatively optimistic outlook, I started an online blog series for my peers in the faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University, called ‘How to ‘Online Student’’, hoping to extend support and understanding to students like me who have no idea ‘how to’ but ‘want to’ make this work nonetheless.

I am not trying to paint a delusional, merry picture here—online learning is problematic in many ways. But only when we acknowledge the slowness, the frustration, the inaccessibility, the inconsistencies, and the isolation, can we begin to find a way around it. Hence: the blog. The ‘How to ‘Online Student’’ series features suggestions for navigating specific areas of online learning such as motivation, netiquette, Zoom, online resources, and community-building.

While the inspiration for the blog came from a need to combat my own uncertainty and anxiety, I was also moved by various stories on the internet about students trying to learn despite inadequate resources and instructors trying to teach despite inadequate technological training. The series is thus an effort towards solidarity, a hand extended for support, and a commitment towards creating the classroom together in the midst of a pandemic. With each post, I am looking to work out certain questions:

  • How can we optimize online learning techniques and environments?
  • How can we support (and I mean really support) each other?
  • How can we reciprocate the efforts of our professors and create the classroom in conjunction with them?

I don’t have the perfect answers to any of these questions, but I’m hoping the blog is a starting point for something. Anything. My hope with creating the series is that we recognize that ‘pandemic student-ing’ means we have to replace our usual goals with pandemic goals: mindfulness, self-compassion, self-awareness, responsibility, finding value in learning, and maintaining connections in the face of debilitating isolation. If there’s one thing I wish everyone would take away from the blog series, it would be that we should remember to be human—in every good sense of the word—in these perpetually digital times.

And that we should remember to breathe while doing all this superhero stuff!

About our guest author:

I am a fourth-year student pursuing an Honors Specialization in English and Creative Writing at Western University. I write things—some of them have been published or are forthcoming in Watch Your HeadThe Roadrunner ReviewSymposium, and SNAPS, Salve, and The Forest City Poetry Anthology. As a writer, I’m interested in the immense potential of the written word in helping make the world a little bit better so that is what I’m always striving to work towards. You can find me at www.akshichadha.com!

The Survey Results Are In!

Friends, welcome to September 2020, which I’m sure looks very different to any September you’ve previously encountered. Personally, I’m missing the joy of returning to a campus where the fall colours are beginning to emerge, even as the sun still shines and its heat still warms the grass (while the geese run rampant, pooping all over it!). I’m also missing seeing my students live; I’m teaching a “hybrid” class this term, but it’s not the same, not by a long shot.

Like this. it’s a whole thing. They even have their own Facebook page!

Luckily, as autumn roles in here in central Canada, some things are still shiny and new; this includes the results from our summer readership survey. Thank you to all who participated!

Kelsey and I have pored over the details, and are making tweaks accordingly. From now on, you can look forward to two monthly posts, one of which will be a “practical tips and ideas” post, and the second of which will be a longer, narrative think piece. (You’ve told us both of these kinds of posts are most appreciated by readers.) Occasionally, we may include interviews or other post formats, but we’ll try to stick broadly to this model so that you know what to expect in your inbox.

We also want to introduce as many, and as many diverse, new voices as possible: this means platforming people of different backgrounds, ages, career paths, abilities, and so on. Because we know that contributing to a site such as this one is a commitment of time and energy, and because we know lots of folks are very overworked right now (especially folks who tick “diversity” slots at work…), we are aiming to make guest contributions as not-onerous, and as fun, as possible.

To that end, we are planning to curate “hot topic conversations” – perfect for the COVID moment, but massively useful for all the other teaching times, too. The plan: to convene roundtables on Zoom, record the discussion (with everyone’s permission, of course), and then share both the transcript and an audio-described video of the roundtable in this space. This format will allow us to gather and learn from a range of voices, but the time commitment will be manageable and the physical labour minimal. What’s more, we will gather “hot topics” (the themes of the panels) and potential panelists (to talk about those themes) separately, so that nobody feels they need to make themselves vulnerable around an issue they’d rather not discuss in public.

This is of course, like all our experiments over the past fourteen months, a work in progress, and to actualize it we need your help!

SO…

If you’d like to participate in a Zoom roundtable over a “hot teaching topic”, if you’d like to suggest a “hot teaching topic” for a roundtable, or if you’d like to contribute to the AC in another way, please let us know by heading to this link and filling out this VERY VERY VERY short form. (It’s really short.)

 

As well, if you indicated on our summer survey that you’d like to contribute to the AC in some way, we’d be very grateful if you’d click the link and complete the form too, so we know who you are!

Many thanks for your support of the AC, friends. We’re looking forward to growing in a healthy way and supporting you in turn through this very strange new school year.

With gratitude!

Kim + Kelsey

School’s out for summer… (psst: please first leave us your feedback!)

It’s been just over seven years (SEVEN years!) since I began writing The Activist Classroom from my little office upstairs in my rented house in Balham, south London. After two semesters teaching at my new job at Queen Mary, University of London, I was fed up with a system that required me constantly to measure my productivity (and to attend meetings to talk about measuring productivity!) – so much so that I had no time to even think about teaching properly, let alone prep for it.

A lot has changed for me since then.

(One thing that will never change: my love for QM’s beautiful canal-side campus.)

Last June, the heroic Kelsey Blair approached me to ask about pivoting this site from a “blog” (soooo 2012!) to a community commons. I had actually been thinking about shutting the site down, but this was a golden opportunity to do something much better – to hand the space to a collective of shared voices, and create opportunities for different, hopefully much more diversely representative, content.

I found her some cash (not enough, but I’m grateful she accepted), and off we went.

Since then, Kelsey and I (TBH: mostly Kelsey!) have been working hard to change up our formats, to find ways to bring new voices on board without adding (too much) to everyone’s workload, and to gauge readers’ interest in participating in a range of ways in the discussions we curate.

We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished this year – I’m absolutely thrilled with all I’ve learned from the terrific interviews Kelsey has conducted, with the amazing insights (and fabulous visuals) of our first ever writer/teacher in residence, Julia Henderson, and with the contributions of many others who have shaped these past few months for us.

But yet: we want and need to do more, and to do better.

So, with an orientation toward next year (and beyond), we’ve set aside time this summer to reflect on the Activist Classroom.

We’re hoping you’ll help us.

We’ve put together a short survey to get a better sense of you, our readers: where you are in your careers, what you like and dislike about the work that appears in this space, what you’d like more of.

Our goal is to gather a stronger and more concrete sense of our readership and your needs, and to use this information to help shape the directions we go next.

The survey is going to be posted online until August 5th, 2020. You can access the form at the link HERE.

We know there are A LOT of surveys floating out there right now, and this doesn’t rank among the most important ones. It will take you 3-5 minutes, but if you’d prefer not to work on YET ANOTHER FORM, you’re welcome to email us directly.

Rest assured we will receive all feedback with gratitude, take it all seriously, and keep everyone posted in this space about the paths we are charting forward.

In the meantime: to all of you teaching right now, precariously or securely, overwhelmed or supported, or anywhere in between, we see you – and thank you as always for reading.

Kim + Kelsey

 

Isolating and Blogging: Interwoven Lessons

As I finish up my winter/spring “Writer-In-Residence” position with The Activist Classroom, Kim asked me to reflect on “what this online writing experience has taught me.” It is a trickier question than I at first thought. I applied for the position in the “Before Times”— pre-Covid-19. I thought it was going to be an engaging reflection on pedagogy during my Postdoctoral Fellowship. A low-key extra task I fit in between making regular trips to Concordia University, attending conferences, writing my book proposal, and forging ahead with my new research: making theatre with elderly people with dementia.

Everything has changed. My whole world, and everyone else’s, has changed.

So it is hard to separate what the online writing experience has taught me, from what the Pandemic experience has taught me or raised for me. So, I will reflect on a few things I have learned through writing online during a pandemic.

Is My Teaching Experience from the Before-Times Relevant?

I feel uncertain, curious, and a little insecure about whether my teaching experience pre-Covid still has relevance. So many conditions have changed for ourselves and our students. The one course I was involved in teaching last term ended early because of Covid-19 restrictions, thus I don’t have personal experience teaching during this time. I watch my children try to learn online, and I can tell you it is HARD. They hate it, in fact.

My most valued learning during the Pandemic has been through actively trying new things. Not sitting and thinking, but doing – engaging in private, domestic performances of sorts. I have hatched ducklings, baked bread, tried new instruments, drawn a series of portraits all for the first time.


I definitely jumped on the Pandemic Baking Bandwagon! (image of my baking products)

I wonder how this can apply to teaching as we move forward with the new world situation. Rather than adapting old ways of doing things, do we need to facilitate students trying things that are completely new? Certainly, we need to keep experimenting and searching for new pedagogical models.

Writing A Blog Post is Harder Than I Thought

I have learned that writing a 1500-word blog post is harder than I thought. Based on how quickly I can whip off an abstract, I thought I would be able to write a post in a day, no problem. But I have found I need longer to ponder. I don’t know if this is due to the challenges of working from home during a pandemic. I start a post and then I need to let the ideas percolate before I return to it another day. I also worry more than I expected about setting the right tone, providing relevant advice, selecting the best images, etc. I have realized that with academic writing (i.e. journal articles and conference papers) I am acclimatized to the expectations. I think about the ideas, but I just know the style. Taking on a new format has made me aware of the skill set I take for granted in more traditional academic writing, and it has given me new respect for authors writing in other formats. It has also made me excited about expanding my writing repertoire.   

Embracing Slowness

More and more during these times, I try to embrace slowness. My friend Ash McAskill, a disability theatre studies scholar and activist, is exploring Slow Theatre Practice and Snail Dramaturgies (see p. 22). I think I am more like a cat than a slow and steady snail. I am languorous for periods of time, then capable of quick bursts of frenzied energy – mostly docile and loving, with the occasional rising instinct to attack.

Meow! (me as a cat)

With no space to be alone, and constantly caring for children, husband, and pets, I simply cannot be fast for long. I’m too overwhelmed. There are too many distractions. Accepting that this is not a personal weakness is HARD. It has meant that I have felt anxious about turning around blog posts quickly (despite Kim’s reassurances). The inequities for women in academia have not only become more apparent than ever to me, they have been enhanced during this pandemic, especially for women who are mothers or caregivers. I am working to value and explore slowness as a theoretical approach and also as an access strategy.

I LOVE Visual Storytelling and Not Everyone Shares This Preference

I have realized that I favour visual storytelling much more than I knew. I LOVE selecting images for my Blog posts! I have spent Isolation producing my first visual art project (@frontline_faces_of_covid19). The current lack of live performances has made me keenly aware that I am drawn to the visual aspects of liveness and theatrical performance, and that I much prefer writing performance analyses to close readings of text. I also discovered (for the first time!!!!) during Isolation that other people literally hear their own voice talking to them inside their head (mind blown!!!). I don’t: I see pictures. I am intensely visual!

This has taught me two things:

First, in future I will explore other forms of “writing” that allow me to capitalize on my strong preference for visual images. This excites me a lot!

Second, I will strive to be more aware of my visual predilection: (a) in my use of metaphors in my writing (wow are they ever visual!); and (b) in my techniques used to convey material in teaching and other live presentations. I realize that I lean toward presenting material in ways that could disadvantage those who are less visual. For example, I need to audio-describe my images more often and better.

Teaching and Writing Help Me Process the World Around Me

I have also become more aware of how teaching and writing in conjunction help me process the world around me. While I theoretically have more time for writing when I am not preparing lessons and teaching, I find writing harder because I am not in conversation with as many people. In particular, without my students I do not have access to nearly as wide a range of generational, cultural, and socioeconomic perspectives. I feel this lack.

GIF of writer’s hand tapping a pencil, unsure what to write.

The Draw of Liveness

I am more certain than ever about the importance, the draw, the communal experience of liveness. I have been watching a fair amount of theatre online ( Canada’s National Arts Centre and Facebook Live, The National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). Online theatre can supplement but, for me, it just does not replace live, in-person performance. Even live-streamed online theatre, in my experience, lacks the feeling of communitas or the moments of utopian performativity that live performance offers.

And yet at the same time, I want to stay close to home. I have no motivation to attend live performance in public spaces at the moment; it scares me. Live theatre has shifted, for me, to at-home performances. It is my children putting on skits, it is playing music as a family, it is my husband reading out loud, it is the opera man walking past my house singing, it is the 7pm communal applause for health care workers with its clapping, cheers, and banging of pots and pans. I am experiencing a return to parlour theatre and community ritual. How can this be incorporated into the theatre and performance studies classroom? I don’t have the answer, but it is something I am pondering.

7pm Applause for Frontliners – View and Soundscape on my Porch

Thanks to Kim for the opportunity to be a guest Writer-in-Residence. I hope some of what I have to say resonates or inspires new thoughts for others.

These are difficult times and will remain such for a while. However, they are also times that bring much potential for shifting gears, re-imagining performances, and learning new approaches to pedagogy. I will continue to try to focus on that. Warm wishes to everyone!

My ducklings hatched!!! (image of 3 black duckings snuggled together)

 

Pedagogical spacing in the time of Zoom, part two

Last week, I thought about space, and about what a huge difference thinking differently about space can make to a classroom environment. Armed with the new spatial reality of COVID-19 quarantine, I returned to my memories of teaching in a dedicated active learning space (called WALS at my university) and reconsidered the lessons it provides me about how the space of teaching – the way we organize our shared physical reality – is central to pedagogical activation.

Now it’s Zoom-time, and working on Zoom can feel oddly like working in a non-place. (Hilarious sidebar: “utopia” comes originally from the Greek word for “nowhere”.) In our haste to “pivot” online in March we didn’t have a lot of room (physically or mentally) to think much past “get through the class”; now, though, online forward planning is all around us, and that means it’s time for us to figure out what the “space” Zoom affords can, and can’t, do for effective teaching practice.

One of the internet’s many images for “utopia”. Notice the several airplanes…

This week, using take-aways from my last post (have a look here; the tl;dr is in the pull quotes), I offer some preliminary ideas for how to challenge the “nowhere” pull of Zoom and re-orient our online teaching labour in ways that foreground the value of sharing physical space while learning.

1. DO NOT give up advocating for live, in-person classes.

My department was recently asked to come up with individual instructor plans for Fall. Would my class be online? Mostly online? Online with some key “live” components? Or priority-live? If the latter, I was asked to justify why.

I get this request – of course I do. But let’s not let the coercion of “justifying priority-live” erode our shared understanding, as teachers, of how important face-to-face is in the act of pedagogical engagement.

Online learning is, under the model we currently have, largely about transmitting content. That’s not teaching/learning – it’s reading. Learning in-place is about understanding our shared investments in knowledge; it’s about the importance of communicating with others, across difference, in building knowledge together. That work is spatially dependent, and spatially impactful. It’s live, in-person shit. (For more on this, I recommend late feminist geographer Doreen Massey’s 2005 book, For Space. On the pitfalls of online learning, see recent public writing by Naomi Klein and Mark Kingwell.)

“Online learning” could easily slide into passive, even propagandistic modes sold to us by semi-tech-savvy neoliberal leaders as “convenience” or “liberation”. It is neither; let’s not permit that to happen.

2. Make Zoom a SPACE of learning, despite appearances.

As online learning tools go, Zoom is actually pretty good: it allows us to be synchronous/in real time together.

(I know a lot of us have been strongly encouraged to avoid synchronous learning, but that’s a mistake if you ask me – especially in smaller classes. Let’s remember to advocate for synchronicity, too! The argument that asynchronous learning is best for online suits The Reality Before, when online learning was a choice made by people from specific demographics, not a necessity for all. The data will catch up – guaranteed.)

Zoom, thus, gives us the opportunity to interrogate the way online models shift our experience of learning together in-place, and perhaps even inadvertently highlights the key difference physical space makes to learning.

Authors and FOLD stars Jael Richardson (top right) and Amanda Leduc (bottom) chat with Steven Beattie about five years of the Festival of Literary Diversity, 4 May 2020, on Zoom. The synchronous, online FOLD 2020 was a HUGE success – thousands attended IN REAL TIME.

For one thing, when we Zoom, we’re sitting down! This is weird, and I don’t like it. The space of teaching, regardless of how we teach, is typically an active one: even if the students and I are seated at a seminar table together, there’s occasional getting up and sitting down, plus a lot of gesturing to emphasize ideas.

Over Zoom, seated and narrowly focused on a screen, we can easily physically contract. Our teaching and learning space then shrinks to the space of a chair and a frame, and it’s no wonder our affect folds inward.

My plan to counter this, in fall, is to begin each class with a spacing exercise. We’ll do a warm-up, just as we would in class; the only caveat will be that each warm-up will need to encourage us to use our learning space in novel, perhaps surprising, ways. I’ll also call for student input here: each week, I’ll invite guest warm-up curators to take over. (Students have the best warm-up ideas, by far.)

I’ll plan for this regular activity by asking the students, at the beginning of the semester, to ensure they have Zooming spaces that will permit them to stand up and move around (even just a bit), and that they will not be embarrassed to share. This might mean a bit of bedroom tidying or place-curation on their parts, but that’s ok – that’s part of the work of teaching and learning! And of course, I’ll share my reasoning with them. Which leads me to…

3. Introduce some “meta” to help students think about what it is they are missing, and why.

Not having a teaching space means an excellent opportunity to talk about that lack, about what’s missing from our shared experience. This talking, I think, needs to be ongoing, but it also needs to be seeded early.

I plan to spend a good part of the first session of any future online classes talking openly with students about our shared physical reality – what it means to each of us to “meet virtually”, what we gain and what we lose, and what my own research reveals about the way space shapes our shared, performative realities. (Which it really, really does. Just ask Judith Butler. I recommend her newish, very readable, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly [2015]. Consider assigning a chapter for your first class!)

Thinking meta-cognitively about teaching-as-space takes me back to the point in my last post when I talked about the need to work “on” space with the students in my active learning classroom. As I noted there, active learning classrooms can be initially baffling to anyone raised in lecture halls; Zoom is, in this fundamental respect, no different – and presents the same learning opportunities, albeit realized differently.

In other words, we need to spend time talking about space, no less on Zoom than elsewhere.

How are we feeling in our bodies?

Where are points of connection or disconnection from others?

Are we getting outside?

Can we step outside, together, for a minute?

What difference does that movement shift make?

These questions strike me as essential, if learning online is actually to take place. There are a lot of ways to activate them, and I’m hoping to think through options over the summer. I’ll come back to this issue in the fall and let you know where I’ve landed.

Meanwhile, though, as I said last time, I’d love to know what others are planning to do to re-orient Zoom-space and Zoom-time, and to continue to dis-orient the push toward a new, virtual norm (boo! hiss!). So, if you have ideas, please share in the comments!

Happy spacing,

Kim