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.

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