Academic Mentorship in the Zoom Era: The AC Survival Guide Continues!

Dear Kim,

Happy belated International Women’s Day!

One year ago, I was sitting in a bar in Toronto, having beers with a friend. We were chatting waiting for food when my eye was drawn to a TV hoisted in the top corner of the room. The news ticker announced that the University of Toronto was temporarily shutting its doors due to COVID-19.

Like watching a wave roll onto the beach, I stared at the TV – intrigued, confused, a little nervous: one by one, the universities closed.

COVID-19 in Canada: Virtual Town Hall | CBC News special - YouTube
A television program that could not have existed on CBC a year ago.

That night was the last time I was in a bar.

Shifts in mentorship haven’t been a major talking point in pandemic-academic (pancademic, anyone?) circles. But the structures of mentoring have taken a major hit this year.

Mentors and mentees have been enveloped in a cloud of increased labour, affecting everything from availability and scheduling to emotional space. Virtual conferences curtail chatting between sessions or at events, making it hard to maintain or forge informal connections. One-on-one meetings are relegated to zoom or the phone, adding a formal and time-sensitive element to conversations, both official and casual.

All of this adds up to loss: of intellectual growth, of professional development opportunities, of community building, of human connections.

A lot of us are feeling the effects of this loss. I miss being able to meet with mentors in person. I miss forging connections at conferences. I miss humans that aren’t in my “bubble.”

But, when I reflect on the year, I am also struck by the mentorship opportunities that have emerged: an increase in free, widely available, online sessions with high profile speakers, hosted by artistic and academic communities; the generosity of colleagues who have noticed a new face on a zoom call and reached out via email to offer “zoom dates” or resources; friends who have slid in to co-mentorship roles, wherein parties of similar rank and experience discuss professional development and mentor each other in areas of strength.

Which brings me to my question for the week: As the dust of the pandemic starts to settle, where do you think scholarly mentorship is headed? Where would you like it to head? Is there anything we can take with us from this strange time? Anything we should leave behind?

– Kelsey

***

Dear Kelsey,

A year ago, I was on a VIA train, heading home from my Thursday teaching at Western (in London, ON) to my home in the Hamilton area. We were somewhere between Brantford and Aldershot, rocking along through the still-cold winter night, when a text came through on my phone. Western was going virtual for the remainder of the semester.

VIA Rail cancelling all Canadian trips until further notice | Urbanized
Train riding, a novelty of the past (and future?)

That was the last time I was on a train, the last time I performed my otherwise-routine commute.

The question you pose is one I’ve been thinking a lot about: what should we bring with us from the pandemic world to improve our academic labour in the future? (Assuming this pandemic ends anytime soon… and I’m a bit skeptical, to be honest.) What should we leave behind? I read a piece recently that argued we need to bring back in-person office hours (yes, agreed), and in-person department meetings (REALLY??). But that feels like the tip of the iceberg to me.

Let’s start with the mentorship piece you raise.

I’m more often than not a mentor, rather than a mentee, now that I’m mid-career and fairly senior at my school. I feel the many stressors of this time that you so aptly highlight: I don’t like Zoom meetings very much, and I find sitting and talking for a set period of time, through screens, with my ongoing bad-lighting-weird-shadows Zoom issues constantly distracting me, really agitating. (THANK YOU for the “hide self view” tip btw – SO GREAT!!)

So I’ve begun strategizing around how to make the experience better, less Zoom-y, and I’ve decided to implement a new strategy: NO VIDEO.

This is an extension of my already-popular “Zoom dog walks,” in which I take office hours while walking Emma the Dog, using my nice new noise-canceling headphones. I head for a local park, minimizing sidewalk distractions, and when the weather is nice we just sit on a bench for the chat.

Following the lead of Emma the dog, as ever.

No video is a requirement for these walks, more often than not, and I’ve found that my mental landscape opens when I’m talking and looking around me, at the world, rather than at a screen. (We already know Zoom is a deadening environment, on purpose – our affect is flattened and often digitally edited, making creativity, for me anyway, harder on Zoom.)

A couple of weeks ago I tested this IRL: I held a student meeting (part lesson, part mentoring session) in person, and we did social-distance walkies with Emma while discussing the relationship between theatre and history. We couldn’t look at each other (SOCIAL DISTANCING) and so we looked ahead, behind, around; again, I felt the warmth of the sun and the attention I was paying to my footfalls a helpful way to expand my thinking. My brain was wandering, in a good way.

COVID-19 pandemic: Tips to remain 'sane and safe' during social distancing  | 2020-03-18 | Safety+Health Magazine

Colleagues in other fields, who have to Zoom even more than we do (I KNOW CAN YOU IMAGINE AAGGHHH), tell me that no video is increasingly the norm for their work – nobody can tell if you’re stretching on a yoga mat, lying on the floor looking at the ceiling (or the sky), or multitasking (ok, so maybe I don’t advocate this, but… sometimes it’s a thing. #departmentmeetings). There’s freedom – including freedom to think, to be in the moment, to move in and out of the moment as needed.

So, back to your question.

What I want to take with me, from the mentoring landscape of COVID, is just this: voices in my ears, my attention wandering just enough to spark creativity, and my body moving, gently, to help light that spark. This can happen on the phone, on Skype, on Zoom, on WhatsApp… or in person. It can happen with colleagues around the world, or it can happen with students IRL, walking along the river valley apart-together.

Maybe this is why I yearn for the return of in-person-style office hours, and why I have no interest whatsoever in going back to sitting in a lecture hall for those monthly department meetings.

– Kim

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

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.

Pedagogy and Activism in Fall 2020

Hello AC readers! Though I’ve been playing a behind the scenes role all summer, its been a while since I (Kelsey) have posted.

In the time since my last post for the AC, spring and summer crumbled into fall, I moved (back) to Montreal, and I got hired for a limited term teaching appointment. So. I’m teaching full time again. Which is great! I’m thrilled to be back in a classroom. Even a virtual one. And also ….

I need advice. So, I thought I’d mix up format and address this advice to Kim. You’ll find my post first and Kim’s ever-helpful response below!

A picture of The Beatle’s singing “Help I need somebody” because it represents my emotional state: peppy but underpinned by something ominous (Kelsey)

Kim, I need help.

As we all know, COVID-19 has fundamentally and indeterminately altered the post-secondary teaching landscape. The scope of these changes vary by location. Some institutions remain predominantly in-person; others combine in-person and online activities; others are totally online. The mix is unprecedented. As is the volume of online courses. As is the experience of our students, who are suddenly navigating full-time online learning. As is our workload which now incorporates any possible combination of synchronous, asynchronous, side-ways synchronous teaching methods.

And I’m having a hard time locating pedagogical activism in the muddle.

The online learning technologies are all … fine. They work. (Except, you know, when they don’t). But they’re hard to pedagogically-activist-hack. Zoom, for example, can accommodate lots of users but it also curates and curtails polyvocality: the mechanics are explicitly designed to highlight the loudest speaker. And, the truth is, meetings breakdown if multiple people speak at the same time.

Also, I weighed my workload, and it came out to an actual tonne. I’m currently teaching three brand new (to me) undergraduate courses. I’m also still researching and publishing, doing community-based work, being a friend and family member, and generally living. This would be a lot in a regular year. I know that. But, the online piece is like the ghost from The Haunting of Bly Manor (which you should totally watch by the way): invisible, constantly hovering, threatening to pull me under at any moment

A computer screen filled with numbers and failure.

Then, there are my students: cameras-on (sigh of relief), cameras-off, sound accidentally on – partner/mother/roommate yelling about dinner in background.

They’re (mostly) really trying. And also, many of my students are obviously struggling. Which, of course, they are.

And, I keep walking out of live sessions, asking myself, “What are we doing here?”

I want to be clear: I’m not anti-online teaching. That would be like opposing the invention of the wheel. Like it or not, online teaching is going to be part of the post-secondary landscape moving forward. And it has plenty of advantages for both students and teachers.

But, I am struggling to locate the activism in this new environment.

And so I turn to you, Kim Solga, creator of the Activist Classroom: How are you doing it? Where is the activism in your classroom in fall 2020?

***

Dear Kelsey,

I find your thoughts above so… familiar. I’m with you. Not literally, but for sure:

we. are. in. this. all. together.

(Does it help to know that I’m drinking a martini on a Thursday evening while writing this? Well I am.)

Right now, for me, it’s all about surviving. The learning curve is so steep – and for some of us, out of university for 20 or so years or more, the memory of having to learn under the gun is so steep!!! – that the win feels like making it to Friday.

I’m very much unlike you right now in that I’m teaching only one course, and it’s a course I know well—even though it’s C-E-L (ha! Rhymes help with COVID – Trump assures us). But the reason I’m teaching only 0.5 is that I have a course release to support my research… which…

Is. Not. Happening.

But the “free time” I’ve lucked into means the class I’m teaching under these wacky new circumstances is manageable. And it means I’m actively learning from it. Over the last six weeks I’ve started to notice some silver linings, and your thoughts above have prompted me to think about these in the context of our space’s operative adjective, “activist”.

SO: here are thought on a few of my recent “activations”.

Our students see us. They usually see us as flawed human beings messing up the Zoom, and that is actually ace. The thing about all being in this together is that we really are; this is hard for them, it’s hard for us, and the more visible we make the labour, the easier it is to have a frank (and relieving, usually) conversation about what’s going on, and how much work it takes, and who is doing that work.

The class I’m teaching is about theatre beyond theatre: it features an introduction to performance studies, applied theatre, and performance activism for undergraduate students. This term we are partnered with the City of London (Ontario), the CityStudio initiative, and a course in Community Psychology, investigating ways to combat anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in our city.

To say this is weird over Zoom is an understatement, but the big benefit of the Pandemic-as-usual is that we talk regularly about what happens which the poop hits the fan.

This was driven home for me last Tuesday, when our Zoom Room, joint with our fellow stakeholders AND hosting guests to speak to Black Lives Matter, went apocalyptically dumpster fire. My colleague in psychology and my TA desperately tried to save the day while I jumped into the fray to “teach” the class that… I hadn’t prepared because GUESTS were coming to speak. It was so tiring and, I thought, wretched—until one of my students came to office hours to tell me she thought it was a terrific class, and that I had done a very good job under really hard circumstances.

That made me recognize that, just as I see her struggling through the quagmire, she sees me too, and sees the work we are all doing. Best of all, that class turned out to be great after all because, in the wake of #techmeltdown, we managed to have a great conversation about who was included, and who excluded, as a result of the adjustments we’re all having to make because of COVID.

How often do we see one another’s work, call it out, recognize its contours for real? How often do we really recognize, really see, the work done by the invisible majority who keep our world running “smoothly”? That sounds like activism to me.

Grades don’t matter. Support matters. I’ve become a less and less stringent marker over the last 15 or so years of full time teaching. The reason is simple: I see the work students are putting in (see above!) and I want to reward it.

Why can’t you get 100% on an English Lit essay when you can on a Physics test, if you’re really good? Why indeed. I began just scaling up to compensate a while back, knowing my students were competing with kids judged under very different frameworks for university-wide prizes.

Recently I’ve begun crafting ways to give students real marks for genuine effort. In the class I’m teaching right now, for ages there has been an assignment that asks students to weigh in on a weekly “prompt” with a paragraph or so of thoughts, links, images, videos, etc, representing serious engagement with the problems at hand. Sometimes these prompts come from our weekly readings, and sometimes from a real-world application of those readings; after students do five of these (out of about 10 or so opportunities), they get an extra 10% “free” (it’s like getting 100% on an assignment worth 10% of their grade).

I’ve been worried about this in the past, because it “inflates” final course grades, but now I am not worried at all. Getting up, dressing self, feeding self, making it to the asynchronous lesson, doing the asynchronous lesson, and then responding to the prompt is real-ass work right now! I want my students to get these “free” marks for actual retail effort! I want them to know that the trying, if the response isn’t perfect or even all that correct, is still worth something proper. So much so, in fact, that I upped the “free” to 15%, plus bonus opportunities.

We are half way through the term right now, and my spreadsheet reveals that the majority of my students are on track to grab all 15% “free”. This means students who might otherwise read as “mediocre” because they’ve not yet learned the ins and outs of critical nuance, or aren’t that great with a semicolon, are going to end up looking pretty darn good at the end of this thing. It’s a leg up that might not otherwise have been supported to reach the next tier.

That also feels like activism to me.

Prep also doesn’t matter. If you have to pitch it, or wing it, just effing go for it. My biggest revelation so far thanks to #COVIDtimes and #Zoompocalypse has been this. If the poop does actually hit the thingy, who cares? We are screwing up like talented home handyfolx and that’s fine because there’s no playbook for this; we’re making it up.

I’ve had a few occasions where carefully crafted class exercises have gone super sideways thanks to tech screw-ups, and I just decided, let’s laugh about it. And you know what? The students laughed with me, not at me. (Learning how to laugh when shit goes wrong and then coping and carrying on with the work anyway seems to me a terrific lesson to take away from university and into life.)

I suspect there are a few of us right now who are working really hard to make the video lectures perfect, the tech in the synchronous lectures perfect, the impossible perfect. That’s a natural inclination for folks like us, who went to grad school because university looked like a “real world” we could super handle.

I once knew how to make a perfect video lecture but I’ve long forgotten, and my copy of the software I used to make it is majorly out of date. I decided in August I wasn’t up for re-learning.

Instead, I chose to put my usual “flipped classroom” prep (lots of 2-minutes free writes and “watch this video then think about it for 5 minutes” stuff) online as the asynchronous hour of our three hours together, and then to follow up only on that prep during our synchronous time together. So far, it’s worked. Students are engaged, whether in the live room or in the Zoom room (I’m teaching hybrid). This means prep takes me minimal time, and the two hours we have *actually* together each week can be spent talking about what we’ve all been previously exposed to and had time to think about. It’s not as much as I’d normally “teach”, but I think it’s more valuable, and as the term progresses I’m putting less and less into these lessons, knowing the students are feeling more and more overwhelmed.

We’re prioritizing talking about how we are doing, and what it means to be just “good enough” sometimes, rather than the perfect we’ve been taught to strive for. I suspect that, if I’d had the chance to have such a conversation in a class when I was an undergrad, I would have called that #activism of a kind, too.

COURAGE!

Kim

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