An Interview with Our Very Own Kim Solga

AC readers, I have exciting news. Our very own Kim Solga has won the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching at Western University!

A standing ovation from the crowd! So much applause! A dance party (at a safe distance)!

Happy dancing, for and with Kim!


“The Pleva”, as it’s known at Western, is the university’s top achievement in teaching for tenured faculty (there are other prizes for faculty on shorter-term contracts, and pre-tenured faculty – a prize Kim also won in 2009). In this win, Kim joins several other distinguished former winners in her department (English and Writing Studies), one of the most decorated band of teachers on Western’s campus. (Read more about Kim’s win here.)

Being thoroughly herself, though, Kim is wary to do too much horn-tooting. So, rather than fan-girling over Kim’s pedagogical excellence in a post of my own, I decided to interview her to get her most up-to-date teaching reflections.

Kim in a snap taken for an earlier Western News story about teaching. Due to COVID, no snazzy new snaps were taken of teaching winners this year. Which Kim thinks is JUST FINE.

KELSEY: Teaching as activism has been a central tenet of your pedagogical practice. How has your understanding of teaching as activism evolved in the last five years?

KIM: Great question. When I first used the phrase “the activist classroom” it was 2011, and I was thinking of activism specifically in terms of “activation” – activating students’ imaginations, engagement with big ideas, curiosity; empowering students as informed citizens, helping them to believe in their own value and worth as smart, capable humans.

Today, the popular landscape of “activism” has changed significantly and importantly – this is something I’ve been very aware of as the AC has changed over time, too. And although I’ve never identified as an activist (specifically because public activism takes LOADS of work that I do not do, but which I very much respect and admire), I have come to recognize activist teaching as teaching that, among other things, informs and invites students to think carefully about activist practices in the world at large.

This year has provided a really useful example of what I mean by this. The activism in my teaching over Fall/Winter 2020-21 has manifested as:

  • a firm commitment to work in decolonizing ways in all of my classes, and to shape my winter-term class, which I talked about in my last post, specifically around Indigenous performance and decolonizing initiatives in Toronto’s performance industries;
  • a focus on Indigenous and Black anti-racist activism in my fall-term class, Performance Beyond Theatres, which I teach in conjunction with a course in Community Psychology at Western as well as City Studio London;
  • incorporating information about social movements like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Idle No More, Me Too, and much more into classroom discussions and readings whenever possible;
  • introducing students to the ways in which scholar-practitioners in applied theatre and performance create work with and for communities in the service of social change every day, and giving students the chance to try their ideas out in practice.

I want to emphasize here that, for me, a lot of this work is about learning as we go, too. Like every settler scholar not steeped in Indigenous studies, I’m learning how to practice decolonial pedagogy, and getting plenty of things wrong. And I’m not trained as an Applied Theatre practitioner, either. So this has been about reading new stuff, talking to colleagues and inviting them to visit the class on Zoom, inviting loads of artists on the front-lines of performance activism to come speak and share work with us, and of course paying everyone properly.

I guess that means the short answer to your question, Kelsey, is: for me today, activist teaching means continuing to be humble about what I don’t know, learning from those who do, putting energy into that learning and making it a transparent process with my students, and sharing all the resources at my disposal (including my university’s money!) to support those for whom activism is not just pedagogy, but hard-won action.

The cover of Kim’s 2011 issue of Canadian Theatre Review: The AC is born!

KELSEY: Awards offer opportunities to reflect but also look forward. Where do you envision teaching taking you in the next five years? In what areas are you looking to develop your practice?

KIM: This is, in fact, not the only teaching award I’ve had the honour to receive in the last 12 months; last June I was named one of Western’s new Experiential Learning Innovation Scholars. That’s a project-based prize, and it’s going to fund a new cross-faculty course I’m cooking up called Building A Creative Campus.

The class pivots around the core Performance Studies concept that “performance” as we study it is interdisciplinary, and PS is the fulcrum around which the gathering and cross-hatching of new ideas in a range of fields can pivot. (Natalie Alvarez talks about this brilliantly in the interview she gave for my 2019 and 2020 publications on theatre and performance in the neoliberal university; read it here.) The class will feature 15-20 undergraduates from up to 8 faculties at Western engaging in a fall term of exploration with guest speakers from medicine to social work to engineering to policing, followed by a winter term Community-Engaged Learning (CEL) placement in our community of London-Middlesex County, Ontario. I’m working on it with my colleagues Sandra Smeltzer (a media and CEL scholar) and Mary Daley (a math guy who is also a data scientist and a musician).

That project is a full-on teaching-research commitment, and it’s got a very steep learning curve attached. I’m already discovering how to build large-scale mixed-methods surveys as part of my pre-assessment work, and in the fall Sandy and I (along with two grad students and two undergrad researchers) will be running focus group discussions with stakeholders from all across our campus. The course will be built in 2022 and run in 2023; while it runs, I’ll be coordinating it, and also helping to measure our qualitative data. (Everyone in the class will be a research subject. I get a headache thinking about the ethics applications I’m going to be filling out!!)

Over the next 5 years, then, I expect to learn a lot about best practices in teaching research (and to contribute my own learning to those!), to work a lot more collaboratively with both peers and students on teaching projects, and also to gain a crash course, thanks to Sandy, in quality CEL pedagogy. She’s researching (among other things) CEL and mental health, and that’s a really exciting and important avenue of pursuit.

KELSEY: Who or what is inspiring your pedagogical thinking right now?

KIM: As the above suggests, my terrific teaching peers and students inspire me! But apart from that (which has always been the case), I’m doing a lot of non-academic reading.

I’m investing in bedside memoirs: I recently read a new biography of Hannah Arendt, On Love And Tyranny by Ann Heberlein; there’s Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I Am I Am I Am waiting for me when my current book is done; and I just ordered The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which I somehow missed when it was released. I find the combination of thoughtful argument and accessible prose, plus the strategy of storytelling as critical engagement, not only moving but also an important reminder that positivist, Eurocentric, jargon-filled argument-building is not the only way to say the things and sound smart while saying them.

I take these ideas into my classrooms when I explain to my students that creative essays are welcome, and then help them visualize what that might look like; I also use these ideas to remind me, and them, that storytelling – critical thinking embedded in worlding narratives –  is the method practiced by many of the Indigenous scholars and artists I admire, and exposing students to these methodologies (and their attendant worldviews) is urgent work.

Personally, though, my memoir obsession is also selfish: I’ve been thinking for a while now about writing one of my own, and I want to learn how. I want to tell the story of my background, of becoming a professor after being the first person in my entire family to go to college. I think it will be a teaching memoir too, at least partly, because the story of my growing into my career is all about the amazing, supportive teachers I had along the way.

KELSEY: What are the most pressing questions for post-secondary teaching as we brave the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2021?

KIM: I am excited to report that I’m about to go on sabbatical, so I don’t care! BWAHAHAHAHA!

IF ONLY. Kim’s backyard is very sunny in the mornings, though.

No, seriously. Joking aside, I think every one of us who is burned out and 30 seconds from bursting into tears – students, staff, faculty alike – need to take at least a couple of weeks this summer to Just. Stop.

Stop and reflect. What did we learn? About ourselves? Our universities? Each other? Our systems? We need to think about what to keep and what to change. About what to build.

Things I learned include:

  • office hours/meetings while walking the dog are amazing and refreshing and creative;
  • I need a new laptop;
  • developing and sustaining functional movement is way more important than lifting your PR or maxing out your reps (go here to get a clearer picture of what I mean – don’t think I don’t like a nice kettle bell swing!);
  • more and better technology allows us to innovate in our classrooms, and we need to invest in the tools and the training and the people to support it all, at a structural level;
  • the climate emergency did not go away, so thinking sustainably in all elements of course design (and when planning conference engagements…) remains urgent;
  • nothing beats live in person, at least 75% of the time. Performers know it best: face to face generates learning that cannot be replicated on a screen, no matter how hard you try. Let’s keep our new tech, sure – there are lots of times it’s amazing. But let’s never take our in-person interactions for granted ever again.
Kim’s students learning in the fall air, 2017.

KELSEY: Totally superfluous question. Academic conferences are largely still online, meaning that Summer 2021 won’t have the typical conference circuits. What are your summer 2021 plans?

KIM: Honestly, gardening! Sitting on my back porch. Walking my dog and riding my bike. This may be the first summer in history I don’t have to travel – can’t go anywhere! – so I’m going to embrace it. All summers, truly, should start with us giving ourselves a nice break.

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

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!

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