In Loving Memory of Catherine Silverstone

Friends, it’s that time again: time for our summer hiatus. Those of you who have been longtime readers know that Kelsey and I have been on a journey these past two years to begin transforming The AC into a community-owned space, one that can reflect more than just the teacherly musings of two White women working in central Canada. That process has been up and down, but 24 months later, we have a plan. We will share more details about that plan as our work evolves, but we will say now that it rests on two principals: turning this space over to a broad range of new voices, and setting those new voices up for success by providing as much material support as we can.

Those two things – ceding space for new voices, and holding that space with proper support so that those voices can stand up and be heard – are essential components of all great pedagogy. I learned this from someone our community of theatre and performance scholars lost on 4 October last year: Dr Catherine Silverstone, Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Queen Mary, University of London.

Catherine smiles into the sun.
Dearly missed!

Although I was *technically* senior to Catherine when we worked together at QM in the early 2010s, I instantly found her to be a teaching mentor. Cat was, simply, the finest teacher I’ve ever known.

It was therefore my honour and privilege to be asked, shortly after Cat’s death, to prepare a tribute to her for Contemporary Theatre Review‘s Backpages section. I knew right away that the tribute had to foreground Cat the teacher, and I knew too that I had to involve her students in its making. In late October we gathered on Zoom, still wet with our tears, to share joyous memories of Cat’s leadership inside and outside the classroom, her remarkable humility and grace, and her exceptional capacity for listening, learning, and making space for and with students (including student-peers like me).

I received the offprints of our finished work yesterday, and it’s my pleasure to share (with permission) the text with folks here on the AC.

Read and remember a remarkable scholar and teacher; think of your own teaching mentors; and remember, too, the hard hard work we’ve all come through, knowing better days will come, and will come soon. See you in September.

Kim and Kelsey

***

(To read this in print, or online as a PDF, please visit Contemporary Theatre Review [issue 31, numbers 1-2] via T&F journals here, or via your home library’s holdings.)

Pedagogies of Care: Remembering Catherine Silverstone

By Kim Solga, with support from Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer

A hot summer evening, and I’m rushing; I’m late for dinner with my new colleague Catherine Silverstone. I should have arrived ten minutes ago, but I misjudged, as usual, the length of my journey, and now I’m running desperately from London Bridge station, rounding at speed onto Bermondsey High Street, panicking as the minutes tick by. What will she think of me, stupidly late for a meal she’s arranged to help orient me to my new gig at Queen Mary? Sweat cleaves to me in the gently waning sunlight as I collide with bins and people along the pavement, finally arriving, panting, out of breath, mortified. 

And there she is: sitting quietly at a window open to the breeze, with a glass of wine and her phone, patiently waiting. Instead of even a hint of frustration she offers me the biggest smile, a chair, her open arms. If I’ve inconvenienced her there’s no sign of it; no sign of frustration or bother at all. I’m instantly calmer, and I’m instantly present to her. We begin to chat like old friends, even though we are not that – not yet anyway. But we will be.

This was the Catherine I knew: abundantly generous, consummately professional yet also high-spirited and cheeky, never less than fully human. No detail was too small for Catherine’s attention; all the little things, as she knew, mattered. And so did every student matter because, as Catherine understood, from our students we have so very much to learn. So, when CTR approached me to craft a short remembrance for Catherine, I knew it had to centre her students—as she never failed to do. I’ve shaped the reflections that follow from memories shared by Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer during a chat on 30 October 2020. My heartfelt thanks to them all.

Good Times

Many peers knew Catherine as a passionate, eclectic scholar, as at home with Shakespeare as with Derek Jarman. Her students, however, know something more: that for Catherine, there was no hierarchy among the many elements of her labour. All were—as she would turn her favourite phrase, with a glint in her eye—“good times.” 

Jarman and Shakespeare were as important to Catherine as the work of preparing quality class materials, of attending (as Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary) to student concerns over water fountains and malfunctioning microwaves, of reading PhD chapters with such care that each sentence might warrant comments or track changes (something lovingly known as “being Silverstoned”). This equivalence was, for Catherine, political: nobody has the energy to interrogate the elitist structures separating “the Bard” from the amazing queer artists who follow if they haven’t had a warm lunch or a proper drink of water. As HE teachers it was our duty to attend to it all.

The cover of Cat’s first book, Tragedy in Transition, edited with Sarah Annes Brown

What’s at Stake?

Ben remembers Catherine asking him this all-important question during a supervision; it resonates with all of us, and “it will never be out of me,” he notes. Catherine’s politics as a queer feminist were everywhere palpable; her firm sense of social justice informed all aspects of her practice as a teacher, a colleague, a scholar and a leader. Anna recalls how important Catherine’s sense of social justice was to her own decision, now, to pursue a career in human rights law; “If Catherine were in another job, she’d be a human rights lawyer!” Mojisola adds. For Catherine, politics was not a position one adopts; it was a practice one lives, folded and leaved into all aspects of being and working. At stake for her was the work of the political, not the glamour of ideology.

Anna and Mojisola remember that nobody was prouder of their queerness, more open about it, and yet for Catherine queerness was never about her, the work of anti-racist justice was never about her. Anna remembers Catherine’s classroom as a safe space in which to “learn to love one’s queerness”; Mojisola honours Catherine as someone with whom, as a Black woman, she felt safe “in terms of race,” someone who never boasted about her allyship: “she just got on with it.” She recalls that Catherine was always first to check her privilege as a white, educated person from a settler colony, always first to put her power to work for those with less. 

Teaching with People’s Palace Projects

Mojisola offers a remarkable example of this work in practice. As Director of Teaching and Learning, Catherine realized that a handful of students in the Queen Mary BA Drama program were on track to earn 2:2 degrees, but could do much more with a bit more support; she pulled their names, saw in them the traces of historical underprivilege, did some maths, and made it possible for them to be mentored to better degree outcomes. Quietly, no fuss—but lives were changed forever. Sarah remembers Catherine committing exactly the same graft to the work of TA support: she convened difficult discussions, took flak for the department, set boundaries, offered space to share openly, then made attainable promises around wages and conditions and got proper results for the young people who needed them most. “Doing the boring stuff, paying attention to details, looking at structure,” Mojisola notes, leaves in Catherine’s wake a legacy of what Sarah calls “real, tangible, difficult change.”

Pedagogies of Care

Our conversation, Ben reminds us, keeps coming back to this word: care. Every aspect of Catherine’s work for, and conduct among, her students and peers was infused with a “sense of civic care.” To be Catherine’s student was to encounter someone who was always willing to be vulnerable, because she saw herself as no more nor less than them. She was even more nervous than the MA candidate sat in front of her at interview, happy to share that she, too, found these sorts of formal public situations awkward, uncomfortable. She was someone who listened to your words with mouth slightly open, eyes alert, seeing you, hearing you—but properly. She was someone in whose classroom you knew you needed to be, because what teacher takes such serious interest in the most mundane things, always giving you the benefit of the doubt, listening with infinite patience, knowing she can never understand the circumstances shaping the moment in which you come to her in need?

Anna calls Catherine “powerfully unassuming”: extraordinary in her capacity to elevate our ordinary lives, to lift up tiny details for generous attention, precisely because it’s the little, human things that so affect our capacities to teach and to learn. Catriona, Sarah, and Caoimhe were all Catherine’s PhD supervisees at the same time, and yet, they recall now, they all emerged with independent writing styles, separate senses of scholarly self, because as Catriona puts is, “the way that Catherine shaped you as a scholar was about the way you think.” Mojisola calls this Catherine’s capacity to demonstrate the southern African philosophy of Ubuntu: “Ubuntu means, I am who I am because you are who you are. I am me through you and you are you through me.”

“Perhaps Your Problem Contains its Own Solution”

Catriona parrots this Catherine-ism and we all laugh, delighted for a moment, remembering. And then a pause. What, dearest Catherine, is the solution to this problem, this great loss of ours, our loss of you? There may be only one: to live your legacy as you would have done, with no ego, with firm allyship, with strongest commitment to the most vulnerable among us and also within ourselves. 

Mojisola made a list to help us imagine what this solution might look like. Catherine would have loved it (after being embarrassed for a moment to be caught in the spotlight, of course).

Listen without prejudice.

Listen without bias.

Listen without interrupting.

Attend to the detail.

Dig as deep as you can.

Don’t be afraid of boredom. (The boring stuff is what gets the job done.)

Turn the question around.

Wait patiently for the answers.

Accept people. Believe your students. Then they will feel believed in.

Don’t be afraid of the mundane work that is part of dismantling discrimination. 

Let your students teach you. Everyone is an expert in their own lives.

Give praise generously, when it is due.

Never forget to love, to be loved, and to dance.

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.

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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!

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

 

Reflecting on Uncertainty in Uncertain Times

Hello from another week of the odd times with the Activist Classroom. This week I reflect about navigating uncertainty in this, the strangest collective year in recent memory.

The novel coronavirus is a terrible party guest. It came uninvited. It’s wildly unpredictable. And, it’s armed with a thousand bad conversation starters:

What are the government’s plans for re-opening? Are resources reaching society’s most vulnerable members? What protocols will remain in place? How will they be enforced? When will children return to school? Should they return to school? When will retail open? What about the film industry? The fitness industry? What will universities do? Will we ever get theatre back?  What will the “new normal” look like? Are we already in it?

These questions run on loop in my head, in the news, in the endless zoom calls. They are, in fact, an articulation of one of the defining features of the Covid-19 pandemic thus far: uncertainty.

We don’t have all the information, and so we don’t have the answers. And no one else has them either.

1200px-Question_mark_(black).svg

The uncertainty itself isn’t unprecedented. People’s worlds are routinely turned upside-down by innumerable catastrophes and marvels. What’s unprecedented, at least in recent western memory, is that so many people are grappling with a similar set societal uncertainties at the same time.

In these uncertain times, I find myself turning to my favourite thinkers and writers. One of these thinkers is Sara Ahmed. From examining queer orientation to tracking the logic of happiness to researching diversity work and complaint in post secondary institutions, Sara Ahmed frequently begins with the question, “What does X [an orientation toward an idea, the concept of happiness, a commitment] do?”

Ahmed

The cover of Sara Ahmed’s recent book, Living a Feminist Life

As we move through the uncertainty of spring 2020, I find myself drawn to this question.

What is the uncertainty produced by the Covid-19 pandemic doing? More simply, what are the multi-layered (personal, social, political) effects of mass uncertainty?

One day, when I’m feeling intellectually sharper than these early pandemic days, I will probably ask these questions on a broader scale.

Right now, I’m drawn to my personal sphere. So, I asked my mother what she thought about uncertainty and the novel coronavirus.

“It’s the little things,” she told me. By way of example, she explained that she and my father didn’t know how to make a virtual doctor’s appointment.

“Do you want me to look it up for you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can look it up myself!” (Admittedly, I walked into that reply). “I’ve just never had to. I don’t know how it works or what to expect. The uncertainty makes you pay attention.”

Indeed.

Since the pandemic response ramped up in Canada in late March, I have felt the novel coronavirus’s call to attention across my life: at the grocery store, in the daily emails from my university, in hours-long phone calls with friends I may not see for a long time.

spotlight2

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on parts of my life. (Also: I chose this image because it’s a theatre stage illuminated by a pair of spots, and I miss theatre stages.)

I have noticed this call to attention in my teaching life, too.

Most folk have now weathered the mid-semester upheavals of the spring outbreaks and institutional closures, but the traditional post-secondary teaching structure has undoubtedly been shaken. As colleges and universities begin to plan for fall 2020 at least partly online, the lasting effects for classrooms — for the entire post-secondary norm — are, well, uncertain.

In terms of teaching, I, like everyone, am curious about all the big questions: Will classes be virtual in Fall 2020? What about Spring 2021? How will this affect teaching in the coming years? But, I find, too, that many more personal questions are floating to the surface:

  • How will I, who so value the “liveness” of both theatre and teaching, adjust to asynchronous virtual teaching methods?
  • How can virtual space prompt me to re-imagine my classrooms in new ways?
  • How will I support students, whose learning conditions and university experience are likely to undergo rapid changes in the months ahead, while also encouraging rigorous, critical engagement with the material we’re meant to be studying?
  • How will I learn from, and remain in touch with, colleagues (without getting bogged down in administration and endless virtual calls)?

My inner coordinator, the part of me that likes to plan and schedule and colour code things, is eager to start answering these questions. And, at some point, she will prevail.

But, for now, I have decided that my pedagogical work is about attunement and inventory: To where am I drawn? What do I turn away from? Where does pedagogical focus lead me? What questions do I return to? 

I am hopeful this work will anchor me – and perhaps, if you choose to borrow it, you – as I navigate the uncertain waters of the months ahead.

 

Pandemic Online Learning: Take-Away Lessons

By Julia Henderson:

Now in week five of isolation, my panic has eased slightly. Until recently, a goal for many of us was to finish up courses in progress by whatever means we could. Some of us have had some profound insights, some of us merely survived. Many of us feel saturated with “top tips” commentaries. So, I sit at my computer again, grappling with what to write that feels meaningful.

I have to admit I am struggling to keep up as my 5-year-old and my 13-year-old are tasked with learning online. They need assistance, support, guidance, and encouragement. It feels disorderly and haphazard. Sometimes this relates to their teachers’ efforts to deliver online curriculum. Other times it is due to our ability (or more accurately, inability) to uptake all the new requirements. How am I supposed to work full-time, revamp my postdoc research to be done without participants, and become the classroom aide to my two children?—never mind also take on the roles of house cleaner, pet keeper, and full-time cook—all jobs I had outside help with before. As I write this, my five-year-old has entered and asked, in tears, if I could PLEASE read him stories.I feel overwhelmed.

Can we just stick with baking and books?
(Photo Credit: Nancy Caldwell, Pandemic Porch Series, @nancy.w.caldwell)

So, in this state, I think ahead to the summer term which will need to be delivered fully online. Since these courses will be virtual from their outset, learners are likely to have higher expectations for slick course delivery. However, many instructors still lack experience teaching online. I keep returning to the question “how can we make teaching meaningful, achievable, as efficient as possible, and not overwhelming to our students and ourselves?” Below, I’d like to offer some thoughts I’ve had and some things I’ve learned from my family’s online experiences so far during lockdown. Thanks to my friend and colleague Ash McAskill, Postdoctoral Fellow at Guelph University, for talking through some of these ideas with me.

DON’T TEACH REQUIRED CONTENT IN REAL TIME

Unlike previous online courses which students opted to enroll in and instructors (usually) chose to teach, now students and teachers are forced to participate in online courses. This brings new considerations. In the past when students chose to take an online course, we could assume they had good online access. Now we cannot make that same assumption. Not everyone has a device available to them at any time of the day. Families are sharing, Wi-Fi is sometimes overloaded and sketchy, some students are trying to do their work on phones. If you want to include optional real-time check-in sessions with your students, by all means do so. One-on-one and small groups work best in my opinion. But for the love of god/goddess do not deliver required learning in real-time online lectures at this time! It causes undue stress for many students.

KEEP IT CHUNKY!

It is way easier to digest course content in smaller chunks. Instead of recording one-hour lectures, prepare 4 or 5 mini-lectures. Instead of assigning lengthy readings, choose shorter ones, or break the long ones into more manageable chunks. Perhaps assign summaries of certain readings instead of the originals. Find ways to design shorter assignments or divide longer ones into distinct tasks. We must keep in mind that many people are no longer able to find lengthy, uninterrupted work blocks.

THINK ABOUT ACCESSIBILITY

My older son is in 8th grade and as such has 8 different courses, and 8 different teachers. Looking at his course content and communications, it is abundantly clear that most of his teachers have little to no training in making online content accessible. First, there is just TOO MUCH TEXT crammed in. The fonts are too small. They often don’t use hyperlinks. Images do not have an alt-text description. The colour combinations of font on background are sometimes difficult to read. My son, who is a straight-A student, finds the online content overwhelming. So, for anyone not used to designing courses online, I would strongly advise two things. First, take a look at some tips on writing for the web. There are simple ways you can adapt your writing to make your materials more approachable/readable. Secondly, look into tips on accessible online course design. Some simple strategies make a big difference to many learners.

If only I could read this font!!!

TEST OUT YOUR TECHNOLOGY!!!

So, my son’s English teacher decided to have a real-time group session online. I’m not sure why, but she combined 4 classes in the one session (that’s A LOT of participants!!). She then asked some students to help her with the technology. Well, I don’t know if it was the boredom of isolation, or the general mischievousness of teenagers, but the students started posting comments and drawing pictures (you can imagine) on the online blackboard, and she didn’t know how to stop it. She eventually just left the session and we got an email the next day beginning with “Well I won’t be trying that again!!!” Although this whole episode was immensely amusing to my son and his classmates, it did not achieve learning of any course content, and I am sure it was humiliating to the teacher (who fortunately had a good sense of humour).

The moral of this story: test out your technologies before using them with your classes. In depth. For real.

HOLD SPACE

Another of my son’s assignments was for students to reflect on some of the things they had learned during isolation. My son came to me rather incensed because the teacher had commented to students that they should avoid being negative and come up with some positive things they had learned. I agree it’s important to think about some of the positive things we have learned during this pandemic (the extent of our over-consumption, how profoundly we affect the environment, how much we are typically over-scheduled, etc.). But insisting on positivity is not productive or healthy; we need to talk about our hurt and fear and dreariness, and we need to try to avoid toxic positivity. As my friend and University of Toronto PhD Candidate Rena Roussin writes,

“Optimism, positivity, and gratitude are all wonderful things. I’m striving to practice them as much as I can . . . But it’s okay to have moments when you just can’t. It’s okay to be sad for a while. It’s okay to take a moment or an hour or a day to grieve for whatever you’re missing right now.”

As instructors, we need to make real efforts to hold space for our students to talk about their experiences of difficulty, anxiety, pain, and grief. If we are going to ask students to reflect on how they feel, we must be prepared to give supportive, empathetic feedback, not simply advise them to be more positive. Experiencing a global pandemic is a form of trauma and it will affect people in different ways to different degrees. It is not our job (or within most of our skill sets!) to become counsellors, but we need to be able to deeply listen even though we are not physically present, and we should be prepared to refer students to counselling services as needed. For many students, remember, it is simply helpful to have a place to express their struggles right now.

DO WE NEED GRADES?

This may be an unpopular opinion but I think we really need to think about what we are grading, how we are grading, and whether we really need grades at this time. If people are showing up right now, that’s a lot. At the very least we need to re-evaluate our usual grading systems, and lighten the burden for ourselves and our students. We need to keep in mind what the real consequences of the grades will be. Are students trying to enter second year or grad school?

IN SUMMARY

Although we are settling into this New Normal, we have to remember that these are trying times with constant undercurrents of instability and stress. The following quote, which has been circulating on social media, spoke to me (the original source eludes me):

“You are not working from home; you are at home during a crisis trying to work.”

We must remain gentle with ourselves and each other, open to new ways of doing things, accepting of resistance, curious, and even sometimes frivolous – just because! In the spirit of frivolity, as an antidote to all the online learning, and at the risk of toxic positivity, to conclude I would like to share the duck eggs I am trying to hatch in my homemade incubator!

Hoping for some ducklings around the middle of May!!!