Catherine J. Denial
I write this at my dining-room table, the locus of my office for most of the past two years. It’s year three of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and our lives are divided into six-foot blocks of attention, measured by social distance (and its lack). We have traded cloth masks for N95s (or perhaps no mask at all); we have been vaccinated and boosted (or we have not). We juggle the personal calculus of risk, every decision to travel, to eat out, or to stay home colored by the hope of good health in the face of adversity. Collectively we have not agreed to protect the most vulnerable among us, nor have our governments stepped into that gap. We struggle with financial uncertainty, the vagaries of technology, the limits of broadband, and the scope of what we can claim to know. We are tired and uncertain, we are often overworked and feel underappreciated, and many of us are angry. Our students are too.
We have lost a great deal to the pandemic, including the lives of people we love and, in many cases, our own good health. Many of us lost our footing in teaching when we went online for the first time, or as seasoned online instructors, when we worked with students who had not freely chosen that modality as the one in which they preferred to learn. We craved connection and struggled to know how to create it; we wrestled with new software and hardware to reach students without tipping ourselves or them into overwhelm. All of this has happened at speed. We have largely not had the breathing room to process these realities, absorbed as we have been in the work of adapting to changing circumstances, institutional policies, and personal needs. Too often we have been told that things are returning to “normal,” but in truth there is no return to how things were in 2019 (even if that were a desirable destination).
But that is not the end of the story.
By prioritizing care and community in our teaching and instructional design, we give ourselves and our students the opportunity to remake this uncertain world. Our students are thirsty for this, and we teachers no less. All education is relational; all of us deserve support, concern, and kindness, and the chance to work—as these essays demonstrate—in collaboration with each other so that learning can take place. We must ditch what Paulo Freire called the banking model of education. Instead of acting as sages-on-the-stage, depositing wisdom into the passive minds of students, we must (as the authors of these essays do) envision (and actualize) education as a multi-faceted collaboration between students, teachers, and designers. No learning relationship in this book is unidirectional—feedback flows from person to person as everyone involved in the enterprise of education refines their understanding of the work at hand.
These essays offer hope. Hope, as Mariame Kaba famously puts it, is a discipline. It is not simply a feeling but a practice: we must do hope, not just wait for it to materialize. Even in the face of the significant challenges of these pandemic years, we can make hope happen through our actions, and this volume is chock full of suggestions for exactly how. Here you’ll find critical reflections on things that have worked in online and hybrid classrooms, and things that have not. You’ll find suggestions for making concrete changes—creating a genuine welcome for students in your classroom space; rethinking the design arc of a course; experimenting with digital tools; and transforming assessment. You’ll find critiques of our educational systems, and powerful invitations to imagine better. These essays offer each of us valuable companionship in the work of mentoring, design work, teaching, and learning.
Each of these essays offers a vision of education rooted in the building of communities. Sometimes these are communities of two, as an instructor and student sit down at either end of a Zoom connection and share their vulnerabilities. Sometimes these are communities of four, as students work, peer-to-peer, to support one another even as they work on individual projects. Sometimes these communities encompass teachers and students in an entire class, thinking seriously (and joyfully!) about what it means to disrupt the power dynamics of higher ed. In every essay in the following pages you’ll find evidence of just how vital community is, and what a powerful difference it makes to those involved.
My own experience as an instructor bears out the wisdom of these essays. It was the online communities of which I am a part, especially on Twitter, that made it possible for me to teach in a pandemic and more, to discover new ways to flourish. In March and April of 2020, I learned from online-education experts about (what seemed at the time to be the mysteries of) asynchronous learning, re-imagining the use of my college’s learning management system, and using Zoom. I threw questions out into the Twitter-verse, and people (some of whom I already knew, many of whom I didn’t) provided answers. As the pandemic rolled on, I found understanding online, and solidarity in my struggles, as well as a community of people ready to cheer for the things that went right. I experimented with new course designs, formative assessments, and ungrading at large, and I asked my students what they wanted from their classes, and I implemented change. Along the way I reported back to my communities how things were going, began to offer answers to questions myself, and saw the connective tissue of human relationship strengthened by bits and bytes.
If you’re looking for inspiration, you will find it here. If you’re seeking analysis and data, these essays offer both. If you want new ideas for classroom activities, projects, and assessments, these authors have many to share. But most of all I hope you find in these pages a wealth of connections to the community of which you are a part as an educator and/or learner, and the opportunity to be seen, to be encouraged, and to be understood.