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6 Theses On Teaching During The Pandemic: Reflections and Provocations

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By: John Tiedemann, Teaching Associate Professor, University Writing Program

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“[The professoriate] has only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”   

1. Teachers are endlessly resourceful. Funny, too.   

If you don’t believe me, check out the Facebook group Pandemic Pedagogy, which sprang up spontaneously in March of 2020, when we all, suddenly, “pivoted” to emergency online instruction. 30,000+ of teachers shortly joined: primary school teachers, secondary, higher ed; they’ve shared who knows how many thousands of posts. Lessons, questions, activities, problems, advice, and many, many memes. All spontaneously self-organizing and self-organized, on the model of a mutual aid society: sharing the material, intellectual, and, maybe above all, the emotional labor of teaching.   

This is what the survival of the profession looked like.     

2. Organizing into departments may be good for scholarship. But it isn’t so good for teaching.     

Whatever the advantages of a Ramist departmentalization of knowledge may be for research and scholarship, it wasn’t as much help for teaching. Which isn’t to say that one’s departmental colleagues weren’t, personally, great sources of support. They were. But the structure of departments? In my experience, it was the groups convened by CCESL, Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL), Senate – groups organized across departments around a common exigence – where the most vital teaching work got done.     

A topic worth discussing, especially at a university both on the verge of R1 classification and tuition-dependent: If a departmental organizational structure at least in some ways necessary but in other ways less than ideal, what hybrid or alternative form might be desirable?     

3. The monastic model of the university is dead.     

Nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd and the systems and structures of racism broke out at the end of the Spring quarter of 2020. At the behest of students taking part in them, and motivated in part by the sense of necessary flexibility, improvisation, invention brought on by the pandemic year, the faculty responded immediately and positively to the students’ request: deadlines were shifted, final coursework was redesigned. Before that, in recognition of the additional pressures brought on by the pandemic, we changed (albeit temporarily) structures of grading and of promotion. That is, we accommodated what was happening outside the cloisters, not as a concession, but as valuable and as necessary for learning and living.     

Which of these insights into and opportunities to integrate the relationship between the university and the world beyond it do we want to keep and to seek?     

4. The monastic model of the university is alive again, or should be, in at least one particular way.     

I know I’m far from alone in saying that faculty and students alike desperately need to reclaim the time and the space to think in solitude. The sense of solitude in academia has been disappearing for years in academia, as elsewhere. It vanished entirely in 2020.      

We need it back.      

5. Proprietary educational software is killing education. But ad hoc digital artistry is bringing it back to life.     

The cartoonist Scott McCloud observed a TED Talk that comics creators at the advent of the internet made the “McLuhanesque mistake of appropriating the shape of the previous technology as the content of the new technology:” that is, they simply transferred the comics page as is to the screen; and then they made the additional mistake of adding digital bells and whistles to those pages that in fact subtracted from an aesthetic that had developed on paper.      

I think the pandemic era has shown us that educators have followed a similar path. First came MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) and such, which attempted simply to transfer the technology of the lecture+discussion format online; then came Blackboard, Canvas, et al., with their modules, pages, and galleries, and all the absentee landlord forms of supervision and policy enforcement, and above all the reduction of learning to the accumulation of points. Whatever convenience this technology may contrive for assessors, it’s to the detriment of teaching and of learning.     

But teaching during the pandemic is also what led me to the vast and various opportunities to learn the liberal arts outside the college setting. Look up ContraPoints, Intelexual Media, and PhilosophyTube. There you’ll find teachers, employed by no school, who, precisely because, like any artist, they create out of a deep familiarity with the tools of their art, rather than in an effort to pour “content” into a new form, are keeping liberal arts teaching alive and well in ways that Instructure, Pearson, and Udemy could not dream.     

6. All of which is to say that, upon reflection, I hope that, post-pandemic, our community of students, faculty, and staff will imagine ourselves along the lines of a mutual aid society, deeply embedded in the wider community, as much local as global, and united by shared interest not only in our ongoing survival but in the prospect of making ourselves new.