In March of 2020, when the world kind of, sort of, just a little bit fell apart I recalled something a past teacher—a mentor, really—instilled in me.  Keep a journal; document. In good times, write. In bad times, write. Whatever the times may be, write. As we all reckoned with and rushed through the terribly swift transition to online mediums, I wrote. And in the writing, an undeniable truth emerged: the COVID-19 pandemic and greater awakening of higher education to the pandemic of structural racism have pushed us to rethink not only how and where we engage students, but what it means to educate at a more fundamental level. We can, if we choose, spin our societal upheaval into pedagogical gold. Now, more than ever, it is apparent that we don't simply teach content, but rather, we teach people. And, given that people invariably vary, designing with an individualized, intentional empathy is crucial. This poses a challenge in the best of times. 2020, clearly, is not time of sunshine and rainbows, and our forced reality as educators is fairly daunting. In my field, the fine arts, the loss of face-to-face intimacy—an essential component to instruction and mentoring—has been replaced with the cold connectivity of a 21st medium—video conferencing services. Yet in navigating this brave new mediated landscape lies solutions which invite a rethinking of education, particularly in revealing lessons in how we build trust and community online for the post-pandemic future.

A classroom—virtual or otherwise—that lacks community and trust holds all the potential and excitement of a warm, flat soft drink. Or, more aptly put, the flat coldness of an LCD screen. Cultivating an environment where students want to participate, where trust has been established, and all feel welcome and vested takes effort, awareness, humility, persistence, and planning. Most of all, it takes the willingness and ability to understand and share in the feelings of our students. As simplistic as it may sound, this begins with a single conversation. One where we, as educators, create a space for students to voice their concerns, experiences, expectations, and, yes, any frustrations which center on the realities of their pandemic experiences and the resulting largely virtual nature of Fall 2020 education. Prior to the first mediated contact session, ask your class to think on, write down, and be prepared to articulate their needs in terms of learning, how they, their families, and communities have been personally impacted by the ongoing societal upheaval, and what their access and ability to navigate technology is.  (On that last note, I can’t overstate this enough: don’t assume that each student has all they need in terms of reliable, stable, internet connectivity or the devices, software, and familiarity to fully engage. Ask.)

No, this isn’t relevant to the course’s content and, yes, some students will take this more seriously than others, but this is an integral part of building trust via transparency. In fact, the heart of this effort goes beyond such and extends to building affinity and a rapport with students.  Building, in a word, empathy. In this dynamic, we must listen more than talk.  Unless specifically asked, we don’t give advice as it isn’t our role to solve these problems (...as if we could...)  Rather, our role is to welcome conversation while 1) establishing a baseline of care, 2) allowing for students to articulate, and thus begin to grapple with, their own needs, desires, and circumstances as they too forge ahead in these trying times, and, most relevant to the actual act of instruction, 3) gather valuable insights into how we can best modify our curricula and individual lesson plans with the goal of working towards meeting individual needs.  

One crystalline outcome from Spring and Summer courses was the ability to develop agency and independence in learning. Knowing where students are coming from, and the challenges they’re facing, allows for a fluidity in terms of project design and group pairing which otherwise would have proved elusive or have been outright overlooked in a physical classroom. Certain students felt they wanted less screen time. Not to be less present, but just to bow out of having being constantly on camera. Others detailed how best they could work remotely with classmates, including alternative methods of engagement (zoom, for all it’s saving graces, is lacking in many respects.)

And, let’s not forget the inherent value in humanizing yourself. In addition to hearing from your class, make sure you elaborate on why you as faculty - and your institution, as you’re able - made the decision to engage virtually.  Does your spouse have a compromised immune system? Is your neighbor at higher risk?  The grocer you frequent? Who, in your life, is within the circle of your impact? Share your frustrations, too—they’re valid. We're put in an inescapably challenging situation as well and leading with this, with transparency, serves to further foster empathy.

In so many ways, so many words, we’re asking students to participate in the process of education. To not simply complain, but to examine and articulate their own needs, on what is working for them, and what could be better. This is educational gold—and should be mined as such not just the once, but throughout the semester. These need not be tedious, drawn out, performative conversations, but rather genuine, unscripted efforts at transforming the mediated classroom into a warm, welcoming one.  Study after study shows that when students engage in active learning, when they participate, when they feel truly involved - and see your effort in involving them—you’re securing a level of buy-in and creating trust that just can’t be bought, or taught.

Based-off the above conversations, and armed with our insights, we can adjust our methods of engagement throughout the remains of the semester accordingly. In this manner, this method is really a form of early-on, and ongoing, formative assessment. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have fleshed-out syllabi, modules, or lesson plans, entering the semester, but rather that we embrace flexibility in more ways that we, perhaps, have in the past. That we adjust; put yourself in the shoes of your learners and you will put them first in your design. Less certainty in old methods of education and more, in a word, empathy. Admittedly, this approach takes time and effort. And, it should go without saying, but scaling is cumbersome and largely ineffective. Yet, with smaller classes, studio courses, crits, and labs in mind, it can bear fruit.

When we pull back from the assumption that the physical classroom is the only, or best, way to showcase technique, dive into criticality, or display work, it reveals the physical and conceptual limits the classroom imposes. In many regards, this new approach also underscores the ableism inherent in equating physically showing up with learning. We can do better. As we move our pedagogies of care online, we have the opportunity to rethink how we build out materials and center the learner in our design efforts. Reductively, empathy, participation, and inclusion should be baked into all curricular development - they’re not independent of, but rather integral to course design.

The emergent culture of COVID-19 and the leaden isolation of quarantine are creating conditions for humanity to connect in novel ways. As educators, we’ve adapted to survive and rely on incredibly imaginative ways to find creative connections - this begins with the quality of our intention and is extended through our empathy. In many respects, we’re fostering relationships, mentorships, even collaborative partnerships which, for the rare few, may far outlast any single course. Our ability to design with empathy, and follow through with participation, will dictate the nature of our engagement as well as the field of vision within which course content resides and from which learning outcomes emerge.

Though it should not take a pandemic to reveal the validity of empathy in designing curriculum, we should welcome the opportunity to revisit such now.

~ Read next post in Closing Panel ~

Moving pedagogies of care online: taking a systemic approach

Posted by Sukaina Walji

6 min read