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On Pedagogy and Cataclysm

Mar 17, 2020

(Or slowing down as pedagogical practice.)

White text on a purple background that reas 'What does responsible pedagogy look like during a cataclysm?'

Last week the university I teach at (like so many across the country) cancelled classes and is transitioning to online teaching in response to COVID-19. So over the past 4 days, I have been scrambling to figure out what to do with little guidance. And it was the term scramble that struck me last night as I reflected on the weekend's work and washed my way through the very large stack of dishes I had been neglecting in the sink. To scramble, to “make one's way quickly or awkwardly” could be a defining feature of my professional life since graduating with a fine arts BFA in the midst of a financial crisis. Before I was scrambling to adapt to this COVID-19 reality, I was scrambling to teaching 4 classes a semester, and before that scrambling to move to a new state on a shoestring budget, and before that scrambling to work 40+ hours a week and do graduate school full time, and before that…well you get the picture. The scramble as a mode of being brought on by the economic realities thrust upon my generation can make it hard to come up for air.

Life often feels like a scramble through a series of barely survived microcataclysms, then, a real cataclysm shows up and brings things into a different focus. And make no mistake this is now and will continue to be a truly cataclysmic event for myself and, as I am going to talk more about in a second, especially for my students. I think one of the hardest parts of this so far has been that the other challenges of life, the microcataclysms mentioned above, don’t stop because of COVID-19 they only get more complicated. Being away from loved ones, fiscal stress, and etc. become ways that the impact of the larger cataclysmic event will be articulated through our lived experiences. As this crisis unfolds and as we deal with its ever-expanding fallout, it’s important for me to think about my students and how, for most of them, this is the most calamitous event of their lives. How do you teach students living in this context? And online with little to no time to prepare no less?

What does responsible pedagogy look like during a cataclysm?

I don’t have solid answers to these questions but I have found inspiration online through this post by Ellen Samuels and this Facebook group. More importantly though, it has been through the conversations I have had with my fellow visiting faculty members, especially Dulcee Boehm, in my focus area about these resources that have helped shape my thoughts on these issues over the last few days. Through these conversations and resources and self reflection on what good teaching has looked like to me in the past, I have come to the most basic of plans: take it slow. It feels kind of stupid to write it out actually, like something I should have been able to puzzle out without writing and throwing away plans all weekend and frantically reading ideas about what emergency teaching should look like. In fact, I came to this conclusion and made my lessons based on it without even really being able to name it as “take it slow”.

But last night, as I was doing that truly embarrassingly large pile of dishes, I was thinking back to moments in my education that have stuck with me, moments that at the time felt small but were ultimately enormously impactful. Like during high school when my drawing teacher Sara Hilby introduced the class to the idea of metacognition or when the sculpture teacher Ronald Hahlen had us do reductive wood carving using only hammers and chisels for a whole semester. In undergraduate when Rachel Marie-Crane Williams took the time to see me as a whole person and helped make the university a space I could thrive in or when Isabel Barbuzza invited me to take a graduate level class and shared with that class moments of real vulnerability. In graduate school when Jill Casid and Finn Enke acknowledged my work as a visual artist as having value in a room full of writers or when Laurie Beth Clark stumped for the importance of reading/writing in a room full of artists.

I name these moments and these people because they matter, especially now when as a new professor I am grappling with what I am paying forward, with what I am modeling for my students. In these moments, I see a legacy of care and of making space, and a reverence in taking things slow. In looking back at these moments and these people, the spaces they created in their classrooms were a respite from the scramble, a place to slow down and dig in: rejecting the scramble as pedagogy. Oftentimes the spaces they were creating were in contrast to the systems we were in at large: carving out space within an imperfect and often hostile system as pedagogy.

When I am thinking about this moment, and about my students facing down this cataclysmic event, I am thinking about making space for taking it slow. I am thinking about doing this by pushing back against the impulse to carry on with business as usual. I am thinking about how to push back against my own impulse to scramble through as quickly as possible. I don’t think that’s what my students need right now and I don’t think it is what will serve them most in the days, weeks, months, or years to come.

So, I am going to do my best to hold space for moments of slowness for them in the weeks to come. As social distancing and self quarantining increase in length and intensity, I think the ability to adjust to a slower tempo and perhaps even find solace in it will have a greater impact than simply rushing back into a digital imitation of business as usual.

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