Watching the Joy

Dr. Katrina H Keefer

“Every morning I get up and I watch the war, watch the war, watch the war,
And every morning it upstages everything I know”

(Jonatha Brooke & the Story: War, 1995)

We live in stressful times, and while there are increasingly patches of sunlight pertaining to remote learning, too often the ambience has been one of confusion and fatigue among my fellow instructors as they wrestle with learning systems and how to engage their classes in ways which resemble the enthusiasm we all like to imagine exists in our seminar rooms. It seems ingenuous to compare it to the grinding apathy of experiencing conflict through the absorption of media, but in a sense, there are enough similarities to draw the parallel. We take in what we share with one another, and throughout the fall term, for too many, there was stress and fear and worry. It echoed around academic circles, and with every retelling, the feeling of shared distress almost visibly grew within the comment sections.

That’s not my story, though.

By sharing my own experience, and how I got to where I am, I hope that I may offer another ray of light to continue driving away the foggy clouds of confusion and tension, and provide another tool through which readers might be able to connect still more with their classes.

I’m a historian by training and passion, so it’s only right to begin with some history and context. For decades now, I’ve taken what free time I have into video games, often mixing them with my research, but typically relying on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications to facilitate my games when I team up with other players to accomplish mighty digital deeds. I’ve been familiar with Mumble, Skype, TeamSpeak, and all the rest for years now, and over the past five years, one VoIP really began to dominate the games I played; it was called Discord, and it allowed gaming guilds to build servers, organize text and voice channels, discuss strategies, and conduct group missions or raids.

Discord is a free application which can be run both as a downloadable executable tool, and a web-based chat system. It’s a freemium business model, where users pay for extra services, but the security, low latency, convenience between PC and mobile uses allow for a rapid community-building platform which many gaming guilds have used to great effect. While Discord controls all the many images, files, and messages sent through its service, it has openly stated that it will not sell information from users, and it does not use advertisements.

You can see, I suspect, how this would be of interest to a variety of communities, and Discord’s success is testament to its strategy. Its success has also landed the company in some hot water over time, with alt-right groups using it to organize rallies thanks to its relative privacy and how easily used it is. Life is never sunshine and roses, especially where the internet is concerned, and where those who use it for unsavoury purposes are concerned.

That said, I confess that when covid-19 became the institution-closing pandemic it became, and classes were abruptly halted, I was somewhat surprised when my incredible group of first year students asked to use Discord as a way to keep up with our weekly meetings. I’d offered to work with whatever tool they chose – I expected something like WhatsApp, which my antiquated BlackBerry despises, frankly – and I was not only relieved but delighted by their choice.

I duly set up a Discord server, and for the remaining weeks of class, we had some really great discussions. As fall rolled up, I immediately decided to try the same approach, but more intentionally, and I therefore invited students in my second year course to join a class Discord I built. I did not make it mandatory but instead optional, providing Discussion Boards through the Blackboard LMS should students elect not to use Discord.

The whole class pretty much joined Discord immediately. There is always some early intensity when you’re fostering a sense of community, and one mixed blessing of the application is that I can have it open throughout my work hours. This allowed me to devote the requisite time to the class to help them feel safe and comfortable, but it also meant that I was always “on” so to speak. Not a great hardship for me given my gamer past, but certainly not something that every faculty member might crave at least initially.

Every morning Discord automatically launches as my computer turns on, and every morning I would read through student conversations. At first they were stilted and formal, but as I commented frequently, encouraged them steadily, students began to risk themselves with one another. The turning point came in late September when two students began to discuss what it feels like to be Black in Canada in the general channel. I’d taught one before, and they had always been quiet in person, clearly uncomfortable in a seminar room full of peers who likely did not grasp the challenges that come with being racialized. In Discord, I saw an entirely different person from that quiet student; I saw someone who was active, engaged, vocal, and brave. I watched as they opened up and spoke frankly about their experiences, and other students entered the discussion in positive, encouraging, beautiful ways that continued to build a feeling of community.

I chose to be as vulnerable myself as my students were being, and I spoke freely about my passion as an Africanist, as a scholar of identity, and my strong feelings around the injustices of the slave trade and its terrible legacy. The students gave back what I gave them, and increasingly, the community was one of support, strength, and ongoing commitment to learning more. I made a point of reminding students that I and my TAs would not be marking them for weekly contributions but as an average of ALL their contributions throughout the term. My intention in this was to take the pressure off already overloaded learners and do my best to make their engagement in this platform one of voluntary excitement rather than tedious obligation. I have been rewarded tenfold.

It’s nearly the end of term now. I don’t have to throw nearly as much energy into building a community which is clearly now self sustaining. When I launch Discord now, I read the beauty of students sharing their passion for the subject I teach. I watch them linking videos they have found about the topic for one another to review, I see them helping each other as they work on assignments, I delight in their thoughtful, well-considered responses. They post at hours I’d be sleeping, or before they go to work, or while they’re out walking and have their phones handy. The key features have been convenience, utility, and community. Discord simply was a capable, organic platform to facilitate this level of engagement, and it was one the students took to with excitement and enthusiasm.

And now, every morning when I wake up, I no longer ‘watch the war.’ Every morning these students upstage everything I thought I knew as I see greater engagement than I’d even get in a seminar room at this stage in a term. I am awed, and I am humbled to see the passion among these learners, and to be a part of the community we share.