HyFlex: Trepidations and Tips.

A fork in the road

Pandemic circumstances over the past two years have created a situation where many classes have, for better or for worse, included some level of simultaneous integration of face-to-face teaching with synchronous online teaching. This is an area of rocky pedagogical terrain, and many faculty and teaching units at Trent and elsewhere have worked to avoid this kind of situation as we navigated teaching through a pandemic. In my own experience, trying to integrate students participating via Zoom or another video conferencing platform with live action in my classroom has been difficult. But, at some point I decided to stop pushing against the tide of requests for remote access to my in-person class, and allowed myself to experiment with this “Hyflex” teaching and learning–what some have named “hybrid” delivery (though this term has been used in a few different ways, and I want to be clear about what I am describing).

The results of my experiments have been mixed when teaching while some students were around me in the classroom and others were online. But, I am a ‘never say never’ kind of educator, and while pandemic accommodation for students to participate remotely in face-to-face classes may be waning, there are non-pandemic related reasons that an instructor or instructional unit might want to enable remote participation in face-to-face classes. For example, it can be a way to allow access for students who live in remote communities and have legitimate personal, academic, or cultural reasons for attending classes from afar. We sometimes need and want to accommodate students’ individual circumstances and it may not be possible for all degree requirements to be met through courses only delivered online. Likewise, sometimes students may have legitimate excusable short-term absences that could be accommodated by remote participation, like ‘zooming-in’ to an important class session that is happening while they need to travel for a family emergency or professional obligation. Let me be clear in what I am suggesting here, though: You don’t have to do this, and nobody should be forced to teach this way! I’m merely hoping to offer some suggestions on how to navigate this tricky means of teaching if you feel that there are times where you want to do this. 

My experience in this pedagogical realm includes both formal teaching (for a graduate course in Fall 2021) and for co-curricular events that I hosted as Graduate Director for the IDSR PhD. In both cases I was working with mid-sized groups (around 20 learners), and we were engaging in a mix of pedagogical approaches including lecture, discussion, and active learning exercises. Based on these experiences, here are some tips that I can offer to instructors brave enough to traverse the terrain of simultaneous online and in-person instruction.

Room layout and camera

I was excited about using a “nice” camera when I first started planning for hyflex teaching, with the hopes of drawing students in through good quality video connection. But, in the end it turned out not to have as big an impact on student experience as I hoped. As it turned out, the way the video conference software processes video, and variability in students’ individual internet connections meant the excellent video quality that I had envisioned turned out to be “just okay” in practice–not really different from the quality of the standard issue webcam furnished in classrooms at Trent. Also, students said their experience wasn’t really improved by a better camera. So, after a few weeks I stopped using my own camera and just used the webcam that was installed in the classroom. This saved me set-up and strike time for each class session.

Most classrooms at Trent have the webcam placed at the top of a video display at the front of the classroom, assuming a “boardroom” type of approach to hyflex. Depending on the layout of the classroom and number of students participating in-person, this might be fine. But, it might also not be the best setup for delivery if the instructor is not sitting with students facing the camera. For my purposes, I wanted the camera to be able to move to focus on me, or the students in the classroom at different times. Two solutions were helpful here. First, I learned that the webcam atop the video display wasn’t attached, and actually had a bit of extra cord, meaning that I could remove it from its normal home and place it on a tripod next to the display that allowed me to redirect the camera based on changing action in the classroom during different kinds of pedagogical activities (e.g.: on me if I’m lecturing, on the class if we’re having a dialogue or doing an activity). Also, having the webcam a bit lower means it is more at eye level to students sitting at tables in the classroom. Second, I would often log into the Zoom call on both the podium computer and on my laptop. Importantly, if you do this you need to make sure that when logging into the call from your laptop that you DO NOT connect to the Zoom audio on the laptop, otherwise you’ll get awful feedback. This set up would allow me and the classroom to each have a ‘square’ on the zoom screen. Zoom even has a feature that allows you to “spotlight” these two zoom squares so they are the main view for all users in the zoom call.

Finally, one other thing that I found helpful was a rolling chair. At times when we were having dialogue, it would allow me to quickly reposition myself to either face the in-person classroom as a whole, ‘roll’ over to a small table grouping, or face my laptop camera when need be.

Audio

Whereas video quality turned out not to be a big factor in student engagement, audio quality was of primary importance for students who were joining the in-person class remotely. Much like when you are watching a movie, you don’t really notice how important the quality of the audio is until it is really bad. In most Trent classrooms, the audio for video conferencing is provided through a microphone that is built into the webcam that sits on the main video display. If the in-person population of a class is small enough to sit boardroom style in front of the webcam, this might work. But, in my experience with a class of around 15 in-person participants, people sitting in the far reaches of the classroom could not be easily heard by participants on Zoom. So, use of an external microphone was critical. I did some research, and used my professional expenses fund to buy a RODE Wireless Go II microphone setup (around a $400 investment). This gave me two wireless microphones that transmitted to a single receiver that I could plug-and-play into a front-facing USB port on the lectern computer in the classroom, and easily set as the microphone for the Zoom video conference. 

Depending on what was happening in the class at a given moment, I could wear one of the mics, while the other was somewhere in the classroom capturing audio from students sitting farther away (often clipped to the back of a rolling chair so it could be easily repositioned). This was a simple and easy to implement solution that student anecdotal reports suggested was a big win for remote participation in an in-person class. 

Sometimes separate activities

I use a fair number of “active learning” pedagogies in my classes (teaching through initiative tasks, use of manipulatives, etc.). Sometimes these kinds of activities couldn’t translate to the video conference world that some class members were using to join the class, or even when they could it was difficult to integrate online and in-person class members during an activity, or split my own presence between independent activities in simultaneous online and in-person classrooms. 

In these instances, I planned an alternate activity for those connecting remotely. This was a little bit more work for me in the planning of a class session, but generally much less stressful than trying to include Zoom-based participants in a hands-on in-class activity. My alternative activities were usually fairly simple web-based explorations, and I allowed students to either complete the task independently, or to join the Zoom space with their online peers, but knowing that the instructor and their in-person classmates would not be connected to the video conference for that portion of the class (typically the first 30-60 minutes). 

Wanted: Technical production assistance

One thing that I did not have during my experiences in hyflex teaching is the support of a technical producer. This, I hypothesize, would make the whole enterprise of hyflex teaching much more effective by at least partially separating pedagogical leadership from technical production of the online to in-person classroom integration. Ideally, I would want this support person to have some knowledge and skill with regards to the course content so that they could function in part like a teaching assistant (e.g.: leading an independent discussion group in moments where it was ideal to separate dialogue between the online and in person participants), and enough technical prowess to manage all the could set up, take down, and monitor all the connective technology during the class (webcam, microphones, zoom chat, etc.). If I undertake a teaching approach like this again in the future, I will seek out a funding source in order to allow for this support. 

In closing: Never say never

Teaching my mid-size graduate course using a hyflex teaching approach was challenging. It’s much simpler to simply employ one delivery model very well, rather than trying to do both at the same time, and I look forward to that in the future. However, there are times when it may be desirable to enable students to participate remotely in an in-person course, for one reason or another; for a short period of time, or for a whole term. As a result of this experiment during the pandemic, I now have a small toolbox of skills and strategies for reasonably effective delivery of simultaneous, synchronous online and in-person teaching. I think it makes me a better teacher overall. 

Blair Niblett

School of Education,

Trent University

References

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

Vulnerability in the Age of Increased Precarity

Is it common to feel simultaneously inspired but also uneasy about a pedagogical stance, let alone a concept? This question summarizes how I feel about the conversations we had in the Online Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship program on vulnerability in the Fall.

The topic of the second module of the program was “Students as Agents of Diverse Destiny: Vulnerability and Failure.” I did my homework (i.e., read the suggested readings and listened to a couple of podcasts on the topic during my commute) in advance of the first session and I was quite excited about our discussions that eventually turned out to be intriguing, insightful, and very eye-opening. Yet, both during the conversations in breakout rooms and after the sessions ended, the uneasy feeling stayed with me. Something was keeping me from feeling warmer to this increasingly popular notion of “showing vulnerability in the classroom” which, quite ironically, fits perfectly within my teaching philosophy, at least categorically. Being authentic, open, and honest with students, which is the constitutive element of vulnerability in teaching, is also an integral component of my teaching pedagogy. In fact, I routinely talk about my positionality in all courses that I teach, including the courses where we discuss issues that often go deeply to the self, such as inequalities and discrimination with respect to gender, race, and class. I am also a big believer that when students think that a professor is rather “approachable” and “down-to-earth,” they tend to engage further with the material and participate more in class, which in turn feeds into their learning.

Interestingly enough, it took me a few days (and quite a bit of self-reflection) to dig deeper into my discomfort to understand what was going on, and my conversations with several colleagues bolstered my confidence in that if we want to have a productive discussion on vulnerability in higher education, we need to face the discomfort (and the pain) and start talking about institutional hierarchies that are there and quite real. I am convinced that, in doing so, we also need to make space for alternative ways of discussing vulnerability that do not disregard, but rather fully acknowledge, its situational nature.

Fineman, a prominent legal scholar who has written one of the most cited pieces on vulnerability, argues for the need to recognize that “we are positioned differently within a web of economic and institutional relationships” and that “a vulnerability analysis must have both individual and institutional components” (2008: 10). Once I applied this lens to understanding vulnerability in teaching, I had an easier time at pointing at the root of my ambivalence about this controversial, yet very exciting and powerful, concept. I will be direct and say that I have a problem with the way vulnerability is typically discussed at pedagogy workshops and in the teaching community (and I happily observe that this is changing drastically with the ongoing EDI initiatives). More precisely, I disagree with the common view that vulnerability is primarily an individual trait and/or a personal achievement that allows some faculty members show emotion, make mistakes, and acknowledge those mistakes in the classroom. I believe that we cannot have a truly fruitful discussion about ways to humanize our teaching without saying a word about the defining characteristics of increasingly neoliberalized higher education both in Canada and elsewhere and the manifestations of the current system that include contract jobs (read as precarious) making up a big majority of available academic positions, multiple layers of institutional hierarchies (e.g., those between the university administration and faculty, between tenured and non-tenured faculty, between tenured/tenure-track faculty and limited term faculty) and hierarchies among hierarchies (between full-time and part-time contract faculty where the latter are paid significantly less than the former).

As a junior faculty on a limited-term appointment, I often find myself negotiating a delicate balance between my own vulnerability and that of my students. On the one hand, I am well aware of research that has shown that modeling vulnerability and “productive failure” brings tons of opportunities for transformational learning in the classroom (Vaughn & Baker 2004; Yair 2008). I also know very closely that being seen and known by students, which can only happen when a professor chooses to be vulnerable in the classroom, is an excellent reward for professors who are used to navigating academia, which is a field known for delayed gratification. I do know all of this. I regularly (yet with some limits and reservations) practice vulnerability in the classroom. In fact, I usually go first in class when we discuss a sensitive and/or controversial topic and share a bit of my own life that is relevant to what we are covering. Obviously, I am fortunate that Sociology is rich for offering such opportunities due to the nature of topics we discuss in courses and the perspectives we as critical sociologists use in our teaching.

I also choose to become vulnerable when an assignment does not go the way I planned it. I acknowledge if the instructions are not clear enough or the expectation is too high, say, for a second-year course. I ask my students for their feedback and use that feedback to improve my teaching. In the meanwhile, I also come to recognize that a particular component of the course was not particularly perfect and that I need to work further on it. Going down the path of vulnerability is often (but not always or completely) a deliberate choice that one makes in the classroom. My experience so far is that students generally respond very positively to me being vulnerable, either in the form of sharing my humanity and the mundane and most essential aspects of my life, (“I have a young family and things may be hard from time to time due to my/our lack of social support in Canada”) or inviting them to work with me to improve their learning experience in the course. More specifically, when I open up with students, when I make jokes (which I see as a form of risk-taking in the classroom) and/or admit that I could have been clearer in my instructions, students do not retreat from the course or from reaching out, in fact on the contrary. They participate more, get more curious about the topic, and become more willing to share their experiences with the rest of the class and be part of our discussions.

Bell Hooks wrote that “[w]hen professors courageously share personal experience in a manner that illuminates assigned material, we help lay the foundation for building an authentic learning community” as “[h]earing one another’s personal experience in the classroom promotes an atmosphere of cooperation and deep listening” (2009: 56-58). Yet, she added, that in her untenured years, she had a hard time to “teach in ways that differed from the norm” due to “a fear of punishment” (ibid., p. 35). The “punishment” that Hooks referred to thirteen years ago is more real today due to the factors I mentioned earlier in this piece and many more.

The thing is that vulnerability comes with certain professional and emotional risks that may include losing credibility in the eyes of students (and self-confidence in one’s skills) or not getting the evaluations that one needs to get (those evaluations might eventually play a role in future job prospects). So, maintaining a competent, distanced persona in the classroom may easily seem to be the most strategic and less risky thing to do for faculty holding contingent positions. The risk is further heightened for those of us coming from racialized backgrounds considering that different aspects of one’s identity do not only impact how vulnerable they can safely be but also how that vulnerability will often be received by others (i.e., students, fellow faculty, the university administration).

Unfortunately, I do not have a magic formula about the best (i.e., safe for faculty and productive for student learning) way to embrace vulnerability for those of us who just cannot take the risk of failing in the classroom, at least fully. I wish I did. I really do. However, I know that unless we begin to recognize that vulnerability is unevenly distributed on the lines of job precarity/security, class, race, ethnicity, gender, and geography along with the distress caused by the uncertainty that many of us have in our work, vulnerability will, much to the chagrin of many of us, remain largely as a realm of the privileged. To mitigate this unevenness, I propose that we all become vulnerable by welcoming conversations about the increasingly hierarchical structures of higher education and the ways that current politics and practices affect both students and teachers in many—overwhelmingly negative—ways, regardless of how uncomfortable these conversations might be. This necessitates not overlooking how vulnerability, a seemingly individual stance or mindset, requires more than individual willingness, competence, or belief in one’s skills; rather, such an effort calls for thinking about the burning question of who can afford to be vulnerable in the classroom. Only after we fully understand that vulnerability is situational and largely dependent on a set of discourses and practices that are profoundly structural and systemic, we can start having productive conversations about new teaching and learning methods that are oriented to humanizing our courses, both in person and online. Such an effort may even provide an important opportunity to finally challenge the many discourses and practices that hurt many of us. I consider myself lucky to have been part of this emerging effort as a participant in the Online Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship program this past fall.

Tugce Ellialti-Kose

Assistant Professor of Sociology (LTA)

Trent University

References

Hooks, B. 2009. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge.

Vaughn, L. M., and R. C. Baker. 2004. “Psychological Size and Distance: Emphasising the Interpersonal Relationship as a Pathway to Optimal Teaching and Learning Conditions.” Medical Education 38 (10): 1053-1060.

Yair, G. 2008. “Can We Administer the Scholarship of Teaching? Lessons from Outstanding Professors in Higher Education.” Higher Education 55 (4): 447-459.

Photo by Miikka Luotio on Unsplash

Liberating our thinking as instructors

In my first career as a social worker, I trained and sought to practice within a pretty clear set of principles. My profession has a code of ethics, our education is based in principles such ‘person in environment,’ and I also had a primary practice modality that I sought to be faithful to. While these principles are challenging to meet in some situations, they gave me a guide for my practice. When I started teaching in universities and realized that I wouldn’t have a similar map for this work, I felt really lost – how was I meant to balance my many competing goals in this context? What were my responsibilities to learners, in the broad sense? Which principles were meant to underlay my decision-making when conflict arose?

University teaching is unlike most professions in that its front-line workers tend to have little training in this practice, many see ourselves as researchers first and instructors second, and our approaches to this work vary widely. And like many professions, we are busy, stressed and often burned-out and many of us face precarity in our employment. While I was lucky to be able to take skills training myself before starting and have been able to take advantage of some excellent courses at Trent’s CTL, I’ve often felt I was missing the big picture. I therefore jumped at the chance to participate in the Online Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship (#OLDFF) in hopes of building up my ‘map.’

OLDFF didn’t disappoint. Through weekly discussions, groups of nerdy instructors from across the province challenged, laughed at and interrogated what we know about teaching. We had some discussions about our own vulnerability and humanity which were wonderfully validating and cathartic after a very tough couple of years teaching during a pandemic.

The Liberating Structures used by the facilitators were excellent for this purpose, and particularly the following thought exercise, which I’ve been using constantly since: asking How would I design this badly? More specifically, thisTRIZ exercise has participants make a list of “all you can do to make sure that you achieve the worst result imaginable with respect to your top strategy or objective,” then identify the things you currently do that resembles anything on that list, and finally to confront the disconnects.

The session started with laughter as we came up with the worst teaching dictums imaginable: ‘make learners feel unwelcome!’; ‘ensure that students know they’re the least important people in the room!’; ‘don’t let anyone participate or collaborate – this is a passive, consumption-based transfer of knowledge, only!’ and ‘make this as stressful and frustrating as possible!’ But then reality hit; we were all struck by how some of the student experience does seem to reflect these bad principles, despite no one meaning it to.

I’ve been using this technique to gain insight about lots of things since, including my approach to research and even (gulp) my parenting. For example, in regards to my teaching practice: I know that assessments are (arguably) inherently stressful and also a ‘necessary’ part of university, but causing high levels of stress is certainly not one of my pedagogical goals. I was pushed to ask: do the assessment methods I design actually reflect my aim that they not be unnecessarily stressful? And my answers gave me a path to improving my assessments for the following term.

The OLDFF group I was in particularly grappled with the goal of academic ‘rigor’ in our work, and this exercise helped us immensely to disrupt the common idea that academic rigor and student support are mutually exclusive or even at opposing poles. We found that many of our approaches that seemed unsupportive to students were grounded in an effort to uphold academic rigor, and that actually there are ways to work towards both goals at once. The sessions liberated us to think differently, examine our assumptions and ask some tough questions about how we could practice differently.  I finished the Fellowship with the feeling that the ‘big picture’ I had been missing was starting to fill in.

EM Knudsen

Dept Social Work

Trent University

Photo by Tasha Lyn on Unsplash

Looking for Place in Online Learning

When I think about the phrase Humanizing Online Learning, I think about it in a very literal way: how do we make online learning more human? A technological device is an inhuman object, one which presents a screen or veil through which the humanity of its users must shine, but how can we do this? Indeed, it can be challenging to be humane, especially when there is little to no separation between our isolated domestic sphere and our academic/professional sphere. Unlike the physical classroom, pants and other social niceties are now largely optional.

Throughout the 8 weeks that I had the opportunity to meet with the #OLDFF Fellows, we discussed many ways that learning and education could be made more humane. We explored many approaches and concepts, among them: creating and upholding inclusive learning environments, ungrading, the ways that technology can both help and hinder the teaching/learning process and vulnerability. The discussions around the role that vulnerability plays in teaching and learning, online and in person, were particularly poignant, in the truest sense of the word.

My academic field might be broadly referred to as place studies and I brought this interest-bias with me to several of the discussions that I had over the eight weeks. Inspired and influenced by my mentor, Dr. Jonathan Bordo, who recommended me to this fellowship, the role of place in learning and making knowledge claims is an area of interest for me and it often informs my approach to pedagogy. One particular #OLDFF breakout discussion with a senior colleague impacted my thinking greatly. I shared with the group my concerns about excessive screen time and the placeless-ness of online learning environments, concerns coloured by my role as a parent of young children. To me, the virtual, although it makes overtures to having or being a place in terms of its verbiage and architecture (web-sites, home page, etc.), presents distinct challenges to being grounded, present and engaged. This colleague smiled knowingly, appreciatively, and shared that, although she didn’t have children of her own, she recalled the rhythms of her own childhood. She spoke about the structure offered by her daily rituals – meals, outdoor play, and the comings and goings of the working parent.

This brief conversation helped me to reflect further on the rhythms and rituals of the physical classroom and I began to think about how these often overlooked micro events offer a structure which is grounding to both teaching and learning. Places exist at the intersection of space and time and are anchored by human experience. The place of the physical classroom may be digitized along with many of its rhythms and rituals, with sufficient care, in a synchronous environment however, replicating this place in an asynchronous environment becomes increasingly challenging. Indeed, for all its benefits in stability and flexibility (for both educators and students), asynchronous teaching can further remove us from the place of the classroom and the pedagogies which were previously grounded in the rituals and rhythms found there.

This invited me to think about how we can ground online learning and virtual pedagogies using established rituals and rhythms of the physical classroom, and indeed perhaps creating some new ones. I also wanted to think about ways we can invite students to engage with their material reality, wherever they may be, in hopes of offering them ways to ground their own learning (and their lives for that matter) beyond the classroom, regardless of its delivery mode. With this in mind, I make the following offerings for contemplation:

  • Invite projects or work which asks students to not just engage in, but celebrate their material surroundings. Consider projects that are sequential, take place over an extended period so that they are drawn back to the physical/material world regularly.
  • Invite students to engage in the rhythms and rituals of the university lecture hall/seminar room
    • Informal conversations before/after class or at break – as an educator, make yourself available as you might during an in-person lecture – and encourage students to use this time to talk to you.
    • Make structural requests that you would in a classroom (i.e. drinks are fine, but please no eating during class).
    • Develop rituals or routines that help you and the students know what to expect. This can be as simple as keeping your slide formatting the same or having a lecture structure that you follow. One could also work to create routines or affirmations (i.e. use Padlet or similar to invite instant and anonymous student feedback about a particular question).
  • In a synchronous learning environment
    • Invite feedback from students while lecturing
    • Check in with students and invite them to check in with themselves
      • One participant, during a subsequent conversation, shared that she invites her students to participate in a mindfulness exercise at the beginning of each class and when they return from break
  • In an asynchronous learning environment
    • Encourage rituals and routines
      • begin class with a recorded mindfulness exercise and/or build in a break video
      • Ask students to submit a reaction/reflection immediately following their completion of each piece of course content – could be as simple as sending the professor an email with one question they had from the lecture
    • Create projects which require students to engage with their material surroundings in some way
      • Invite students to engage in the materiality of writing or drawing
      • Create a project which invites students to engage with and reflect on their place/location in the world and celebrate it
    • Instructor availability
      • Encourage human interaction
      • Create a time for synchronous interaction with students and reward student engagement

While there is more work to do, and things to explore, I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight place and to share some thoughts I encountered through this experience about the role of rhythm and ritual in the constitution of somewhere as a place. Place is an important, and often overlooked, part of teaching and learning, and by exploring ways to ground virtual pedagogies, we might just make some exciting, and worthwhile, discoveries.

Jessica Becking

PhD – Cultural Studies

Trent University

Photo by Hans Isaacson on Unsplash

Finding Solidarity in Precarity

I leapt at the chance to participate in the Open Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship when I saw it. As a new instructor, I’m still finding my footing in terms of ‘who’ I am, but the idea of humanizing learning spoke to many of my core values. I learned so much from the facilitators and other colleagues, but this has stuck with me: the shared experience of vulnerability, and the importance of exploring it through building solidarity with students and colleagues.

Embracing vulnerability is something that I have struggled with, as I’m sure many academics have – I have high expectations for myself and I do not like to ‘show my hand’ with regard to any imperfections or potential weaknesses. Being more vulnerable is something that I have been working on, and something I encourage my students to practice as well. However, as Amanda Paxton wrote in an earlier blog post, it is very difficult to embrace vulnerability from a place of precarity. I’m acutely aware that I am a contract course instructor, with no guarantees of continued employment. It feels difficult to think about pushing for change in the ways we treat students with no security. Little things like course evaluations end up eating away at me. Evaluations from students should be a great experience; I’d love to read about how I could improve, and how my teaching is viewed through student eyes. Instead, I hope they are positive enough that I might be able to continue working. As permanent positions become increasingly far and few between, I wonder if I will ever be able to reach a place of happily receiving feedback without worrying about what it means for my future.

As the ‘gigification’ of academia marches on, perhaps we should look to explore solidarity in precarity with students. Many students, particularly in caring professions like education, nursing and social work, share the experience of precarity and are outright exploited through unpaid practicums. Instead of developing professional communication and collaboration skills, many students are punished with inflexible deadlines in preparation for ‘the real world’. When once we were told a university degree was an asset, and that we should study what we feel called to, hiring rates and employment projections crowd our thoughts. What would it look like if these conversations were brought to the forefront by all of us, instead of hidden for fear of embarrassment or retribution? As I learned throughout the #OLDFF experience, many of my colleagues feel the same way. A surprising lesson for me was that the feeling of precarity does not necessarily go away when the actual precarity does. I met permanent staff, tenured professors and other folks who I always thought of as ‘secure’ who shared the enduring nature of vulnerability. The opportunity to speak with Fellows from many different institutions, departments, generations, and employment statuses really opened my eyes both to the ways in which the academy profits off of precarity, and to the importance of getting to know colleagues of all backgrounds and hearing their stories.

It feels like this is a point in time where we have a choice: responses to COVID-19 have shown us that huge institutions like universities and governments are capable of acting nimbly in the right circumstances, with the right amount of pressure. On the other hand, issues such as the expansion of the gig economy, widespread employment precarity, and the corporatization of public services could become permanent features of society if we do not act. We could choose to watch this happen, or we could choose to embrace solidarity in precarity, and prefigure a future that is co-constructed and secure.

Sara Deris Crouthers,

Course Instructor

Trent University

Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

Virtual Vulnerability

A Virtual Chat about Vulnerability in Teaching & Learning by Michael Jorgensen

During the Fall 2021 semester, I was invited to participate in the Online Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship. This fellowship involved a series of discussions around the topic of humanizing online learning. My reflections on these discussions are captured in the following video. In this, I sit down with Christian Metaxas and James Bailey from Trent Online to discuss my experience. My reflections revolve around vulnerability, expertise, and experimentation as an educator. The conversation attempts to connect these themes to the digital spaces we facilitate for our students. We chose a fireside lounge in virtual reality as the setting for our discussion – a digital space embodying the very spirit of these concepts we discuss. With Christian as the host and James as the curator of this digital space, this reflective conversation comes alive.

“Sorry, I’m…”

Sorry

Apologizing for our Humanity via Zoom

My time as an #OLDFF fellow was filled with interesting discussions about how to humanize learning, but even as we were working through these complex pedagogical discussions, it seemed so many of us were apologizing for the very things we were there to unpack and unlearn.

In one of the weeks, we were discussing how to do away with deadlines and what it means for our own teaching and learning if all deadlines are flexible. There was a compelling debate in our breakout room regarding how we can trust the students to submit their own work, to respect the value of education, and to commit to learning if deadlines no longer had late deductions or refusals associated with them. I asked something like “Why can’t we just expect that they are not cheating AND that they have other stuff going on in their lives that is more important than our assignments?” At first, this was met with silence by my fellow Fellows and we all agreed that the punitive system of late penalties, etc. was the lens through which we first learned how to be teachers. It was the institution that did this to us, but we internalized it as a natural and normal reality of learning. This was an incredibly saddening realization amongst us as academics.

Following this experience, I reflected on some of the previous weeks we had already shared together. As we had Zoom breakout rooms each week, it dawned on me that each one started roughly the same way. We would introduce ourselves and many of us, including myself, would include an apologizing caveat:

“Sorry, I’m in my pajamas”.

“Sorry, my kid is in the room”.

“Sorry, I’m eating”.

“Sorry, I’m having an existential crisis”.

…the last one might have been mine 😉

Following this realization, in one of our last week’s, our breakout room moved to a conversation about how often we feel like our inability to complete our tasks leads to excuses, guilt, and shame. It was important to witness how we tend to ask things of students that we don’t want to ask of ourselves. This sparked in me the idea that forcing students into a position where they have to ask (if not beg) for extensions is denying them their humanity – or, at least, making them apologize for it. “I’m sorry that I’m going through a really hard time right now…” is a statement I have heard countless times before the pandemic, but especially since the pandemic. Creating a dynamic with students where professors are some sort of receiver of “confessions” or “admissions” is not a power imbalance that any of us should want to perpetuate. We must lead from a space of understanding and kindness – with ourselves and our students – so that we can recognize what it means to move past apologies. We should also not punish students for the structural failures of institutions that expect us to deny their humanity – as well as our own. We can encourage spaces of compassion, support, and recognition of each other’s humanity, so that our relationships are not forged from a space of “I’m sorry,” but rather “I’m here”.

By Victoria Kannen

Sessional Instructor

Communication Studies

Twitter @victoriakannen

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Disclosure, Vulnerability, and Empowerment in the Classroom

The unit that stayed with me most from my time in the #OLDFF Fellowship focused on vulnerability and failure. A recurring thread during those two weeks was the paradoxical empowerment that accrues by welcoming vulnerability in the classroom—on the part of students and faculty. Yes, of course! I thought. Encouraging vulnerability has been a mainstay of my teaching practice, especially in first-year courses. Explaining the idea of a “tutorial” to students new to university, I encourage them to embrace the discomfort of making themselves vulnerable by taking chances, asking questions, sharing ideas that are still in the rough. Only through taking risks ourselves can we create safe environments for others to do so.

It’s pretty easy to tell students to embrace vulnerability, but what about embracing it myself? As precarious faculty, I carry a vulnerability that is always present and palpable to me, even if it’s not visible to students. The discussions in the #OLDFF meetings brought me to reflect on my own relationship to disclosure and vulnerability in the classroom and to recognize with greater conviction the value in making visible the vulnerability of precarious work as it’s experienced by me and my precarious colleagues, who fill more than half of the teaching positions in postsecondary education today.

When I started teaching as a sessional instructor, I took great pains to obscure any sign of my own shaky job status. I never let on to students, for example, that I had just barely made it to class on time after the 2-hour drive from one institution to another, or that I was running on 5 hours of sleep because I’d been working other part-time jobs to stay afloat. A permanent-status colleague once joked to me in front of an entire class about how little I was paid for my teaching; I felt humiliated. Most of all, I worried that the students would lose respect for me, as if my credibility as an instructor came solely from my position at the university.

My talks with colleagues in #OLDFF helped me see the extent to which my thinking on this issue has shifted over the years. I now make a point of telling my students that I, like most of their instructors, have insecure employment. I’m currently lucky enough to be on a full-time limited contract, so I no longer have multi-hour drives between institutions; many of my colleagues, however, are not so lucky. I tell students that their TAs are teaching high-enrollment courses at several schools, so it’s important to include one’s name and course title in emails to avoid confusion. Through disclosing the realities of today’s academic precariat I learned that, despite my worst fears, students didn’t take me less seriously as an instructor. Paradoxically, those acts of vulnerability empowered me by revealing that my credibility in their eyes didn’t in fact depend on my position at the university.

Those disclosures also empowered students. By making visible our own vulnerable positions, precarious faculty make visible the workings of a system that leaves students similarly shortchanged as they struggle to keep up with tuition costs by working part-time and even full-time jobs that sometimes take them away from the very classes they’re working to afford. Students and precarious faculty share vulnerabilities brought on by an increasingly dehumanizing system that divides our attentions between the goals of the classroom and the economic exigencies of maintaining a place in that classroom. The first step to humanizing that system may be to speak its truths, online and off.

Amanda Paxton

Assistant Professor (Limited-Term Appointment)

Department of English Literature

Trent University Durham

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

The #OLDFF Series

Humanizing Learning: Unlearning and Unsettling (Questioning and Reflecting), Cocreating inclusive communities (Trust and Context), Students as agents of diverse destiny (Vulnerability and failure), Sustaining Change (Critique and Care)

Over the next weeks, you will see a new series of posts arrive on the Trent Online Blog. They will each come from a participant in the Online Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship (#OLDFF) which took place over the fall of 2021. The fellows participated in a broader Humanizing Online Learning project, which is an eCampusOntario funded experience. It includes collaborators from the University of Windsor, Mohawk College, Brock, OCADu, Nipissing, U of T, and of course, Trent.

As ‘doodled” by Brock’s Giulia Forsythe in the image above, you can see that through the fall we held 8 weekly get-togethers where educators from all of the institutions discussed some pretty meaty topics (and produced a pretty epic Google Slide deck). The broad aim was to try to crack things open here and there to let some more humanity into the experience.

So stay tuned to the blog over the coming weeks as you will see 10 new posts, one from each Trent representative in the fellowship. We’ll start tomorrow with a lovely look at vulnerability and failure from Amanda Paxton. We hope you enjoy the posts.

And, if you want more of this kind of thing, you can see what our #OLDFF counterparts from the University of Windsor came up with here on their blog as well.

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.

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