Corona is liminal, this crisis stage of the pandemic will pass. Corona upended so much of our lives. Humanism suggests that we will grow from this experience if we forge a solidarity and vigilance, like with HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that initially attacked, as diseases do, the vulnerable. Now with Covit, you have people in my ole Kentucky home, storming the state capitol with guns, to un-peacefully protest wearing masks. They act in solidarity with no one but themselves, a key cue to empathy erosion.
Along with several of my cousins, I am a teacher, and have been teaching online for over a year now. Whether online or face-to-face, I know that I need to demonstrate the sort of behaviour I expect students to bring to the class. I am fortunate to have learned this first hand, having had years of positive classroom experiences from a litany of mentor-teachers. Along with my family and religious/spiritual community, educators showed me the power of giving one’s full attention – it creates the conditions that cultivate compassion. Therefore, I am acutely aware that I need to ‘look’ at my students, and listen without prejudice. I want to; I want us all to connect. Yet, most refuse to turn on their cameras. I’m often looking at the green light above my screen.
Despite my urging, most students have not even bothered to upload a profile picture so that the icon sitting on the screen during class would at least display a human. Therefore, on the occasions when they do speak, their voices are visualized by a bland, neutral, grey-scale silhouette. This virtual space dehumanizes us. Sometimes it does feel like “Hanging on to hope, when there is no hope to speak of,” so I keep an uplifting musical playlist synced to every device.
In reflecting on several of her own dehumanizing experiences in the classroom, bell hooks asks readers: “Imagine what it is like to be taught by a teacher who does not believe you are fully human.” Like bell hooks, I have spent years “Listening to students talk about the myriad ways that they feel diminished when teachers refuse to acknowledge their presence or extend to them basic courtesy in the classroom” (hooks, TCC, 61). Further, we know that interfacing through screens lends itself to the old banking model of education, where “teachers present the material and students passively receive it” (hooks, TCC, 10). This, too, risks further dehumanization. I believe one purpose of my role as teacher/role-model is to treat students as human, some arriving so wounded that this all feels brand new.
I believe that turning on my camera signals that I am actively engaged and focused on the matter at hand. It’s even been fed back to me through co-teachers that students appreciate that I take the first few minutes of each session to chit-chat. I call this time “mic check,” and simply inquire about their well-being and share my own. I then segue into each lesson by asking each mic-checker about their own experiences or thoughts related to the topic. I hardly think they’d actively participate if I began by lecturing from slides, thereby fixing them in the passenger seats.
I have worked in the classroom since the 90’s, through the early days of social media and concurrent normalization of smartphone addiction. In this time, many have grown accustomed to phubbing- snubbing people IRL for the sake of the phone, which dramatically screws up kids. I have also observed a variety of negative implications from students’ own reliance on technology, e.g. anxiety and depression fueled by the fear of missing out (FOMO), poor impulse control, attention deficit, eroded self- esteem and awareness. This first led me back to Engaged Pedagogy (hooks’ teaching Trilogy), then further research on empathy erosion (Baron Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy), and ultimately the role of technology therein. That led me to MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, who has been using her interdisciplinary research for years to sound the alarm around our growing individual disconnectedness, alongside our growing mass tech-addiction.“Empathy cannot be performed,” she’s consistently said. Empathy can, however, be cultivated.
Commenting on a year of online education, Sherry Turkle recently appeared on one of the radio talk-shows I’ve been able to closely follow during Corona’s solitude. She reflects: “To make my students feel that I’m…making eye-contact, I have to look at the little green light at the top of the computer, which means I’m not looking at anything at all. So, in order to give the illusion of connection, I have to basically look at nothing…and that doesn’t give me a feeling of empathy, I’m performing. That’s a very empathy draining thing to be doing.”
It is draining. I continually try a range of tactics to get students to share in creating an engaging and worthwhile classroom, and periodically receive positive feedback from both colleagues and students. I urge them to see the power in more fully cultivating the human connection, in spite of this virtual reality. I also remind students that I don’t do lectures, but facilitate classroom discussions around appropriate, well-curated materials. Every so often, there are students who are easily attuned to this new working rhythm. Most struggle.
Reality. Virtuality. Fictionality.
Notably, our students here in Vietnam more easily cooperate with using their cameras and, perhaps subsequently, more actively engaging. My husband – who is teaching Vietnamese students online at this very moment – has suggested that this comes from the local cultural significance, and subsequent authority teachers hold here as compared to the west. He also believes that students here are more willing to be vulnerable. Turkle also affirms that: “We become accustomed to enjoying that lack of vulnerability by doing so much of our personal business and our business business hidden behind a screen.” The grey-silhouette is a like a superhero’s mask that displays invulnerability within that virtual world.
“You have reasons to not like Zoom,” Turkle continues, “… the better you are at Zoom, the less of a real connection you’re making.” In the face of much resistance, I try my best to hold steady to the idea that learning is social. While it remains true that facts can be studied, remembered and regurgitated on command – even met with great accolade – true understanding relies on the ability to think critically. “Thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life,” hooks says emphatically. Critical thinking relies on empathy. Empathy relies on human connection. In order to take best advantage of the virtual classroom, we must be about the business of creating the conditions and expectations for real human connectedness.