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@SchoolOnScreen #BlackenAsianWithLove

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 homestorming 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.

iHumanize

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.

iEmpathize

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 phonewhich 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 controlattention deficiteroded 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. 

FOMO fear of missing out.

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.

Happiness is, happiness ain’t. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Outside of ecumenical discussions, far too little is said about the subject of happiness. This is a drawback of western secularism, as discussed below. In the world of work, Occupational Health and Leadership have taken up this mantle, yet still only manage to approximate happiness through measurable factors that contribute to increasing satisfaction and decreasing dissatisfaction (i.e. Herzberg’s 2-Factor Theory). Taking Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into greater account, that understanding eventually incorporated terms such as wellbeing. Yet, again, outside of ‘continuing professional development’ aimed at improving workplace efficiency and effectiveness, far too few resources seem devoted to higher needs such as belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.

Maslow

Those management terms all circle back to mindfulness, to personal empathy and the ability of both the individual and environment to foster dialogue in order to transform conflict. Be it conflicts or differences in needs/wants between co-workers – or across the bargaining table – the ability to communicate and find common ground is increasingly the skill that distinguishes human talents from Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Now, at least, there is a greater focus on developing so-called ‘soft skills’.  This trend responds to our failure to contend with an increasing reliance on, and addiction to technology. What’s more, still, as technology increasingly supplants entire portfolios of routine management duties, how will future workplaces valorise empathy within known matrices?

How do we teach students the value of happiness, the practice of compassion and the skills for effective communication, negotiation and conflict resolution? In so far as leading culturally diverse workforces, the research is as clear as a prayer bell: Innovation requires dialogue – actual talk between equals. Innovation is therefore built on collaboration. Collaboration requires cooperation. Cooperation requires commitment. Commitment cultivates inclusion. Inclusion fosters commitment. Commitment depends on trust-building. Trust-building requires dialogue. Cooperation must be practiced and rehearsed, in addition to celebrated and applauded. We are effectively teaching how to work within a community. Those tools must play the greater part of management toolkit, over and well-over more punitive means of enforcing compliance to rules.

“I’m not here to be your friend.”

Those are words I hope no one would ever hear neither in the classroom from educators, nor in the workplace from managers. It implies the speaker’s inability to distinguish friendliness from being friends. It is indeed a thin line. Social media interactions with colleagues have virtually erased that line – at least re-drawn it. Irregardless – as we say in Kentucky for emphasis – kindness matters! I genuinely pity those who have not learned kindness at home or school; it’s traumatic.

In order to collaborate, to genuinely work together, requires some level of friendliness, beyond cordiality. It is irrational to lead through control and project the image of being in control through distant, dispassionate unfriendliness. BTW, the notion of dispassionate rationality and objectivity have been historically valorized academia even when it was clear.

I would not be the first university student to observe (though lacking the skills to explain): “The professors who prided themselves on their capacity to be objective were most often those who were directly affirmed in their caste, class, or status position” (hooks, 2003: 128). Their inability to connect, acknowledge and come to peace with their own emotionality and spirituality. “At times objectivism in academic settings is a smokescreen, masking disassociation (ibid: 129). Objectivity is a crutch:

“Denying the emotional presence and wholeness of students may help professors who are unable to connect focus more on the task of sharing information, facts, data, their interpretations, with no regard for listening to and hearing from students. (ibid: 129).” 

The smoke and mirrors masks a pain so cutting so deep that skilled educators carve it out of their work, and further discourage it in peers and students. Sadly, I believe that managers have been taught to operate under the same logic. Hurt people hurt people.

Hurt people hurt people.

Today, we’re better able to acknowledge the maturity needed to reveal both one’s strengths and weaknesses – including with subordinates. The key skill is emotional flexibility and consequentially, the ability to seek and offer support. Failing to do so reduces opportunities for team members’ whole-hearted contributions of knowledge and skills. While it is still professional to keep some amount of distance between one’s private and personal lives, social media is a typical example of how those norms no longer apply. Yeah, it’s weird if you’re not Facebook friends with at least some of your colleagues.

What are responsible ways to use one’s public image that aligns with our own personal ambitions and goals? This was simply NOT an area of thinking in the classroom prior to social media. Yet, ‘bullying’ is a relatively modern concept brought to light by the LGBTQ community response to the suicide of a university student as a result of cyber-bullying because he was gay.Itgetsbetter

In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a first-year university student in America, was secretly filmed being intimate with another man by his roommate and a mutual friend, (or so he believed). The two colluded to threaten to out Clementi in what they all knew as a homophobic (university) environment. This resulted in Clementi’s suicide. Imagine such blackmail, bullying and harassment at work! What skills should the educational environments have provided Tyler and his roommates?

The response from the queer community was clear: Hope. For example, activist/journalist Dan Savage launched an internet campaign that encouraged LGBTQ+ youth, which was picked up by mainstream media outlets and entertainment. The #ItGetsBetter campaign quickly amasses hundreds of posts by celebrities of all flavors to combat anti-gay bullying. Things did get better. We put bullying on the map! Be it work or school, bullying is no longer tolerated…at least formally.

Yet, what of genuine happiness, not just survival? While I can’t speak for every faith, the notion of happiness if central to Buddhist philosophy. “The gratification of desire is not happiness,” writes Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda in his 2017 essay collection, Hope is a Decision. What’s more, individual happiness is tied to our interconnectivity. The Soka Gaikkai, a global Buddhist organisation mentored by Ikeda, operates under the slogan “World peace through individual happiness” to acknowledge the interconnectivity of both humanity as a whole, and the place of happiness with the broader objective of peace.

Seen one way, happiness is neatly balanced at the tip of the pyramid of needs, and its inverse: wants and desires. For clarity: While adults may scoff when a teenager says they “need” the latest iPhone or they’ll ‘die’ we responsibly know that those youthful aches and pains are as real to them as any physical trauma one might suffer. We know that showing up at school with the latest cool gadget has as much to do with the higher-order needs for them as we may wish them to perceive their basic needs such as food, shelter and security. Hence, the parenting task becomes one of teaching skills to contextualise such desires and value delayed gratification.

These lessons are too often relegated to parenting due to the secularisation of schooling and workplaces in the west. Western secularism often fails to distinguish religion from spirituality, to the detriment of the latter since we remain staunchly Christian societies, especially to the extent of chauvinism when faced with an ‘other’. Any non-Christian in the west can see the secularism is superficial – even Stevie Wonder can see that. Echoing her own call for greater attention to spirituality in secular education bell hooks quotes HH Dalai Lama’s thoughts in the need for the distinction in the second installment of her seminal teaching trilogy:

hooks-hopeSpirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit—such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony—which brings happiness to both self and others.  … (hooks, ‘Spirituality in Education’ in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, 2003 pg. 157-164)

Makes place in and around the classroom. As a lecturer, I am a coach, guide, mentor, leader and have even befriended students (particularly after their graduations). One primary aim and source of satisfaction in the classroom is facilitating values-based dialogue across differences in perspectives. My role is not just to dump selective parts of my knowledge into students’ heads, nor simply to train certain skills. Nay, we’re always teaching how to live in a diverse community.

 

To get more in-formation:

100% of the emotional labour, 0% of the emotional reward: #BlackenAsiawithLove

Last night over dinner and drinks, I spoke about race in the classroom with two white, upper-middle-class gay educators. Neither seemed (able) to make any discernable effort to understand any perspective outside their own. I had to do 100% of the emotional labour, and got 0% of the emotional reward. It was very sad how they went on the attack, using both passive and active aggression, yet had the nerve to dismiss my words as ‘victimhood discourse’. This is exactly why folks write books, articles, and blogs like ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’.

Worse, they both had experienced homophobia in the classroom, at the hands of both students and parents. Nonetheless, they had no ability to contribute to the emotional labour taking place as we spoke about race. Even worse, the one in charge of other educators had only 24 hours earlier performed the classic micro-aggression against me: The brown blur. He walked right past me at our initial meeting as I extended my hand introducing myself while mentioning the mutual friend who’d connected us because, as he said, he was “expecting” to see a white face. He was the one to raise that incident, yet literally threw his hands in the air, nodding his head dismissively as he refused any responsibility for the potential harm caused.

“I’m an adult,” I pled, explaining the difference between me facing those sorts of aggressions, versus the young people we all educate. This all fell on deaf ears. Even worse still, he’d only moments earlier asked me to help him understand why the only Black kid in one of his classes called himself a “real nigger.” Before that, he had asked me to comment on removing the N-word from historical texts used in the classroom, similar to the 2011 debate about erasing the N-word and “injun” from Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884. According to the Guardian, nigger is “surely the most inflammatory word in the English language,” and “appears 219 times in Twain’s book.”

Again, he rejected my explanations as “victimhood.” He even kept boasting about his own colorblindness – a true red flag! Why ask if you cannot be bothered to listen to the answer, I thought bafflingly? Even worse, rather than simply stay silent – which would have been bad enough – the other educator literally said to him “This is why I don’t get involved in such discussions with him.” They accused me of making race an issue with my students, insisting that their own learning environments were free of racism, sexism and homophobia.

They effectively closed ranks. They asserted the privilege of NOT doing any of the emotional labour of deep listening. Neither seemed capable of demonstrating understanding for the (potential) harm done when they dismiss the experiences of others, particularly given our differing corporealities. I thought of the “Get Out” scene in the eponymously named film.

“Do you have any Black teachers on your staff,” I asked knowing the answer. OK, I might have said that sarcastically. Yet, it was clear that there were no Black adults in his life with whom he could pose such questions; he was essentially calling upon me to answer his litany of ‘race’ questions.

Armed with mindfulness, I was able to get them both to express how their own corporeality impacts their classroom work. For example, one of the educators had come out to his middle-school students when confronted by their snickers when discussing a gay character in a textbook. “You have to come out,” I said, whereas I walk in the classroom Black.” Further still, they both fell silent when I pointed out that unlike either of them, my hips swing like a pendulum when I walk into the classroom. Many LGBTQ+ people are not ‘straight-acting’ i.e. appear heteronormative, as did these two. They lacked self-awareness of their own privilege and didn’t have any tools to comprehend intersectionality; this discussion clearly placed them on the defense.

I say, 100% of the emotional labour and none of the emotional reward, yet this is actually untrue. I bear the fruits of my own mindfulness readings. I see that I suffer less in those instances than previously. I rest in the comfort that though understanding didn’t come in that moment, future dialogue is still possible. As bell hooks says on the first page in the first chapter of her groundbreaking book Killing Rage: Ending Racism: “…the vast majority of black folks who are subjected daily to forms of racial harassment have accepted this as one of the social conditions of our life in white supremacist patriarchy that we cannot change. This acceptance is a form of complicity.” I accept that it was my decision to talk to these white people about race.

I reminded myself that I had foreseen the micro-aggression that he had committed the previous day when we first met. A mutual friend had hooked us up online upon his visit to this city in which we now live. I doubted that she’d mentioned my blackness. Nonetheless, I had taken the chance of being the first to greet our guest, realizing that I am in a much safer space both in terms of my own mindfulness, as well as the privilege I had asserted in coming to live here in Hanoi; I came here precisely because I face such aggression so irregularly in Vietnam that these incidents genuinely stand out.

Works mentioned:

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2018). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hanh, T. (2013). The Art of Communicating. New York: HarperOne.

hooks, b. (1995). Killing rage: Ending racism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

 

“Στον πατέρα μου χρωστώ το ζην, στον δάσκαλό μου το ευ ζειν” To my father I owe living, to my teacher I owe my wellbeing (Alexander the Great)

Alexander1256

I remember this phrase from school, among with other ones about the importance of education in life.  Since then there have been several years but education is something that we carry with us and as such we take little memories of knowledge like pieces of a gigantic jigsaw that is our lives and put them together.  Experience is that glue that makes each piece of knowledge to stick at the right time whenever you want to find the words or feelings to express the world around us. Education plays such an immense part in this process because it give us these words that explain our world a little more clearly, precisely, deeply

This phrase had great resonance with me as I have never known my father and therefore I had no obvious person to relate this to or to have a way to express gratitude for living to anyone (obviously from my paternal family branch).  So for a very long time, I immerse myself in education. Teachers in and out of the classroom, living or dead, have left a trail of knowledge with me that defined me, shaped my thoughts and forge some intense memories that is now is my turn to share with my students.

Education has been my refuge, my friend  and a place of great discovery. Knowledge has that power to subvert injustice and challenge ignorance.  Arguably education comes in different guises and a formal school curriculum sometimes restricts the student into normatives of performance that relegates knowledge into bitesize information, easily digestible and reproduced. The question, of a fellow student of mine who asked, “sir, why do I need algebra?”  could have only be met from the bemused teacher’s response…”for your education”! Maybe I am romanticizing my own education and potentially forget that formal compulsory education is always challenging and challenged because of the purpose it is called to play.

Maybe this is why, what I consider of value in education, I have always attributed to my own journey, things that I read without being in any curriculum, or discussions I had with my teachers that took us away from the strict requirements of a lesson plan.  The greatest journey in education can start with one of the most basic of observations, situations, words that lead to an entire discussion on many complex ideas, theories and perspectives. These journeys were and are the most rewarding because you realise that behind a question is the accumulated human curiosity spanning the entire history of life.

One of the greatest places for anyone to quench this thirst for learning is the University. In and out of the classroom knowledge is there, ready to become part of a learners’ experience.  It is not bestowed in the latest gadget or the most recent software and other gimmicky apparatus but in the willingness to dwell into knowledge, whether it is reading late in the library or having a conversation with fellow students or a tutor (under a tree as one of my students, once professed).  Perhaps my trust in education is hyperbolic even obstinate but as I see it, those of us who have the choice, can choose to live or to live well. For the first, we can carry on existing, but for the latter the journey of knowledge is neither a short one nor one that comes easy but at least it will be rewarding.

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