Notes from the Summer 2020 CLEs

Here we offer some of our thoughts that have followed from our first attempts at co-hosting these Co-Learning Encounters in Summer 2020. They are not exhaustive, of course, and we offer them as our reflections on our own process. We recognize that many of our own inherent biases remain in these notes, but we continue to strive to confront them. Here, we begin with our framing questions before providing any declarative sentences.

Kate Joranson and Alison Langmead


Questions for Continued Consideration

  • What does it mean to have a meaningful encounter? What does it mean to gather, online, and in-person?
  • How can we make an online experience a reflective experience?
  • How can we take advantage of the affordances of online/distance learning while acknowledging its shortcomings?
  • How do we measure meaningful experiences?
  • How can we cultivate relationships and meaningful discussion through asynchronous interactions, honoring both the need to be heard and the need to listen?
  • Recognizing that when developing online/distance course materials, accessibility is key, how can we challenge the ableist paradigm that is already embedded into art history and higher education more broadly?
  • How do I gauge whether I’m connecting with students? How do they connect with one another and with me? 
  • How do we produce an armature for our students to use as a context for interpreting later information?
  • How can we engage the body in online/distance learning? How can we help students reflect on the embodied aspects of learning?
  • How can we maximize unique or few-of-a-kind resources, such as those in the University Art Gallery and the Frick Fine Arts Library?
  • What makes this a key moment to re-assess our approaches to grading?
  • What does it mean to value object-based and experiential learning in an online/distance environment?
  • Recognizing that we may be grieving the loss of in-person lectures and having shared in-person experiences of images, how do we move through this grief? What will it take? What do we need?

On Emergency Remote Learning

  • It is a privilege to see the abrupt shift to emergency remote teaching as having transformational potential.
  • We must actively acknowledge that online/distance learning engages students and faculty in their domestic spaces, and recognize the dramatic mental shifts that this change of environment entails.
  • In times of trauma and stress, we may find ourselves taking refuge in those forms of learning with which we have logged the most hours or that were the foundations of our own formative educational experiences.
    • It is often, but not always, the case that this well-known, and seemingly safe, model of learning corresponds to what Paulo Freire describes as the banking model of education, or an extractive model in which the students are there solely to extract content from the teacher and, conversely, the teacher is solely there to impart pre-determined content to the students.
  • A pervasive sense of, and/or actual, surveillance can accompany the move to online teaching and can inhibit risk-taking, growth, and experimentation.
  • It is important to have open, honest communication about one’s capacity and current circumstances with colleagues, including teaching faculty, librarian faculty, curators, learning designers, and others who are engaged in teaching.
  • Know that you may feel a pervasive sense of being utterly overwhelmed by this foreign environment, but sooner or later, as you get your feet under you, you’ll learn the ropes. And when you do, you may find that you want to learn how to “break free/loose” from this condition, otherwise put—to hack your environment to suit your needs, rather than fitting yourself to its restrictions. We think it is important not to confuse “learning the ropes” with succumbing to the defaults of a system.

Liberatory Pedagogy 

  • The process of discovering how you teach best in the remote learning environment can be liberatory.
  • Working in the remote learning environment is challenging for everyone. Let this be an opportunity to practice open, generous, empathetic teaching. This has the potential to create space for students and instructors alike to take ownership over their own agency.
  • It is not the process of “translating” what you used to do in the classroom to an online space, it is the process of figuring out how to do this work all over again, only this time, “born digital,” as it were. You can take it as a chance to start again.
  • The banking model of teaching and learning run deep in both instructors and students. It can be liberating to release oneself from the habit of seeing instructors as responsible for depositing knowledge in students, and students as responsible for receiving this knowledge.
    • It can also be liberating to see the extent to which instructors and librarians are not resources to be mined for information. Education is not necessarily about extraction. It is necessarily about contribution and change.
  • Creating space for, and cultivating agency in oneself and one’s learning community is the work of co-learning. 
  • Libraries provide rich terrain for cultivating agency; librarians and library workers are guides and co-learners alongside faculty, staff, and students.
  • Librarians and library workers are accustomed to helping people when they are confused, curious, and/or not able to fully articulate their need. The work of responding, with intellect and affect, can be mutually liberatory.
  • Building a community of co-learners that includes individuals of different ranks and positions requires ongoing work of dismantling traditional hierarchies in higher ed.
  • Creating high-trust, low-stress interactions are key to inclusive teaching, both online and in-person.
  • Consider that setting strong but reasonable boundaries can be a crucial part of a generous, liberatory teaching practice. 
  • The human need to feel safe and heard is shared by children and adults alike. The literature on K-12 education offers significant insights and strategies into building responsive learning environments that can be applied to university teaching.

Synchronicity and Asynchronicity

  • It is critical to reconsider the roles and affordances of synchronous and asynchronous work when teaching in the remote learning environment.
  • Whereas in the classroom, much of our interactions might feel natural, in the remote learning environment “everything” seems much more intentional, even laborious. But in creating this intention, we can also see just how much went into the work that we might previously have assumed was so “natural.”
  • This change to a required remote learning environment allows–perhaps even requires–teachers to reflect on and articulate one’s perception of what makes synchronous time useful.
  • Synchronous time cannot be considered a basic “right” of the class. It is not possible to insist/assume that the students will all be able to assemble in the same “place” at the same time. Your students may be anywhere on the globe.
  • Because of this latter contingency, it is more-or-less necessary for all synchronous, full-class-focused interactions to be recorded (and made accessible via closed-captioning) for asynchronous viewing.
  • This also suggests that if you are not interested in engaging with the changes that will inevitably happen to your classroom community when your interactions are recorded, you must work doubly hard to ensure accessibility as well as human interaction in ways that do not require groups to assemble synchronously. Tutorial models, if feasible, may offer other modes of interaction of use.
  • Indeed, ensuring the accessibility of online course materials is challenging and time-consuming. Doing this work also sheds light on the lack of accessible options that we may have offered in the past.
    • Consider asking students “What works best for you in this environment?” rather than “What accommodations will you find necessary to take this course?”
    • Also note that the more complex the technologies you use, the more accessibility traps you actually uncover.
  • Building asynchronous relationships between and amongst students, instructors, and librarians is as important as building synchronous relationships.
  • Consider the difference between solitude, loneliness, and isolation in asynchronous work. The former has the possibility of being transformational, while the latter two can induce stress and trauma.
  • Meaningful synchronous interactions have always required asynchronous preparation, which may include reading, reflecting, and writing. It can be effective to call this out explicitly, and discuss the role of this introspective work. People may have a range of affective responses to this conversation.
  • We wonder: Do satisfying synchronous interactions actually prompt less sustained asynchronous discussion? Are satisfying synchronous interactions fulfilling enough that people don’t feel the need to participate in asynchronous discussions? Perhaps we can only process a limited amount of synch or asynch content/reflection in any given 24/48/72 hour period, and need space between either type of interaction?
  • Consider the role of questions posed by students, instructors, and librarians, and how these might be leveraged more consciously throughout synchronous and asynchronous work. The practice of centering open-ended questions can help create a generative learning environment.
  • Managing time, pace, and temporal experience are key to online/distance learning. Delays can be productive while an awareness of time and patience are worth modeling for students (Roberts, 2013)
  • Living one’s values when using video conferencing software deserves considerable attention. It is helpful to reflect on this periodically, and make changes accordingly. It can be helpful to practice techniques with trusted colleagues.
  • We found that discussion board prompts were most effective when they did one or more of the following:
    • Drew directly from synchronous discussion, providing an opportunity to continue to process. 
    • Engaged affective/emotional dimensions of subject matter.
    • Were open ended, offering multiple ways into the discussion.
    • Prompted further reflection on a difficult topic or interaction that emerged during synchronous time.
  • A number of times, the concept of “meditation” or “inward-looking” came up in our CLE, and we can’t help but wonder if the increased need to think through asynchronous learning is a part of this shift.

Experiential, Object-Focused Learning 

  • In these times, it seems key to maximize the unique or few-of-a-kind resources that are available to you. To engage with things that are precious is a gift and a privilege.
  • Working with objects is a pedagogical strategy that pushes very hard on the role(s) of asynchronous learning in the remote environment, demonstrating quickly the ways that synchronous learning just is not the same onsite and online. Do not be fooled into thinking that “Zoomtime” is anything like classtime. It is a bereft environment that serves its own purposes.
  • When mourning the loss of group discussions of in-person art objects and books, consider offering both synchronous and asynchronous slow/mindful looking activities, such as annotating digital images or responding to videos or photographs of art objects and books. 
  • Making digital experiences of rare books, archival material, and art objects takes considerable time, expertise, and coordination among different parts of the university. This work requires advanced planning and significant investment by all parties.
  • When considering object-based learning strategies, consider how asking students to make something is separate but related to asking them to reflect on making it. Allow time for both activities. 
  • Both instructors and students may mourn the loss of physical movement and opportunities to engage the body, especially with object-based learning. How can we engage the body in online/distance teaching and learning? Examples:
    • Consider inviting students to explore public/private spaces, providing prompts that allow for rural, suburban, and urban spaces, as well as quarantining.
    • Provide students measurements of real works of art, ask students to fill up or mark off this space in their home, neighborhood, etc. Consider alternate units of measurement if measuring tools are not available. 
    • The screen itself can be a material site to explore.
    • Support them in their own process of making, documenting, collecting. 
  • That it seems so challenging to tell if the students are engaged and connected to the course in the remote learning environment might also beg the question of how we were so sure they were engaged and connected during a traditional slide lecture. After all, just because you said it, doesn’t mean that they were listening and/or understood you.

Instructor Identity

  • Use this opportunity to perform some critical self-reflection not only on what it means to teach, but also what it means to learn. To learn is to change your mind, and only the learners can actually do that work. It is an act of personal agency to learn, and this effort can at best only be facilitated by instruction.
  • Finding one’s voice and identity as an online/distance/hybrid educator is a large part of the work here, and a key part of moving through the grief of losing human interactions in the educational environment. This can be messy work and requires a supportive community as well as more personal confidential relationships.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic may have pushed us all into the remote learning environment on an emergency basis, but it is generally considered to be true that the PhD students graduating today will be asked to teach online more frequently than in the past. It may even be, as one student suggested, “inescapable” that they will teach online in the future on a regular basis. Our students need support to become the teachers they want to be in this environment–even if, or especially because, it is not the environment we, ourselves, knew as students–and they need also to be given the authority to push back on remote learning strategies when they are used as a weapon against free thought.
  • We are all deeply engaged in face-to-face teaching and learning. We are committed to it being the way education is best experienced. That said, it might be worth considering scaling back any political expectations you might have about on teaching online. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to not only teach in the remote learning environment, but do it without a single misstep, political or pedagogical.
  • A lot of anxiety rests on the “first day,” but it is important to note that too much pressure can be placed on it! There is always time to change/rectify course (and your course!)
  • Please don’t over-privilege “firstness.” Instead, consider focusing on additiveness, iteration or repetition.
  • Consider that producing (even short) Panopto videos weekly might feel like “weekly Comps” for us all, but especially for graduate students.