Guiding Questions for Hosting Your Own CLE

Decorative fencing

Should you find yourself interested in creating a Co-Learning Encounter of your own devising, we offer the following guiding questions:

  • What needs are you noticing in your community that prompt you to consider leading a Co-Learning Encounter? Are your community members aware of and able to articulate these needs?
  • With whom could you collaborate in co-leading this? Who has qualities, skills, sensitivities, etc… that would complement your own? Is there mutual respect between you?
  • How many hours/day, or hours/week, does your community have to pay active attention to this work?
    • Consider both synchronous and asynchronous time commitments in this estimate. We have found that the amount of asynchronous interaction a community has to offer decreases with the amount of synchronous interaction expected.
  • How will you prepare yourself for being the “one in charge” without being the “one with all the knowledge?” Visualize yourself actively asserting this with your community over and over and with compassion.

Reading Postures, or the Strategic Fixations

Decorative Winter Tree

For a number of years, I (Alison) had the pleasure to work in close collaboration with a colleague, B.B., who introduced me to many expansive modes of thinking about teaching and research in our time together. Almost none has been so persistent for me as the pedagogical technique offered as the “Strategic Fixations.” I adore this title, as opaque as it might be at first blush. For me, it focuses attention on the fact that academics, especially, but not exclusively, humanists, are taught to read by their mentors in particular ways—ways that are often fixed, even appearing as fixations, but strategic ones, indeed. This state of affairs is rarely externalized or discussed.

These five Strategic Fixations serve as just such a proactive externalization of these assumed reading postures, creating well-defined roles out of a few of them so that students can try them on intentionally—the comfortable ones and the uncomfortable ones alike.

There are, of course, many more strategic fixations that could be identified, but these five are the originals, and I find them impactful. Many students and colleagues have also found them useful over the past seven years.

In my descriptions, I will attempt to steer clear of assuming that you are using these solely in the context of “reading written texts,” but instead may be engaging with moving or still images, recorded sound, actively-functioning software systems, or other modes of communication. I will use the word “content” to suggest all of these modalities, as well as many more that I neither have listed nor am currently imagining.

  • The Architect
    • When engaging with content as “the architect,” you are asked to strategically fixate on how the author/creator has structured their work. 
    • What are the overall patterns of language, sound, or imagery that the creator used? By what structural means is the creator guiding you to make sense of the content of the piece (if any!)?  For example, if an essay, how do the paragraphs work together. As another, what role does time serve in time-based media?
  • The Champion
    • When engaging with content as “the champion,” you are asked to strategically fixate on how the work is good, effective, and/or just right.  
    • This can be spun in any salient terms that make sense to the person engaging with the work.
  • The Critic
    • When engaging with content as “the critic,” you are asked to strategically fixate on how the work is bad, ineffective and/or off-the-mark 
    • This can be spun in any salient terms that make sense to the person engaging with the work.
  • The Instructor
    • When engaging with content as “the lecturer,” you are asked to strategically fixate on how the work might best be taught 
    • This can be spun in any salient terms that make sense to the person engaging with the work.
  • The Rover
    • When engaging with content as “the rover,” you are asked to strategically fixate on free association with your own thoughts.  
    • From this point of view, the content under consideration is but a springboard to other ideas and concepts.

Living Shared Group Practices

Decorative Cabbage

Below is a list of shared group practices that we have gathered together during our experiences hosting co-learning encounters and similar community spaces. It is in no way a definitive, or even fixed, list of such practices. We offer it here as an opening to a conversation, perhaps, or as a set of possibilities.

  • Within this community, we will strive to openly share our own ideas, thoughts, and concerns, with our names attached to them.
    • The ideas produced in this community will only leave with the express permission of the participants.
  • As a community of learners, discomfort may be a part of this work. As a group, we would like to respond to this by actively working to recognize it and acknowledge it.
  • Be goal oriented, but be open to the many ways that our goals may be realized.
  • Sincerity is something to strive for, because many of us are figuring this out for the first time. We will make space for things that may seem obvious to some, and may not be to others.
  • We all know something (none of us knows everything); together we know a lot.
    • Indeed, we can’t be sure that any of us knows any one thing in particular!
  • Tolerance is key. It is easy to make mistakes, and making mistakes is OK.
    • Looking for the best solution for our current situation will be difficult, and we acknowledge that we will need to be open about our successes and struggles equally.
    • Indeed, there are more than just mistakes that give us discomfort, there are insecurities as well and they need a space in our conversation.
  • We acknowledge that we are at different stages of our careers and that we have different connections to power. We will actively recognize and work against these dynamics.
  • It is the responsibility of those community members who use the “green check mark” to keep their follow-ons very brief.
  • We try to cultivate generosity as we read, interpret, and discuss. We acknowledge this approach may require deliberate attention and practice. 
  • The convenors will be the last to leave the Zoom meeting. It is the responsibility of community members to be respectful of their time and not keep them there too long!

About this Collaboration

Decorative Image

These Co-Learning Encounters (CLEs) have arisen out of a longer-standing collaboration between Kate Joranson and Alison Langmead that focuses on the exploration and propagation of the critical importance of meta-cognitive expression in academia, as well as the fruitful intersection(s) of library work, art practices, and the digital humanities.

For this project, Alison was the initial instigator of the idea, having had a strong desire to help her workplace community remain connected and better able to negotiate the transition to digital communications in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis. She also wanted to think through for herself her own relationship to digital technologies as modes of education and communication, having so often being considered (inaccurately) as the source of “all things digital” in her role as Principal Contact for the digital humanities initiative on her campus. To know more about digital technologies is not always to love them better.

To this project, Kate brought her broad experience convening communities of people around topics of high emotional and meta-cognitive import. As an artist, librarian, and educator, she cultivates creative modes of discovery through collaborative projects and dialogues. She has an ongoing practice of collecting and centering questions in her work, and wanted to think through what it would mean to continue this practice amidst such uncertain times. As an art librarian, she is committed to providing opportunities for people to deepen and extend learning through sensory engagement with physical books and rare materials, and wanted to consider what sensory engagement could look like in a hybrid or completely online teaching and learning environment.

Both of us contributed equally to the asynchronous content found in these Co-Learning Encounters, and we collaborated directly, on an ongoing basis, on the nature and shape of the requested outcomes and persistent work of these CLEs. During the CLEs themselves, we met almost daily to discuss how we should personalize and transform each synchronous meeting to meet the needs of the communities as they were experiencing their ongoing process of formation, and also to talk about what was working from our point of view and what needed to be changed to meet our own expectations of ourselves and our carework.

Finally, but not least consequentially, these CLEs were shaped by the participating co-learners during Summer 2020.

Inclusive Goals and Strategies for Co-Learning Using Video Conferencing

Iridescent Coffee Cup (decorative)

Here, we simply offer some of our thoughts on video conferencing as a medium, focusing on three topics:

Kate Joranson and Alison Langmead

On creating an environment that encourages sharing ideas as well as listening

  • Greet everyone upon entry to the co-learning encounter, whether there are side conversations happening or there is silence.
    • Acknowledging the physical presence of the co-learners early in your time together can help them feel valued, more ready to share ideas, and see themselves as part of the co-learning community.
  • Share the plan or agenda at the beginning of the co-learning encounter, letting everyone know when there will be opportunities to participate, and what the expectations are for this. Invite them to suggest changes. 
    • This is important, even among colleagues who perceive themselves as equals. People appreciate knowing what will happen next, and can mentally prepare accordingly. Moreover, inviting them to suggest changes starts to build shared ownership of the co-learning experience.
  • Share your expectations for, or have a discussion about, group expectations for using the chat feature. For example: Are we all comfortable using this feature as a place for side conversations and sharing resources? 
    • Using the chat for such side conversations can provide people with alternative ways of connecting with one another, acknowledging one another’s comments, asking follow-up questions, and pursuing multiple conversation threads. 
    • Chat also can allow people to take up small amounts of space in the discussion when that feels appropriate to them.
    • Because video conferencing does not make an effective space for simultaneous sound from multiple participants, spontaneous utterances of affirmation, confusion, joy, etc. are lost. Chat can provide a place for people to share these affective responses, especially if that is a shared practice of the group.
    • Chat can also be overwhelming to some; an unwelcome extra demand on their already-strapped attention.
  • Because video conferencing is not real life, we lose a lot of the social cues about when it is our turn to speak. One of the most fundamental components of our own CLE environment, therefore, is how we navigate this fundamentally disruptive change in human communication strategies. The following example uses features particular to Zoom, but we anticipate modifications can be made to suit your own environment.
    • Co-learners are not invited to speak without signaling in advance their desire to do so.
    • We ask that co-learners raise their virtual blue hand when they would like to offer a new comment, or if they would like to take the conversation in a different direction from where it is at the moment.
    • We ask that they use the green “yes” check mark when they would like to add on briefly or follow up on what is being said. By signaling with the green check mark, we note that the co-learners are committing to keeping their comments brief and directly related. 
    • The host(s) of the convening are in charge of keeping track of the list of co-learners who have asked for the floor, and their reasons for so asking (that is, new subject or follow-up). We have found it best for the host to both verbally announce the current speaking queue, as well as to maintain an updated list in the chat for reference.
  • Our “raise hand/check mark” system is designed to make more visible modes of human interactive communication that are obfuscated or destroyed by videoconferencing, but it also has numerous other ramifications, both intentional and, we are sure, unintentional.
    • The system can help people speak who might not feel comfortable jumping in, whether online or face-to-face.
    • This system can help the group, especially those who speak frequently, to feel assured of their time to speak, and can allow them to better listen to their colleagues while waiting “in line” to speak.
    • This system prompts people to use metacognitive communication skills. Before they speak, they need to decide whether their comment is taking the conversation in a new direction or not, and whether their comment is brief or lengthy. 
    • Crucially, this system also requires that everyone, especially those accustomed to speaking whenever they wish, take turns speaking and listening.
  • We wish to emphasize that the “raise hand/check mark” system requires a lot of attention and care work on the part of any host, and if possible, it is ideal to have co-hosts who maintain the community’s work together: one monitoring the participation pane and the chat conversation, one actively engaging in the conversation.
  • We find that, even for groups that know one another well, if there are more than six participants, the “raise hand/check mark” system becomes important for maintaining equity, and it is the job of the host to ensure that the system is in place.

On our public and private selves

  • Invite people to hide their self-view. Express to the group that self-monitoring can contribute to video conferencing fatigue. Some may not know this, and others may simply appreciate hearing it as they feel it. 
  • Acknowledge that we are engaging with one another in an online space, but also in one another’s domestic spaces.
  • While keeping video on is important for community cohesion, encourage people to turn off their video if it will help them participate, due to privacy concerns, caregiving responsibilities, etc. Acknowledge also that others in the group may feel a sense of loss or unease without the visual feedback of facial expressions.

On cultivating unstructured communication: small group discussion and “hallway chats”

  • When possible, the hosts should make efforts to let the co-learners know that they will remain in the video conference for a while after the meeting has ended, and welcome others to stay and chat or ask questions. 
  • As mentioned above, consider encouraging the use of the written chat feature for side conversations. 
  • Break-out rooms can provide an alternative, less structured space for discussion, with no direct need for a host or hand raising and check marks, that is, unless the smaller group wishes to continue that work.
    • Open-ended, small group conversations provide opportunities to support the social-cognitive dimensions of learning. 
    • Note that it can be disruptive for the hosts to pop in and out of breakout rooms. It is better for them to join in as co-learners in one group.
    • Because of this disruptiveness, when using breakout rooms, it is especially important for the hosts to articulate any prompts for conversation clearly, since they will most likely not be able to visit/participate in all of the small groups.
    • Ask the participants for feedback on the prompts both before and after the breakout sessions.
  • Transitioning from breakout rooms back to the large group can be awkward – we postulate that this is, in part, because of a shift in the level of intimacy required.
    • Some might also (mistakenly) feel that their ideas should not take up the small amount of synchronous time we have.
    • Yet others may need to be prompted to remember that, what may feel like repetitive reporting out to them, can in fact be quite generative for others who did not participate in their particular small group.

Notes from the Summer 2020 CLEs

City Circuit (decorative)

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.