Provocation: On More Modest Grief

“The most successful students we spoke with saw themselves as active constructors of and participants in their own academic taskscapes.”

Smale and Regalado, Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier in Higher Education

The work of Smale and Regalado predates COVID. Yet, in this week that marks a year since life moved online, their work feels relevant as a spark for reflecting on how we teachers did, and what we do next. What’s our takeaway a year into this confrontation of an urgent, terrifying crisis? What have we learned over the course of a yearlong series of heartbreaking tradeoffs?

The relevance of last week’s quote to this week’s reading is clear enough to me: Institutions and their educational technologies of choice rarely imagine students as “participants” or “constructors” of taskscapes, but consumers.

Once or twice in the last twelve months, I suspect you’ve encountered (or embodied) this through the figure of a less-than-agile participant in “emergency remote teaching” (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, Bond). Those of us teaching in those early days recognized quickly—and hopefully reminded ourselves, kindly and often—that the “triage” nature of this shift “exclude[d] the possibility of excellence” (Young). As we might discuss in class, educational technology sometimes had a role in that exclusion, too.

So that’s a hot take on a thread connecting these readings to our last set. One thread within the readings I’d like to underscore is about grief. COVID, for its ghastly death toll, has also created countless “missing” everyday moments, more modest griefs: a professor missing the way physical heads nodding along (or not) to a lesson shaped her teaching for the better (McMurtrie); a student who has realized how “[b]asketball really helped my depression, and I can’t play it now” (Ferlazzo); the City College campus counselor forced to fit into one, weekly 30-minute Zoom call the essential check-ins with colleagues that happened between appointments over five days in 90-second increments (Ayisire). Those losses are real—”minor feelings” are feelings nonetheless—and grieving the fact that certain experiences may never come back will take the candid work of a whole campus, and the meaningful participation of the communities beyond its gates. 

Taskscapes; trauma; care; equity. Throw in “uncertainty” and that gives us about the range of topics that any talk about teaching in this time entails. Below are some questions along those lines, which draw on these readings to process what has been, to recall what was before, to think about what could be—and to start articulating what we might use this new wisdom to fight to achieve. 

  • How can instructors (and, by extension, departments and institutions) fairly assess and equitably ameliorate “learning loss”? What’s a way to balance what really didn’t get learned  with honest recognition of the deep trauma of our COVID year (Ciep, Ellis, Gluckman)? 
  • Related: What structures and practices can center student experiences and voices (c.f. Ferzallo) in determining the balance of intellectual and emotional loss in the administrative process of assessment and the pedagogical process of its (partial) amelioration? And how can instructors using care-based, trauma-informed methods also make space for students who, legitimately, just want to move on, catch up, and get on with things?
  • What’s the role of technology, particularly “enterprise” solutions, in short-term or even one-time fixes (ie: access to course content via a smartphone, or holding an office hour over Zoom)? How do/did/will individual instructors, departments, and institutions balance the benefit of these convenient but corporate tools (looking at you, Google Drive) in supporting “valuable human relationships—relationships necessary for child development” (Watters)? 
  • Related: In your field, what tools are less focused on “watching, monitoring, and controlling” and more focused on deepening those relationships and extending the relational into a content area–an intellectual tradition and its ways of making knowledge or a professional field and its ethics and practices? 
  • Many, many P-12 students will arrive at CUNY campuses with existing digital literacy around “enterprise technology.” To what extent is an explicit conversation about data privacy, affordances, design, and epistemology appropriate to be part of the college students’ general digital literacy education? How can this be done without discounting the value of that literacy?
  • What are the “affordances” of the extended look into P-12 classrooms that families, especially Black families, have gotten into the minute-by-minute pedagogy of their children’s lives? If the cinder block buildings with un-opening windows that typify public school construction felt unsafe physically (as Farah Despeignes suggests) and if “many Black parents still see the education system as punitive” (Shapiro, Green, Kim, emphasis mine), then how can the thoughtful critiques of engaged, observant parents reshape that learning in a participatory way? (I emphasize her ‘still’ to note that inequities go way back in the NYC schools; see Nice White Parents, etc). What are the mechanisms for communities to be involved in such technology centered school reforms, and what role might colleges like CUNY have in supporting it?
    • Related, but speculative: Speaking recently with the Times’ Ezra Klein, the surgeon general of California Dr. Nadine Burke Harris noted that COVID has caused directly or indirectly  level of childhood trauma difficult to quantify but certain to impact this generation for years to come: shaping social interaction, affecting long-term, health, shortening life spans. Given that: How do college instructors consider this interruption on childhood development in the adults these children become? 
  • Bonus: The “heir conditioner” (B. F. Skinner Qtd in Watters). No question here, just…discuss. 

Note/Nudge/Poke/Plea: I really like blogs as conversation starters so I purposely kept this as short as I could. (I know, it’s not that short. Short for an English doctoral student though?)  I also posted it as soon as I felt like it was ready to go. (Paul Hollywood might still call it underbaked). Anyway, I’d love to hear short replies back from people any time on Sunday. Even 200 of your lovely words will feel to me like I am basking in warm sunshine! A paragraph? Didn’t Strunk & White call the paragraph is the basic unit of composition? (Spoiler: They did). Seriously, I’m excited to see y’all (hey Texas!) respond to literally whatever in this you find, uh, provocative.

Provocation: Academic Taskscapes, Learning Ecologies, and the Pandemic

I’d like to begin my provocation by framing the material conditions of digital technology against the backdrop of remote learning during the pandemic, specifically in reference to Smale’s and Regalado’s Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier in Higher Education. In particular, I think it’s important for us to consider how the shutdown of CUNY’s physical infrastructure has forced students to create new “taskscapes” for themselves as part of their remote learning, presumably repurposing domestic spaces into sites of technological access and academic coursework. Since these challenges are heightened for CUNY students, who must frequently navigate the close quarters and socioeconomic conditions of NYC living, I’d urge us to unpack the complexities of domestic taskscapes in terms of how “multiple actors may be simultaneously engaged in creating different kinds of meaningful spaces in the same place, creating the possibility of conflict over who can define how space in particular locations is used” (15). What’s especially striking to me about this perspective involves how students must juggle their academic and domestic identities in ways that restrict not only their technological access and sense of focus but also their authentic means of participating in academic coursework.

I wonder, for instance, about students who might feel disincentivized from bringing their full selves to in-class work for fear of how their contributions might overlap with their domestic relationships. These concerns come to a head when students hesitate to air sensitive content in class discussion due to their close proximity with surrounding homelife. I encountered precisely this issue when tasking my students with a literacy narrative assignment in which they were to narrate their experience acclimating to the conventions of a given discourse community; and one of my students expressed interest in writing about their encounters with the LGBTQ+ community despite having yet to come out to their parents. Knowing that others were also planning on discussing sensitive content in their literacy narratives, I tried to better support student discretion by altering the peer-review context for the assignment from small-group discussion to asynchronous writing. But this experience was a wake-up call for me – one that I try to bear in mind each time I sit down to design lesson plans and homework assignments that might hypothetically invite delicate lines of inquiry and/or self-reflection from my students.

Given the constraints of remote learning in how students navigate domestic spaces to create academic taskscapes for themselves, I’d also like to highlight the value of using digital technology to foster multiple points of entry for class participation, often in ways that expand beyond large-group verbal discussion. On the one hand, as John Warner discusses, the so-called customized learning of adaptive software clearly stands at odds with this move to agile learning ecologies, serving instead to enclose students within a banking model of education bent on standardized modes of trial-and-error memorization. On the other hand, as Ugoretz writes, productive digression in discussion forums (and surely elsewhere) may “facilitate a process whereby students may make new and original connections arising from their own thinking and discovery processes” (2). Importantly, productive digression also invigorates the sort of interest-driven learning that runs parallel to responsive teaching, enabling a fluid mode of instruction that accords itself with the emergent needs and preferences of our students throughout the semester.

I feel strongly about the prospect of designing agile learning ecologies with the digital technology of our remote classes, if only because the domestic barriers of taskscapes are largely unknown to us as instructors, yet greatly encroach upon the academic coursework of our students. I would therefore encourage each of us to negotiate this discussion so as to better understand the current taskscapes of students during the pandemic, while also imagining new pathways to knowledge and participation in how we facilitate learning in both online and in-person contexts. For the most part, the technological barriers of remote education do not spring forth entirely novel obstacles in our teaching and learning practices; rather, these barriers intensify our awareness of preexisting difficulties in how we as educators afford our students meaningful learning experiences via digital technology. Accordingly, I feel as though we might devote discussion time to determining which ways the pandemic may bring to light otherwise invisible barriers related to our students’ use of technology as part of their newly formed taskscapes.