Humanizing Practices in a Time of Dehumanization

I have been wanting to write, but things have been so hectic.  There has been so much doing in the last 2 weeks, as the spread COVID-19 has become a global pandemic, causing schools and cities to shut down globally and many universities across the United States, in the last week, to move instruction to alternative formats; causing many of us, as individuals, to reconsider what is “necessary” in terms of large gatherings and travel; causing many of us with privilege to recognize how fragile that privilege can be in moments of crisis.

There are so many things I’ve been thinking about in this last two weeks: the rise in xenophobia and racism against Asians and Asian Americans, particularly those of Chinese descent; the way this crisis highlights the vulnerabilities in our society — who deserves protection during this time v. who deserves protection when there isn’t a global health crisis, and why this is different; the importance of solidarity when thinking about people in the disabled community who, for years, have been told the type of accommodations that are now expected in the matter of hours are too hard or too expensive; digital equity issues of moving instruction online.

But, what it all keeps coming back to for me, is humanization in a time of dehumanization.

Yesterday, I was facilitating a professional learning session with teachers at a local school district when my university sent notice that classes were being canceled from Thursday (today) – Tuesday and that instruction would be moved to “alternative formats” until April 20.

I had been waiting for a message like this, but the timing and nature of this particular message, was challenging.  I had a class scheduled for 4pm that afternoon.  I am in regular communication with my students so as of Monday (two days previous), I had told students that our in person meeting was on, given my reasons (human–wanting to be together in community; pedagogical–wanting them to be able to engage with the teaching strategies in real time in a way that is hard to replicate online; and logistical–wanting to brief them on our lesson plan assignment and set them up for online learning which we had scheduled for next week anyways, given a conference that I was supposed to attend). But, I had also opened the e-mail up to them to let me know if they were more comfortable with an online, or alternative format, that it was available and they were welcome to exercise that option.

Between Monday and Wednesday, all university travel was suspended, and a conference that had been on was canceled. I also experienced a personal shift in my positioning towards this public health issue.  I began to think about the contact that I have and that my students have with more vulnerable communities. As my husband’s campus also moved instruction online, I began to think about academic staff who are continuing to work despite classes being closed.  I began thinking, through my own faith-based lens about how we protect the most vulnerable in our communities during a public health crisis and what is necessary.

So, flashback to yesterday, I immediately sent a message to my students to move instruction to online for that afternoon, but assured them that I would also be in class, in case anyone didn’t receive the message.  I asked that they confirm receipt of the message and access to broadband internet and a keyboard for the duration of the “alternative format” period. And, I said, that if they so felt inclined, some words of encouragement and affirmation were always appreciated.

My students were/are amazing.  They have been incredibly encouraging throughout this semester, in the midst of this evolving situation.  They e-mailed, and offered broadband and private space if others in the class didn’t have access, offered support for me, and offered encouragement.

We began class with mindful breaths and a space to just say what we needed to, to be present.  One of my students asked that we focus on something we were grateful for.  We made space to share those things (or not). We took a few more mindful breaths, and we began class.

We covered the content, not in the same way I had planned, but it was fine.  I have discussion boards to read and respond to this morning.  It is fine.  We joked and laughed together about my inability to make rice in a pot.  It was lovely and hilarious (don’t judge me).

We’re going to get through this together.

Humanizing pedagogies are still possible as we transition to an alternative format course.  I told my students that we’re ready for next week, but asked them for their flexibility as we move forward after that, and that right now, I think we’ll do a format similar to what we did this week.  We’re going to take it class by class, as the situation keeps evolving.  We’re going to keep relationships going through various online spaces.  We’re going to check in with one another.

But these things don’t happen without intentionality.  Faculty colleagues, be kind to yourself and gentle with yourself. Do what you can.  And, also do what’s best by your students as people first — make space for their voices, their feelings and their contributions. This morning, my friend and colleague, Dr. Raina Léon shared this resource that her colleague Dr. Mary Raygoza in collaboration with Raina & Dr. Aaminah Norris developed on Humanizing Online Teaching. It was both affirming and informative and I highly recommend it.

As I said in my TEDx talk, it is our responsibility where we have power to use our power and privilege to support those who have less in any given situation, to highlight their voices, to change our actions in response to their concerns, to do better.  This is an opportunity to do the best we can by those who are vulnerable around us. I hope we take it.


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