I had been dreading the inevitable announcement from my university–the Fall 2020 semester would be delivered entirely ‘remotely.’ I shared the concerns of teachers at all levels about delivering engaging courses from behind my computer screen. But I worried mostly about what would happen to the particular alchemy that takes place in the classroom, when the abstract questions that I deal in become concrete and urgent as they become shared. How could I approximate the conversations, the back and forths, and the in-jokes that together cohere into the space of shared purpose? How does online learning translate to critical work, where students learn about and share ideas about radical political worlds? How, in other words, can we build a political community in the classroom, when we’re each sitting alone in front of our screens? In my concern about moving online, I recognized that this overlap between radical politics and community-building in the face-to-face classroom was at the crux of my teaching and, over the course of the year, found ways to cultivate this overlap online. I was surprised–and delighted–to find that my initial fears were unwarranted.
In the weeks after the announcement of remote teaching for the Fall 2020 semester (and, it soon became apparent, the Winter 2021 and also Fall 2021 semesters), my days were filled with worries about the loss of classroom conversations, those brief but key ‘shoot the shit’ moments. I wanted to make the isolation of learning online more bearable, but I also wanted to maximize flexibility. I devoured written materials on adapting to online teaching by attending too many webinars on topics ranging from building syllabi and course websites, delivering exams online, and running discussion forums. It was troubling to see that many of the other instructors in these sessions seemed less concerned about the loss of the classroom community and more motivated by the desire to police cheating.
I pestered the harried facilitators–professors like me trying to adapt and volunteering to share their skills–about how to build classroom community online. Do discussion forums work? Do students actually discuss things with each other or just post canned responses to weak questions? What about deciding between synchronous and asynchronous modes of delivery? The best practices communicated by my university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning seemed to be geared towards offering maximum flexibility through asynchronous delivery. Our students are often first-generation university students, international students, students working in a second (or third!) language, students living in remote and rural areas whose internet access is spotty or limited, or students who work full time in essential services. How in the world do you create a community out of this, remotely?
I am still relatively new to university teaching. In grad school, I taught whatever courses I was assigned. I have just finished my third year of teaching political science full-time. At first, like many new teachers, I was consumed by my own insecurity. I was obsessed with whether I had the relevant knowledge to impart and the skills with which to do so. In the first disastrous course I taught on my own, I delivered three 50-minute lectures per week verbatim from my notes. A couple of years in, the simplest pedagogical realization finally sunk in: it’s not about me. It’s about them. Teaching Plato’s Gorgias in my Ancient Political Thought class, I noticed that students were not particularly interested in my exposition of the text’s historical context, well-cited as it was. Instead, it was the tangential example that came up in conversation–comparing the importance of rhetoric to politics in Ancient Athens and in post-2016 North America–that animated the class and put them in discussion with each other. Enabling students to take political ideas and see them in their worlds was crucial. And key to making these connections happen was shaping what students learn and how they learn it through the relationships I help build in the classroom. An atmosphere of curiosity and openness is key to this relationship building. I now try to present ideas as both obvious and fascinating, trying to replicate my own excitement when I first learned these same ideas. There’s an element of performance to this, of course. Not incidentally, my favorite of my few “Rate my Professor” reviews offers the assessment that “[h]er lectures are pretty boring, but she is passionate about politics.”
Starting each course by thinking about what my students will learn rather than what I would teach them, I began to frame my classes through discussion. Not speaking for longer than ten minutes without pausing for a question, a discussion, or an exercise. This took a lot of letting go of my fears about awkward silences, and my fears about being called out for not knowing enough. By focusing on what bell hooks, in Teaching Critical Thinking, calls “the essential role of conversation in the learning process," I had, to some extent, let go of my investments in my own ideas.
The beginning and end of class became highlights in my courses. Taking one last look over my notes, I overheard students chatting about their favorite TV show, NBA team, local café, or sometimes even about the day’s reading. Occasionally, I couldn’t help but add my own comments to their conversations. This was usually startling to them–an interjection into casual conversation from beyond the wall of the lectern. Often, these students would later be more eager to participate in the structured discussion during class. We all felt more comfortable with each other having already discussed the similarities between Marx’s take on worker alienation and a classmate’s own alienation working at Subway, or the failure of the NBA to produce a singular talent and personality like Allen Iverson in the past twenty years. Though my goal in doing these things was mostly to make things less awkward for all of us, inadvertently, my classrooms had become comfortable, pleasant spaces. They had become spaces where serious political thinking could take place.
This process of building connection through idle chatter was especially helpful in my particular field of political theory. Political theory is the peculiar middle child of political science–political theorists often have more in common with philosophers and literary theorists, historians and other scholars of the humanities than anything in the social sciences. Students tend to be especially resistant to the political science major requirement to take political theory courses. A typical political theory course requires convincing students who are mostly interested in law school that they should be interested in reading canonical figures like Plato, Hobbes, or Machiavelli, authors who appear as obscure and difficult to read as they are irrelevant. My opening gambit in response to these complaints is that, for better or (often) worse, the world we live in was made by Plato, by Machiavelli, by Hobbes. If we want to know and act politically in this world, we’d better figure out how it works.
I also take it for granted that students already know quite a bit about the political world they have inherited. Because they have lived and acted in this world for at least eighteen years, they are political actors. What this means, in the classroom, is that they all have something to say and I want to hear it. The extra steps we take in class involve asking hard critical questions and denaturalizing political structures that we assume we are stuck with. Asking hard questions that have no easy answers is a way of modeling that students already have the capacity to be serious critical thinkers, that they are not passive consumers of information.
In one of my early experiences as a teaching assistant, the professor for the course–a history of modern political thought–asked me to review the questions for the midterm exam. Reading through the paragraph-length questions, mostly on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, I felt intimidated. If I, as a PhD student felt this way, how would third-year undergraduates feel? I said, “these questions seem a bit complex for undergraduates?” The professor thought about it and responded, “I think they’ll rise to the challenge and appreciate it.” The students in that class did rise to the occasion. I’ve found that my own students do too–years later, my own students do too. I’ve come to find that rather than a cold, ‘sink or swim’ approach to teaching, my professor had modeled just the kind of community-building approach to pedagogy I would come to espouse myself. Having practiced working with difficult questions as questions that they could answer together in the classroom, as capable knowers and political thinkers, students could then ably take on such questions on their own, on a test.
Teaching from the assumption of existing political knowledge has helped me approach pedagogy as my way of practicing radical politics. I am often part of conversations about activism in the academy, but I don’t actually do the activist and advocacy work to which some of my colleagues devote themselves. I’m not organizing radical groups. I’m not in the streets. I’m not, for the most part, writing public interventions into daily political events. But I am in my classrooms, teaching radical politics and radical political practices. My political action is engaging students as political actors and helping them realize their own power. This is a kind of prefigurative politics: the classroom as space of engagement becomes a space where we enact the critical thinking activity we seek in the world.
While students might find themselves at their family dinner tables discussing the obviousness of the need to prioritize a strong economy and individual hard work as forms of freedom and opportunity, in my classroom, they grapple with questions about the history of the connection between freedom and property ownership. This is a connection famously made by Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence, a revision of John Locke’s natural rights to “life, liberty and property.” Is being able to buy land, a home, a car, a marker of freedom? What does freedom mean when you go to school full-time and work at Subway full-time, when you do not own anything at all, including your own time? Asking these kinds of questions opens up space for imagining freedom in new ways and seeing the limits of our most cherished definitions.
In the end, while preparing for a full year of remote teaching, I decided to split the difference between flexibility and live, synchronous teaching. I would present lecture material asynchronously, in several short pre-uploaded videos per week. Students would also meet bi-weekly in groups of four or five using Zoom’s breakout group functions, during one of the course’s original meeting times. A few days before each discussion group, I circulated discussion questions for students to think about. These questions were sometimes very specific to the content of the text (“Why does Hobbes think we are all equal in a “state of nature”?). Other times, I asked students about their opinions on a particular idea (“What do you think of Hobbes's view of the state of nature? Is it a fair representation of how human beings live together?”) or I asked them to connect an idea to a contemporary context (“Do you think the powers of the Leviathan are excessive? Why or why not? How might they stack up against the powers of the Canadian or American state today?”)
At this time, horror stories circulated about Zoom teaching being a wall of black squares and silence, or worse, plagued with obnoxious or offensive interruptions. I tried to think of ways to mitigate this. At the start of each meeting, I greeted each student by name as they entered the Zoom room and asked as many students as possible a question about their day. I encouraged students to have their cameras on, but did not push. I soon realized that visual presence did not determine student participation. In the end, while many students kept their cameras on, a lot of the black squares still had interesting things to say. Being able to speak without showing your face did not devolve into terrible behaviour but into more insightful participation than I had expected. Women took the lead in groups in ways that they had not, in my experience, in in-person classes. Rather than hiding behind turned off cameras, there seemed to be a kind of courage that came about in speaking while not being gazed at.
To facilitate more equitable access, I had a lenient policy for absences and offered alternatives for students who could not always participate in the bi-weekly live discussion groups. This seemed to work well over the course of the year. When students couldn’t attend their regularly scheduled group, they sometimes chatted with me in my Zoom office hours about the discussion questions they had missed, or attended a discussion in another group on another day. The structure of the groups–where students were not required to turn on their cameras and encouraged to get to know each other in small groups they maintained over the course of the term–also helped with access for those who did not have a strong internet connection, or who did not want to share a view of their private space. I was delighted when students mentioned that they had been texting each other outside of class and had exchanged essay outlines for feedback.
Popping into and out of breakout groups, just another square among four or five others, helped me locate myself in the class as not only the professor but as another learner. Mostly absenting myself from the discussion groups was key to their success. As hooks has put it, “students listen to one another’s stories with an intensity that is not always present during a lecture or class discussion” (p. 51). This was an unexpected joy–to be present in a learning space without disrupting it with my authority as ‘the professor.’ When I joined each group, I stayed silent, and, if the discussion stopped on my account, I noted that I was just another square on the screen, only speaking up to answer specific questions or clarifications students had come to among themselves. I noticed that many students had taken time to prepare answers to the pre-circulated questions, and that these answers helped them to answer their colleagues’ questions. This seemed the instantiation of a political community in itself.
Radical politics and community building are overlapping practices. My radical politics have always been located in the classroom, and as it turns out, the Zoom classroom was not that different. In fact, the novelty seemed to give students the courage to speak, and it gave me the courage to step back, and settle into being just another square on the screen.
The living and acting ‘as if’ of prefigurative politics turned out to be the living and acting ‘as if’ we were in a physical community. Although we are alone behind our screens, in the Zoom room, we were thinking and living together, asking questions and sharing snippets from our daily lives. In the online classroom, radical politics has emerged as critical thinking and an assumption of knowledge. This is the assumption that students could rise to the challenge–of both political theory and learning online–and appreciate it.