An Open Letter About Remote Learning -- and Those Who Administer It -- During COVID-19

In her book Teaching to Transgress, feminist writer, activist, and academic bell hooks speaks of educators as having the potential to be healers: to heal themselves, to heal their students, to create a better, more curious, and certainly more inspirational world.  Her writing reflects on how she grew up in the 1950’s when desegregation landed her in the culture shock of having all-Black classmates and teachers to mostly white and how that changed her relationship with education, something she loved so dearly.  She writes, “That shift from beloved, all-black schools to white schools where black students were always seen as interlopers, as not really belonging, taught me the difference between education as the practice of freedom and education that merely strives to reinforce domination” (hooks, 2014, p. 4).  For hooks, the classroom became a battleground from very early on and it wasn’t until she stumbled upon the teaching of Paulo Freire and Thich Nhat Hanh that she started to see that her gut instinct was correct: it didn’t have to be this way.  She didn’t have to be stifled, silenced, and sent to the corner for not falling in line and submitting to being seen and not heard.   She writes, “[An educator]’s work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of students” (hooks, 2014, p. 13).

An educator’s work is to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of students.


It’s too essential not to place in its own spotlight.


For hooks, that meant turning her own spaces of higher learning into orbits that welcomed students as fully realized people -- just as she, their professor was, too.  Her students would be challenged to elevate their mindsets, yes, but the experience offered them opportunities to gain confidence in who they were as human beings, soon to be unleashed in the “real world.”  She wanted them to leave her classroom feeling seen, heard, and valued in addition to being held responsible for fulfilling the course requirements as outlined in the syllabus.


This notion of hooks’ -- that a space of higher-learning can and should be one with the capacity to heal all who enter it -- strikes a particularly profound chord in 2020, a year when we have been forced out of the classroom and into the virtual reality of partitioned boxes on an electronic screen.  There’s Nicole, there’s Lexi, there’s Kat, there’s Gloria, there’s Sarah, there’s Hannah, there’s Zora, there’s Molly, there’s Yixi, and, there’s a second Lexy.  All present and accounted for, yes, but without the warmth of being in the same space, able to hear the murmurs of pre-class chit chat or to hear the laughter of someone after an off-hand anecdote is shared in the halls.  We are missing that connection with each other and we are each hurting in our own way.


Yet, still, we persist: we forge on, we persevere.  We show up to class, we write our discussion boards, we chime in to class discussions, we write our papers, we hope for the best.  But are we getting what we signed up for when we selected “traditional on campus” as our designation?  Some of us moved from across the country to be here, some of us were already close by, all of us excited to enjoy the beautiful campus, to sit at our desks or around a table with others who had made the thoughtful, life-altering decision to join in the same pursuit.  We came here to build networks and make friends and learn from professors who are experts in the field.  All of us dream of taking on leadership roles, of being true Change Agents revolutionizing the way the world works.  


None of us could have foreseen the dramatic and demoralizing impact of COVID-19, not only on our path as students but on everything to do with life-as-we-know-it.  When the pandemic hit and we learned of the University’s decision to make us remote-learners, we hunkered down and made it through that Spring 2020 semester the best we could.  Now here in Fall 2020, we are still working hard, but with many of us remote for both field and class and our opportunities to interact with human beings outside of our homes significantly reduced, the grind to make it through is taking its toll on all of us.  


The pandemic is creating a collective trauma that will impact us all for many years to come.  


So where do we look for a space to heal?  Many of us want to look to our education for such an opportunity, especially when what we are learning is how to take an equitable and trauma-informed approach to the communities we aim to serve in our future careers.


In some instances, such healing compassion is delivered tenfold.  When a professor can readily acknowledge the struggle and challenge of the day -- when a real attempt is made to get to know us, despite us being only a tiny square on a computer screen -- when deadlines can be relaxed or assignments re-assessed by merely taking a look at the students, seeing them as human beings who are truly doing the most they can in unprecedented circumstances -- those acts of kindness do more for us than any single instructor may know.  


And when the opposite occurs -- when a professor approaches their role from a less compassionate or less aware place -- that is felt like a tidal wave for students.  In these instances, our collective resilience is being tested as we look to each other -- as we seek each other out across social-distance guidelines -- to see if our experience is unique.  And when we learn that it is not -- that we have each been met with this same brick wall of resistance -- it does damage.  It generates hopelessness.  It makes us feel invisible and small.


To the professors who offer us an opportunity for respite and recovery, you shine only that much brighter against the backdrop of those who remain “business-as-usual” in an era that is anything but.  


The pandemic is forcing us to change our mindsets, to alter our expectations, to redefine what it means to “go with the flow.”  We fully realize that our professors are facing their own unique challenges during this time -- but it is necessary to call out that they are being paid while we are paying.  We are incurring a great cost to work towards this Master's degree that we aim to use as a torch to trailblaze our way through a difficult time in our nation’s history.  By the sheer weight of student loan debt most of us are accepting merely to have the honor of earning this MSSA, we all clearly want to be here. 


But not to be bullied, degraded, or otherwise harmed.  The trauma of the everyday is enough for most of us -- there is no reason to add such a hefty literal price tag to that experience, not when there are enough examples of instructors-as-healers in our midst.


That means that we expect our professors not only to want to be in this educational process with us, we want them to value us as complete, three-dimensional people, not merely a box on a Zoom screen.  


bell hooks (2014) teaches us that “the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” (p. 12).  In the end, we desire that radical space of possibility to be gracious, compassionate, mindful, and, yes, healing.



Thank you for considering.




Reference: hooks, b. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.


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Reflective writing during Fall 2020

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

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