Curating a Classroom

Educators Must Reimagine Remote Learning
The statues in St Vincent's Circle on DePaul University's Chicago campus are decorated with protective face masks April 30, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)

My last vivid memory of seeing my students in person was just before quarantine, the day when we left campus at lunchtime and pressed into a packed subway train on our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were aware of the virus. One of the students even grew up in Wuhan and gave us updates. But we still pushed our bodies and unmasked faces into the shoulders and armpits of strangers, naïve to what was about to happen to New York, that we would all soon flee, never to return to our classroom.

After we quickly and clumsily converted to online learning, I was immediately made aware about the diverse challenges of my students’ lives. Through Zoom screens, I learned that some contracted the virus and cared for sick relatives too. Others became caretakers of young siblings. Most international students were couch-surfing and intensely homesick. One student joined class from a chair in the bathroom shower of her family’s cramped apartment, the only place she could find the quiet needed to focus. Many would not turn video on at all, their identities and struggles receding into the abyss of New York’s cruelest month.

We adapted as teachers too: shifting expectations, rewriting assignments, recording new resources, mastering new platforms. But still most of us were “putting existing courses online.” We tried to extend the in-person rapport we had generated throughout the semester. Hey, these Zoom seminar discussions aren’t so bad! Pretty good for a pandemic, we said to ourselves. We gave A’s and B’s and even degrees.

But summertime reflection has shown that most of us teachers have a lot to learn about educating in these new modes. We performed a kind of triage on our spring semester, not proper care. What will it take for us to be excellent educators with flexible methods and, as the Jesuits say, cura personalis?

Analogies for the act of teaching abound. Metaphors animate our very words for teaching: instruct “builds in”; educate “draws out”; pedagogy “leads a young person” along. Some still think of teachers as transmitters of information, as banks or ATMs of knowledge that get placed into students’ brains. In his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire criticized this “banking model of education,” in which the teacher “makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat,” in order to show that their brain receptacles are full. Sadly, our schools’ current recommendations about “instructional delivery” during the pandemic surreptitiously propagate this inadequate theory of education. Its deficiency was criticized differently centuries ago by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus in his Enchiridion (“Handbook”): “Sheep don’t show the shepherds how much they’ve eaten by bringing them the grass; rather, digesting their food inside, they outwardly produce wool and milk.”

A better analogy for the in-person act of educating is the athletic trainer, an idea I owe to Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. Here we inherently understand that the primary responsibility for fitness lies with the student, who is not passive but active. Still the trainer (or teacher) plays many crucial roles: creating an appropriate environment, inspiring enthusiasm, designing structured activities for individuals and groups, demonstrating proper techniques, providing correction and encouragement, explaining effectively the benefits and drawbacks of various exercises, utilizing appropriate and up-to-date technologies, offering one-on-one attention with struggling students, and detailing what students can do on their own to continue their development.

We performed a kind of triage on our spring semester, not proper care. What will it take for us to be excellent educators with flexible methods?

Before the pandemic, I evaluated myself as a teacher by those metrics. But now, if I’m not an in-person coach at a kind of CrossFit for the mind, what am I? Am I a producer of home workout videos? Yoga for Dummies, or Abs of Steel?

Joking aside, during the pandemic I’ve had to face an uncomfortable truth about my teaching persona for the past twenty years. I have relied far too much on extroversion, performativity, spontaneity, and individual rapport. I stand on my chair and conduct embarrassed students in the singing of a campy “books of the Bible” song. I lead elaborate in-class, role-playing exercises about current Supreme Court cases. If a class doesn’t know what a votive sculpture is, we stand up and walk across campus to our antiquities collection to examine them in real life. When I teach about abortion in my Religion and American Politics class, I have a precise and dependable way I use the whiteboard to map the conversation as it occurs. Once per year in a different course, students arrive in a classroom with the lights off and their desks in a circle facing outward, where they are led through an unexpected guided meditation about their vocation.

On a certain day of Introduction to the New Testament, I arrive to class fake flustered and spin a believable yarn about how I just met a “prophet” from Guam who invited me to his upstart basement church, as a way to introduce our study of the apostle Paul. One day in Church in Controversy class, I distribute a spiffy fake press release from a Catholic watchdog organization that accuses my university of not being Catholic anymore, just to see whether and how students defend their school against calumny. The list of these in-person experiential exercises could go on. They’re like “set pieces” for a soccer team, or a band’s “playing the hits.”

Yet I can’t do any of that over Zoom. And my growing fears about my worth as a teacher have dampened the summer. Who am I without my in-person, know-your-name-on-the-first-day, not-sure-what’s-gonna-happen-in-this-exercise persona? I don’t yet know, but I know the athletic trainer is taking a break.

Instead, it’s fitting that my last in-person memory of my students was our trip to the Met, because my new working analogy for the classroom is a museum. This fall I’m going to be a curator. This image for online, asynchronous teaching has been around for a while, but many of us are finally beginning to appreciate it. As curators, we work for months behind the scenes to select just the right items: text, video, audio, self-tests, and other modules. We create exhibits that evoke themes through juxtaposition.

We de-emphasize our use of text, using only brief placards, and highlight auditory and visual engagement. Over here is an independent multimedia experience where you can map Paul’s journeys. Over there is an audio repository of the theology of the Delta Blues. And did you know that you can read Jefferson’s own edits to his Letter to the Danbury Baptists online at the Library of Congress? Don’t take my word for it—look for yourself and see his mind and quill work out the concept of “separation between church and state.”

Students will also learn through criticism of existing media and its curation. Instead of passively watching a documentary on the early Christian catacombs, you are the production company intern tasked with fact-checking and suggesting improvements. In addition to learning about the Civil Rights movement through this biopic of Fannie Lou Hamer, interrogate how its editing serves to replicate the very racial stereotypes it intends to dismantle. If the at-home assignments are strong enough, we can continue learning well and differently at the museum, until the gym can reopen.

What’s lost in this pandemic classroom? The spontaneity of experiences, the rapport of a community, and vigorous real-time debate will be difficult to produce. The extroverts among us will struggle to thrive. But Susan Cain’s Quiet, a 2012 bestseller that identified and promoted the irreplaceable contributions of introverts to their various communities, has persuaded me that American culture overvalues extroverts anyway. Some of my most introverted students have flourished during independent distance learning.

And maybe I’ve placed too much emphasis on spontaneous, real-time debate all along. It’s probably salutary for our culture to lengthen the time between volleys in an argument, and to open up the media by which the debate can proceed. Consider the tried-and-true, in-class debate question: Was the struggle for racial justice during the Civil Rights Era fundamentally religious? In the past, we hashed this out during an hour of real-time conversation with books and words. But this fall, the “Yes” debate group might upload and analyze a clip of Fannie Lou Hamer praying to Jesus in front of the vice president and leading “Go Tell It on the Mountain” outside the 1964 Democratic National Convention. A few days later, the opposing side might respond with a clip of James Baldwin and an interpretation of Nina Simone’s protest song “Mississippi Goddam.” Far be it from me to adjudicate that fiery debate. We are all students at the feet of these masters.

So I’m stepping off the stage, hanging up the coaching whistle, and curating my exhibits. All along, did I really need to be the center of attention? Maybe I’m finally liberating my students, as Freire encouraged years ago. Knowledge is not a gift bestowed, he said. “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Michael Peppard is professor of theology at Fordham University and a frequent contributor.

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