… we are possibly going to have to move entirely online in many cases—at least in the short term. In public universities, this has multiple implications. What we might gain in sterile efficiency, we will lose in the rich messiness of exposure that our campuses provide….. in moving online, we lose that space of social, political and cultural discovery.
Maybe precariousness is not the right term. The uncertainty is more in our minds, in our expectations, and in our understanding (or lack of it) of the unfolding world. Classrooms have always been “precarious” spaces, volatile and uncertain combinations of hope, cynicism, anxiety and excitement, with some amount of apathy thrown in. The Indian Public University classroom is a particularly fraught space, comprised as it is of students with a diverse range of experience, socio-economic backgrounds, and varying degrees of privilege. At the best of times, it is a challenge to achieve the dynamic equilibrium between control and freedom that facilitates engaged learning for most, if not all, the participants. At the worst, it’s a crucible of resentments from multiple directions—from those who can’t get why you need to make it so simple, from those who are angry that you won’t make it simpler, and from those who just wish you would get on with it and let them leave.
Among the various courses I teach, the one I agonise over the most, and enjoy the most, is a basic writing course. And while the word “basic” is in the title, it is really far from that. It rides on the assumption that students entering a master’s programme in media and communication studies already have the “basic” skills; they know how to read, they know how to articulate ideas in speech and writing. But very early in my academic career I realized that these assumptions could not be evenly applied to all the students. There was great unevenness in ability to use language, huge differences in levels of exposure to good writing, and an even bigger problem: inequalities of many kinds that had stymied the ability to think independently, to be aware of and utilise their own agency.
Unlike “content” subjects, learning how to write—efficiently and effectively—draws on a student’s inner resources, including experience, self-awareness, ideas and perceptions, and of course the more mundane things like vocabulary and fluency in language. There is consequently a huge amount of work that needs to be done in the classroom (and outside too) before one can shore up and tap into these inner resources. One might argue that the advantages of articulation, independent thinking and such as just as crucial in other subjects too, that they frame not only a student’s classroom experience but also how they are positioned in relation to the teacher and other students—in their own minds and in the minds of others. It is in these relational dynamics that much of the learning and the unfolding of the self (in writing) occurs, along with the solitary and independent writing work that the student must do. Group activities help break some barriers and generate some empathy; continuous feedback from peers and the instructor encourages the development of a critical sensitivity to one’s own writing, and sharing ideas with a small audience kindles recognition of the potential of one’s voice. Some of this happens in the 2-hour block allocated within the time table, but a lot of it also happens in the interstices of other activities—an encounter in the hallway, conversations over chai in the corner stall, and sometimes, when the ice has been sufficiently broken, a pop-up chat window online.
What does all this have to do with the university in a post-Covid-19 time?
A recent discussion in The Boston Review opened with the observation (made in the US context) that “the coronavirus has taken a sledgehammer to higher education”. The metaphor is powerful, both in the violence of its imagery and the implied consequence, that of a broken structure. While the analysis in the article focuses on the economic and financial aspects of the breakdown, there is no escaping the social and cultural consequences—which then have deep pedagogic effects. It’s become quite apparent to us since March 2020 that online education is as yet an imperfect and partial education mechanism.
A survey conducted by the University of Hyderabad showed that only a little over one-third of responding students had a level of access that would allow them to participate in online lectures/meetings. Questions of access apart, there are socio-cultural issues that further impact participation—those same discomforts and hesitations that prevent a marginalized student from speaking up in class are exacerbated in an online session. An IIT professor, taking stock of three months of going online, noted the “poor learning environment” that “simply cannot replace physical tutorials, recitations and even banter”. If this has been the experience in an elite institution that caters to the best and the brightest, those who are already primed to learn well, then it’s not hard to imagine that lesser institutions will experience greater challenges.
I cannot at this point imagine how I might effect the unlearning that needs to happen in my writing class—the breaking of years of poor (or non-existent) habits of thought and articulation, the blunting of observational skills and narrowing of perception resulting from poor schooling. Yes, there are many online “master classes” for writing, but they target those who are already at an advantage. And yes, writing is a solitary activity that is best learned by doing—again and again—and reflecting on the process and the product. Yet there is something deeply social in the acquisition of the tools that allow such doing and reflection. There’s a take-off point that needs to be reached before the social can yield productively to the solitary. This is complicated by the fact that our secondary school system has not produced independent learners and online or distanced (not distance) learning is designed to cater to those who are self-motivated, self-directed, and self-critical.
All of this is not to say that it can’t be done. With the right infrastructure (both technological and human) and the right attitudes, we can produce an efficient teaching-learning system that produces measurable outcomes, pleasing the metrics-dominated establishment. Students, with access, will learn how to negotiate the online and demonstrate learning in ways that the system demands. If we work backwards and schools groom young people to be independent learners with all the skills one would expect of a secondary level student (in terms of real language and other literacies), such an online system can even go beyond efficiency and offer education. But whether it will produce confident writers who believe that they have something important to say and can carve out the space to say, whether it will replaces the social spaces where my students learn not only the words but also discover their true meanings—in encountering difference, in negotiating sharply varied world views, in cutting through sheets of prejudice and preconception…well, I’m not so sure.
What we are now looking at is not a model where the online complements the offline—that would to some extent allow us to draw at least partially on what we know about teaching and learning. But instead, we are possibly going to have to move entirely online in many cases—at least in the short term. In public universities, this has multiple implications. What we might gain in sterile efficiency, we will lose in the rich messiness of exposure that our campuses provide. The public university is of course a place where one comes to gain a degree and a path to employment, but it is much more than that, and in moving online, we lose that space of social, political and cultural discovery.
So then how can we—I—rethink my writing classroom in this post-Covid-19 semester that is rapidly approaching? How do I create cyberspaces that encourage sociality without it becoming a mere simulation that encourages pretense rather than participation? How do I not only break habits of thought but build connections between myself and my students but also among them? How do I get them to write not just with their minds, but with their hearts?
It’s not that these connections get built naturally in the physical classroom (which is why even that has its precarities) but over the years I’ve somewhat figured it out. We’ve worked out the borderlines of intimacy and distance, professionalism and personal interest, in ways that can draw students in without threatening them, in ways that challenge without defeating. There is body language and eye contact, group work and sharing, interruption and disruption. The classroom moves from being an unfamiliar to a familiar space, yet always retains a little bit of the new, so that students walk in one day to the next with that little frisson of excitement (I hope, I imagine) that mirrors my own.
The precarious classroom, in my imagination, is/was full of possibility (to paraphrase bell hooks) (hooks 2014), and while we consider ourselves to be in a state of precarity on multiple fronts (the economy, environment, security, institutional systems), online education in contrast seems to force a kind of certainty. There are few blurry edges that can lead to surprising and empowering discoveries of the sort that happen in the physical space of a classroom.
One part of me looks at this as an exciting pedagogic challenge that one needs to meet, another part of me cannot help feeling sadness at the loss of opportunities to meet and know those who speak less in words and more in silences, those who do not know how to interject themselves into the limited frame of an online chat room, those who recede into the shadows created by the cyber-savvy, English-fluent participants who will dominate the metrics and justify them.
hooks, b. (2014). Teaching to transgress. New York: Routledge.
Usha Raman is Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Hyderabad. Views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.