Every day of the past year or so seems to echo the refrain of “unprecedented.”
It’s been a time both slow and fast, boring and frantic. I also used the time to reflect on my work as an academic and who I want to be in academia. Many of the choices I made early in the pandemic were borne out of survival (for both me and my students). But what I came to realize was that slowing the pace allowed me to be the teacher and person I actually want to be. For instance, when we first pivoted to online learning, I slowed the pace of all my classes, dropped some assignments, and focused on meaningful connections with my students and with the material. I was flexible. I was kind. I was present.
Then I joined an online pedagogy group on Facebook. At first, it felt like a warm hug. We’re all in this together! Let’s share our ideas! As the weeks progressed, it became just another place to perform, to prove myself as a capable, creative teacher. And I was quickly overwhelmed by all the ideas. As a recovering perfectionistic, I saw every idea and piece of technology and thought, “I could be doing that!” “I should do that too!” For my own sanity (and those around me), I left the group. I had to quiet the noise of all those activities so I could be present to my students.
I started to remember what brought me to teaching initially: making connections and creating relationships. Those were the gifts that I received as a student and that I wanted to make space for in my own practice. Students bring their whole lives to class. Every day they come in and sit down, and when I’m mentally somewhere else, hustling to be someone else, I miss out on those lives. I tend to focus less on connections and too much on annoyances, such as late work or missed classes. In the pandemic, life felt so different. We were all moving through an experience of shared trauma. I knew what my students were experiencing because I too was feeling fear and isolation. But what we shared also helped me remember and see more clearly that students always bring all sorts of life issues to class. That realization forced me to ask, “How can I make space for all that concerns my students?”
After the spring semester, I realized that teaching during the pandemic had brought me back to who I wanted to be as a teacher—authentic and connected. And I didn’t want to lose myself again. I realized that I had been drowning in the hustle of my job, disconnected from those very reasons I became a teacher. Slowing everything down allowed me to remember those reasons and draw firmer boundaries when I returned to teaching (mostly online) in the fall. I more strongly resisted the system of faster, better, more and instead listened to the voice that said slower, good, enough. As a result, I’m much more present to my work and my students in this frame of mind (as well as to my own life, my family, and my sweet and wild three-year-old).
I also started to think more deeply about why I was hustling and for whom. After this experience, I’m working to soften, not to succumb to the hustle economy but to be gentle. I still keep asking myself, “If I’m focusing on teaching and being present with students, is that enough?” Through the pandemic I’ve learned that it’s more than enough. I continue to set boundaries that allow me to teach in this way, and I know that my interactions are now much more intentional. I’m even remembering that it’s radical work. As bell hooks (1995) argues in Teaching to Transgress, “Since the vast majority of students learn through conservative, traditional educational practices and concern themselves only with the presence of the professor, any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged” (p.8). Connection is a radical practice.
I now know for sure that when I give myself grace, I can also extend that to my students and to everyone else in my life. When the pandemic started, I was flexible and understanding. “We’ve never been here before! How could we know how to navigate this? Let’s be gentle with each other.” That perspective is what I want to remember. This is who I want to be. I don’t want to hustle and run over and forget and then hustle some more.
hooks, b. (1995) Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge: New York.
Anna Zimmerman, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Marian University in Indianapolis. Her research mainly engages key issues and stories surrounding the local food movement. However, she’s recently begun using her narrative framework to think more about her own performances in and out the classroom.