Just Be Kind

I’ve been attending the Humanizing Challenge offered by Michelle Pacansky-Brock at @ONE here in California. For years, Michelle has been encouraging faculty to put themselves into their courses, continuing a tradition begun by Pat James.

The tone has shifted to humanizing online instruction through equity and empathy. Unlike many programs using the word “equity”, here it is in its fullest sense of caring for everyone and treating differences with understanding. During the pandemic, I have tried hard to push back against approaches that simply ignore the situation. It is deeply unfair and inhumane to continue as if nothing is happening.

The response of some professors, unfortunately, has been to double-down on enforcing their own rules and regulations. Psychologically, this provides a feeling of control. New instructors do this a lot. I recall when I was a new professor being very concerned that I have authority in the classroom. I was 25 and anxious that students wouldn’t respect me or do what I needed them to do. When they didn’t come on time, I locked the door.

Over the first year or two I relaxed, established the minimal authority necessary for classroom functioning in my tone and personality. I changed, students changed. I put more responsibility for learning on them, and removed elements that caused me the stress of adjudication and enforcement.

The many profs new to teaching online are reacting like I did when I was 25. They have been thrown into an environment they cannot control, and they are as frightened as I was. Training has not been helpful, emphasizing regulations and technology: FERPA, how to upload things into the LMS, how to use Zoom. “We are here 24/7 to help you” does nothing when you don’t know what to ask. It’s as useless as “Hope you are doing well in this challenging time.”

The approach of the Humanizing Challenge reverses this to acknowledge the affective domain of teaching online, to put kindness toward ourselves and our students at the top of the agenda, not an afterthought at the bottom. Because basically it all comes down to Just Be Kind.

We should always have been kind. Students have always faced challenges, not just of the financial kind. They have always had a husband dying of leukemia in the next room, a severely autistic child, an environment too dangerous to learn in. They have had these individually, and we should never have responded with “it’s due Sunday or else”.

Yes, there will be a conflict between academic standards and kindness. The Humanizing Challenge has focused on empathy and teaching from a place of love, and asks faculty to reveal their vulnerability. I have seen this go too far (I know a faculty member who teaches drunk, and one who overshares about her life, burdening the students). While I do not agree with the current article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (they say a Zoom background is necessary to be professional), we do need to be models of how to handle adversity while learning.

I recall 1991, when I was teaching during the Kuwait war. My classroom filled with military wives who desperately needed to be somewhere at a particular time. I was teaching US History, but the subject didn’t matter. They told me they needed the class time to focus on something else, to not think about their husbands deployed overseas. When I missed a day, they were distressed because that day they had nowhere to be. It is our job to provide stability in a crisis, a chance to focus on something else.

But while being professional, there are so many ways to be kind. Deadlines are the perfect example. Why are your deadlines important? Mind are important for establishing rhythm. I have lots of small-stakes assignments. A student who misses a deadline knows they’re off the rhythm. If I individually say it’s ok, let’s try to get this in a few days late, no penalty, it’s just basic kindness. It doesn’t mess up my life to the extent it’s worth harming theirs. For first responders, students working in health care or working extra shifts, deadlines are removed as soon as they contact me.  The only real deadline is the end of the class. Will they get as good an education doing things late? My answer used to be equivocal. Now its “We’re in a plague, people!”

It’s taken a pandemic for more people to realize the extent of human suffering. You don’t lock the door — you open it wider. It’s a shame that it takes a program like the Humanizing Challenge to give such a basic message: Just Be Kind. But with hundreds of faculty attending the sessions, I’m very glad it’s there.

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