I’ve been quiet on here for a good while as the realities of online teaching bit towards the end of last term, and spill over marking coupled with another lockdown made January a rather bleak month. I sense from the less-frequent diary posts of others that everyone is feeling the weight of it all. Understandably so, given that we’re expected to plough ahead with too-heavy teaching loads, some while juggling teaching their own children, others looking for their next precarious contract at a time where any jobs are in short supply, everyone missing friends, family, hobbies, normality.
Yet now I’ve found a couple of hours to write—procrastinating from another project, of course—and have decided to reflect a bit on teaching in the midst of a pandemic, as well as teaching the pandemic itself.
Teaching in the pandemic has been equal measures rewarding, draining, uplifting, dispiriting, sometimes all at the same time. The engagement from most students has been pretty incredible, despite the difficulties of tuning in remotely. Anecdotally, some students have even preferred remote teaching as it reduces social anxiety, although in truth most view this as a year to just get their head down and get through. Personally, I look forward to webinars, not least as it is an opportunity for interaction with humans besides the four I live with.
There have also been many moments of genuine laughter and warmth: the student whose mum crawled past behind them on all fours thinking she was out of webcam shot; the student whose MS Teams background was a picture of Hobbiton, prompting a discussion of a shared love of Lord of the Rings; and discussions about what we’re all most looking forward to doing again (hugging family and friends the clear frontrunner here).
Yet it has also been alienating. I don’t know what half of my students look like given that very few feel comfortable turning their cameras on. I am also painfully aware that while the engagement of about three-quarters of my students has been sky-high, another quarter seem disengaged and are likely facing extra caring burdens at home or financial difficulties or illness or bereavement or disenchantment or any of the myriad other reasons that might stop you showing up to a webinar. The number of extensions on assignments corroborates this. For those students, I hope we can be as flexible as necessary when it comes to marking and degree awards in a year where university has understandably not been the priority.
Teaching the pandemic—by which I mean bringing COVID-19 into the (virtual) classroom—meanwhile, has allowed us to make sense of some of the hurt, anger, bafflement, defiance, and care of the last twelve months in ways that I, and I think the students, have found cathartic. It has also allowed us to explore the politics of global health (the module I do most of my teaching on) in ways that will stick with all of us going forward. Discussions of coloniality in global health have been animated by the toll COVID-19 has taken on black and other ethnic groups in the UK and disparities in access to vaccines; sessions on the political economy of health clearly demonstrated by the impacts of the pandemic on the precariously employed, or by the links between extractive capitalism, environmental degradation and zoonotic diseases. I had been worried that it might be traumatic to talk about these experiences while living through them, not least as some students will have lost loved ones in the pandemic. Instead, it has translated into righteous anger, and that is something we’ll need a lot of going forward.