Nicole Coleman (Wayne State University)
I spent the last week of July 2020 at the Digital Pedagogy Lab (@DigPedLab, #digped on twitter). DigPedLab is a meeting of faculty, students, instructional designers, and librarians from all over the world who are interested in Critical Digital Pedagogy—500 participants from 20 different time zones this year. As the Lab went virtual, all interaction happened in two virtual environments. The main site was hosted on Ghost and can be found at dpl.online; the discussion forums ran on Discourse. While Discourse was private to the participants of specific courses and workshops, the main platform is open and will be available indefinitely. At dpl.online, anyone interested can find blog posts for each course and each workshop as well as relevant resources. I recommend browsing through each. I took a course called “Critical Digital Pedagogy” as well as four workshops and can thus only offer a glimpse of the issues addressed. Other courses included “Decolonization and Education,” “Digital Identity,” and “Community and Connectedness in a Digital World.” Additional workshops were offered with titles such as “Blackademics,” “Culturally Intelligent Design,” and Creating a Virtual, Liberatory Feedback-Driven Classroom.”
In this post, I would like to share insights I gained at the Digital Pedagogy Lab. First, I explain what Critical Digital Pedagogy means and why it matters for us here at DDGC. Then, I address one main area of our work at DigPedLab: technology. I end with reflections about small changes to our teaching that are inspired by DigPedLab and aimed at increasing equity and inclusion.
Critical Digital Pedagogy and Its Relevance for Diversity and Decolonization
Critical Digital Pedagogy is an approach to learning that builds on the work of scholars like bell hooks and Paulo Freire and extends their insights into the digital realm. Critical pedagogy believes in student-centered, discursive learning. It opposes what Freire calls the “banking model” of education, in which instructors deposit knowledge into the minds of our students. The critical pedagogy of bell hooks sees pedagogy as “a practice of freedom.” The classroom for hooks is a site of liberation from racial, gender, and class boundaries that students transgress. For our current moment, critical digital pedagogy asks how we can translate these practices for our online teaching.
In their work, Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris (the co-founders of DigPedLab, co-editors of Hybrid Pedagogy, and authors of An Urgency of Teachers) amplify diverse voices in the field to create liberatory, student-centered, online and offline environments. The scholars writing for Hybrid Pedagogy (see also the volume Critical Digital Pedagogy) and An Urgency of Teachers, as well as Stommel’s and Morris’s contributions published on their respective blogs, ask us:
For us interested in diversity and decolonization, critical (digital) pedagogy is relevant because it openly acknowledges that education is always political. Stommel and Morris note that “Education has misrepresented itself as objective, quantifiable, apolitical” (n.p.). For them, critical pedagogy resists such a model of education, for it is “an approach to teaching and learning predicated on fostering agency and empowering learners (implicitly and explicitly critiquing oppressive power structures)” (n.p.). Many of the tenants motivating Stommel and Morris’s work drive that of the DDGC collective: we know that all of our teaching is political; we critique and challenge power structures that oppress voices; and we empower our learners to engage critically with material and content to expose the structural racism at work in the academy at large and German Studies in particular.
The questions Stommel and Morris raise regarding the digital space show a clear relationship to the work we are invested in at DDGC as well: “Can the necessary reflective dialogue flourish within Web-based tools, within social media platforms, within learning management systems, within MOOCs? What is digital agency? To what extent can social media function as a space of democratic participation? How can we build platforms that support learning across age, race, culture, ability, geography? What are the specific affordances and limitations of technology toward these ends?” (n.p.). As many of us go remote for at least the next semester if not longer, these questions become more pertinent for our work than ever. For instance, we would do well to learn how tools are programmed and that the norms that underlie algorithms can perpetuate structural inequities. The marginalization of diverse voices in online spaces challenges us to look at our tools and practices from an angle that productively combines our goals of diversity and decolonization with those of critical digital pedagogy.
Technology in Critical Digital Pedagogy
In the DigPedLab, we reflected on how tech tools are biased. If we think of airport security, we know that officers are likely to touch and search Black women’s hair and to scrutinize Sikh men with dastaars and Muslim women with hijabs. Beyond that explicit bias, the airport scanners have been programmed according to a binary understanding of gender, flagging trans men and women because their bodies do not fit into the programmed norm, as Sasha Costanza-Chock recounts in Digital Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. In other areas of our technological era, facial recognition software supports racial profiling and makes the use of sensor technology more difficult for People of Color. Predictive algorithms used by, for example, banks and credit institutions, discriminate according to class, which includes racial marginalization. Costanza-Chock explains that while most designers of tech tools “do not intend to systematically exclude marginalized groups of people” (40), “most of the time designers unintentionally reproduce the matrix of domination (white supremacist heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism)” (41). To be intentionally aware about these biases and to reduce their impact in our teaching was one of the main threads at DigPedLab.
These issues directly translate into our contexts when we consider proctoring technology such as Turnitin that uses facial recognition to catch cheating. These services have many problems. Stommel and Morris make “The Case Against Turnitin” and show how the service collects and owns student data. Additionally, proctoring technologies support a white supremacist, ableist academy. They work with facial recognition that may not recognize a Black student who is then asked to provide extra lighting. They are also programmed for neurotypical and able-bodied learners so that those whose eye movement or body language do not correspond to the program will be flagged as cheating. Shea Swauger explains the potential harms and the groups that may experience these harms in detail in “Our Bodies Encoded: Algorithmic Test Proctoring in Higher Education.” These tools, thus, set a norm for behavior and code student bodies who diverge from these norms as unsafe and a threat.
In addition to these obvious discriminatory tools, we thought about how our use of certain tools can discriminate against students. One issue, for example, is our seeming need to see our students’ faces during our virtual sessions. Maha Bali writes “About That Webcam Obsession You’re Having” and lists reasons why students may not want to be on camera. She offers suggestions of what we can do instead if we are worried that our students may not be engaged if we cannot see them. In a way, this is a similar problem to the one above: We may not need to use Turnitin or cameras if we trust students and our material enough to think that they will not cheat or disengage.
In general, the different speakers and instructors at DigPedLab favor asynchronous formats, possibly with optional synchronous meetings. Bali and Bard Meier suggest that when first prompted to teach online, we attempt to replicate f2f-teaching by shifting it online in synchronous meetings: “The (problematic) assumptions behind this include a belief that text is less personal, that immediacy is inherently more valuable, and that approximating face-to-face is beneficial” (n.p.). They then continue to explain in what ways synchronous meetings are biased against time zones, families, and working folx; that they may be culturally unaware (e.g. scheduling a meeting for Friday, which for some students is not a workday); and that they may put those with unreliable internet connections at a disadvantage.
The preference for asynchronous learning as well as the emphasis on open access material poses difficulties for our discipline that I did not have a chance to resolve during the week. In language learning, we have a specific need for communication; our literature courses often do not work fully with open access sources, especially if we teach contemporary literature. Therefore, I am not suggesting that we take each of these recommendations to completely redesign how we teach. I don’t think that we should teach language asynchronously only—in fact, I believe we can’t. Still, their points warrant caution for when we plan to remodel our f2f classes in remote settings for the next semester(s). For instance, we should offer additional asynchronous activities and allow for flexibility for students who cannot participate in virtual meetings.
When we think of our classes, we can take some of the insights from DigPedLab as a guide. Morris suggests to only use very few tools and be intentional about them. Sukaina Walji emphasizes low tech remote teaching principles, such as keeping it simple and low tech, which may be helpful to consider when planning asynchronous opportunities for students. Stommel offers some questions that we can use to think of the ethics behind a certain tool, and that can help us ensure that our remote classrooms become more equitable. These include: “What assumptions does the tool make about its users? What kind of relationships does it set up between teachers / students? School / the world? Humans / technology?,” “What data must we provide in order to use the tool (login, e-mail, birthday, etc.)? What flexibility do we have to be anonymous? Who owns the data?,” “Does the tool leave students agency or choice in how they use it? Does the tool offer a way that (in the words of bell hooks) ‘learning can most deeply and intimately begin’?,” “How accessible is the tool? For a blind student? For a hearing-impaired student? For a student with a learning disability? For introverts? For extroverts? Etc.” (Stommel, “Thursday: Critical Edtech”). These questions allow us to evaluate tools for teaching in terms of student privacy, accessibility, and a critical learning that we prioritize. The last questions in particular also prompt us to think of diversity along many different lines that would permit us to, for example, include introverts and extroverts. While the analysis of each tool may seem overwhelming, we can take these points as reminders to:
“Tiny Maneuvers” for Equity and Inclusion
I want to end with four observations. Each of these reflections prompts what Rebecca Weaver calls a “tiny maneuver,” a small change to our teaching with hopefully large impact.
First observation in our many synchronous meetings: Canadian participants almost always will start their intros by saying on whose occupied land they reside; no US participant, in my groups at least, did this. There are more and more land acknowledgements at conferences in the US and I will finally include one in my syllabus. In “A guide to Indigenous land acknowledgement,” the Native Governance Center offers important elements and questions about such land acknowledgments. Particularly poignant is the reminder to consider our intentions. My reason for including such a syllabus statement is to unsettle linear and Eurocentric historiography and to make my and many of my students’ positionality within settler colonialism explicit.
A second observation from synchronous meetings: Few people have gender pronouns in their zoom name. Including one creates a model for students to do the same, so that everyone can be addressed with their preferred pronoun.
A third observation is the focus on care. In general, people are eager to show their care for students through the language of their syllabi and assignments, through resources and basic needs statements (see Sara Goldrick-Rab). One of the workshops I took was appropriately called “Syllabus of Care” and thought in particular about access and inclusion from a disability studies angle. I highly recommend the readings of that workshop. Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory” rattles us to think about chronic illness, as well as visible and invisible disabilities in new ways. Kate Bowles’s “On, On, On” reflects on the academic culture of overwork, and Tiana Clark’s “This is What Black Burnout Feels Like” foregrounds the racial implications of stress inside and outside of the academy.
And lastly: Studying online is exhausting. There were so many discussions to keep track of, so much interesting material. I had to prioritize what I could read and leave some texts for later so that I could engage in discussions in real-time. Students face the same decisions this upcoming semester. In contrast to my usual online teaching, my students will now take all of their classes online, which increases their time spent in front of a screen and also the likely number of readings and discussion boards. I will try to reduce content and different means of interaction as a result. My main take-away is: Be gentle with your students.
Bali, Maha. “About that Webcam Obsession You’re Having.” Reflecting Allowed. June 22, 2020. https://blog.mahabali.me/educational-technology-2/about-that-webcam-obsession-youre-having/.
Bali, Maha and Bard Meier. “An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning.” Hybrid Pedagogy. March 04, 2014. https://hybridpedagogy.org/affinity-asynchronous-learning/.
Bowles, Kate. “On, On, On.” Hybrid Pedagogy. July 27, 2014. https://hybridpedagogy.org/on-on-on/.
Clark, Tiana. “This is What Black Burnout Feels Like.” Buzzfeed.News. January 11, 2019. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tianaclarkpoet/millennial-burnout-black-women-self-care-anxiety-depression.
Costanza-Chock, Sasha. Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2020.
Denial, Catherine. “A Pedagogy of Kindness.” An Urgency of Teachers. Edited by S.M. Morris and J. Stommel. https://cdpcollection.pressbooks.com/chapter/a-pedagogy-of-kindness/.
Digital Pedagogy Lab 2020. https://dpl.online/tag/auditorium/.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993.
Goldrick-Rab, Sara. “Basic Needs Security and the Syllabus.” Medium. August 7, 2017. https://medium.com/@saragoldrickrab/basic-needs-security-and-the-syllabus-d24cc7afe8c9.
Hedva, Johanna. “Sick Woman Theory.” Mask Magazine. http://www.maskmagazine.com/not-again/struggle/sick-woman-theory.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York:
Morris, Sean Michael, and Jesse Stommel. “A Guide for Resisting Edtech: the Case against Turnitin.” Hybrid Pedagoy. June 15, 2017. https://hybridpedagogy.org/resisting-edtech/.
Morris, Sean Michael, and Jesse Stommel. “Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definiton.” An Urgency of Teachers. Edited by S.M. Morris and J. Stommel. https://criticaldigitalpedagogy.pressbooks.com/chapter/chapter-1/.
Native Governance Center. “A guide to Indigenous land acknowledgement.” https://nativegov.org/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment/.
Stommel, Jesse. “How to Ungrade.” https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/.
---. “Thursday: Critical EdTech.” https://cdp.dpl.online/day-five/.
Swauger, Shea. “Our Bodies Encoded: Algorithmic Test Proctoring in Higher Education.” Hybrid Pedagogy. April 02, 2020. https://hybridpedagogy.org/our-bodies-encoded-algorithmic-test-proctoring-in-higher-education/.
“University of Cape Town: Low Tech Remote Teaching Principles.” https://docs.google.com/document/d/1zPN7XUitOCw75FW6UeqrYAcWl41UqgKoZ_HRoYTKFZI/edit.
Watters, Audrey. Hack Education. https://hackeducation.com/.
Weaver, Rebecca. “Tiny Maneuvers: On Changing our Instincts as Teachers.” Hybrid Pedagogy. April 28, 2020.https://hybridpedagogy.org/tiny-maneuvers-on-changing-our-instincts-as-teachers/.
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