By Maggie Cummings, University of Toronto Scarborough
In mid-March, like instructors of face-to-face classes across Canada, I found myself making the abrupt and rather ad hoc transition to online teaching. I began to spend a lot more time reading administrative updates, answering panicked emails (from students and other instructors), and Googling best practices. I also noticed a proliferation of social media posts and viral memes that use humour to mediate anxiety about the transition. A common theme, not surprisingly, was about students’ perceptions of their instructors’ technological unpreparedness to make the leap from the classroom to the screen, and the hilarity and chaos that might ensue.
Many of these memes made me laugh, but one in particular struck me as more melancholy than funny. It features an image of an instructor teaching to a classroom that it empty, with the exception of a doll siting on one of the desks, as if listening intently. The accompanying tweet reads, “My professor is 74 and he isn’t confident using Zoom so he’s pre-recorded the rest of our classes. Today, I watched the first one. He has a Pinocchio doll in the front row because he isn’t comfortable teaching to an empty room. I’m social distancing for this man, and this man only”.
Although the original post on Twitter seems to have been written with a spirit of generosity (comments suggest the professor is well-liked by his students, who clearly found the gesture both funny and endearing), reactions to the screen captured meme that subsequently went viral were more mixed. As often as not, when I saw it shared, it was accompanied by eye-rolling emojis and comments clearly meant to make fun of an “old”, “out of touch”, “chalk and talk”, “sage on the stage” instructor.
But I found it hard to fathom such comments, as I could only see a kindred spirit: Who does like teaching to an empty classroom? Those of us who teach most, if not all, of our classes face-to-face, tend to value and foster a sense of connection and community in our classrooms. Those who already teach online are well-versed in the creation of such a sense of community through more virtual means, but this is not easy to achieve with the overnight transition we’ve had to make.
I, for one, miss seeing my students, and the shared, embodied experience of being in a classroom. It’s no accident that the original tweet describes the doll as Pinocchio, despite the fact that it looks like it is actually The Elf on a Shelf. After all, the story of Pinocchio and Geppetto is about making and longing for human connection. It is fitting that Pinocchio, who is brought to life by Geppetto’s efforts in the story, brings the classroom to life for this instructor and his students. As an anthropologist, I found the invocation of Pinocchio especially poignant: like our anthropology students, Pinocchio learns about what it means to be human.
In the spirit of keeping in touch, maintaining a sense of community, and yes, of humanity, despite the challenging times, The Network for Critical Pedagogy in Canadian Anthropology has started a new online community of anthropology teachers on Facebook. When we initially created the network in 2019, we intended it as way to bring together CASCA members interested in the intersections between anthropology, ethnography, and critical pedagogy, with a particular focus on the unique pedagogical challenges and possibilities faced by those of who work in Canadian anthropology (whether by virtue of research interests, institutional affiliation, or both). The Network sponsored its first panel (Critical Pedagogy and Changing Climates in Canadian Anthropology) at the annual meeting in Vancouver in November 2019, and maintains a list serve where members share calls for papers, relevant news items, and teaching resources (to join the list serve, email Mary-Lee Mulholland at mmulholland[at]mtroyal[dot]ca).
But it turns out that the greatest pedagogical challenge many CASCA members must face, for now and for the foreseeable future, will be the shift to online teaching, and the steep learning curve that accompanies it. Social media seems be the format best suited to the kinds of discussions our members want to have. The fact that it is “social” in a time of social distancing certainly helps, too. The network’s Facebook group, launched on March 14, has proven to be an excellent forum. So far, the Facebook group has been used to share resources aimed at helping members to make it to the end of the term while maintaining some semblance of the “human” aspects that, sometimes, at least, make teaching anthropology so rewarding.
As we envision the prospect, in many institutions, of a fully online Summer term (much of which will inevitably be taught by sessional instructors who may be both underpaid and under-supported at the best of times), we hope the network, and particularly the Facebook page, will continue to flourish. In particular, we hope to hear even more from those CASCA members who already teach online about how they bring the online classroom to life. Please search “Network for Critical Pedagogy in Canadian Anthropology” on Facebook to join, and invite colleagues in your other networks to join as well. Memes welcome!