Teaching in times of
protest and pandemic

by Brenda Longfellow, York University
Liz Miller, Concordia University
Dorit Naaman, Queen’s University

It’s January, the sky is gray and we’re fielding a dozen emails a week from students suffering from mental health issues. We’re now in the peak of the third wave of the pandemic, people are dying in record numbers, our ICUs are full to bursting and the lethal inability of politicians to manage, control or at least slow the pandemic is ever more apparent. A new term begins. We’re now in month 10 of the pandemic, month 10 of teaching. There is a vaccine but the light at the end of this tunnel is very very dim.
In the spring when this all started, we knew we were in uncharted territories and that our assignments, convenings, access to equipment, relations with students would all have to be recalibrated. Tethered to our computers, we were confronted with a tsunami of advice and learning opportunities, not to mention the advertising shills that began appearing in our inboxes encouraging us to buy new software and platforms to teach production online. Webinars, conferences, social media posts, zoom meetings, TED Talks, workshops on software like Miro, Loom and Canva promise to drag us into the future with sleek technological affordances and smart design. Very few of these offerings raised issues around social justice or how to teach reflexivity and accountability in times of pandemic AND protest.
Teaching in times of pandemic and protest could not ignore where we are, or how challenging this was going to be. Instead, being reflexive about these new conditions seemed essential.
In pushing that boulder of course prep up the mountain, we were supported by enormously rich discussions convened by Patty Zimmerman at Ithaca College and Helen de Michiel at San Francisco State which brought together artists, scholars, media makers and journalists to discuss and share best practices during these strange times. These monthly confabs were enormously enriching. In fact, we had never researched or thought about pedagogy with that amount of depth, ever.
To begin with, all three of us teach at public universities in Canada where, with few exceptions, all on-campus courses have been commuted to remote learning for the upcoming academic year. Two of us (Liz and Brenda) teach in the suburbs of major metropolitan cities (Montreal and Toronto) at commuter campuses where our students are highly diverse and are, almost all, negotiating the pressures of balancing part time work with school responsibilities. One of us (Dorit) teaches in a mid-sized university town to a high proportion of first-generation immigrants and international students, primarily from the PRC.

Our shared and unique pedagogical orientation is around experimentation, improvisation, and teaching documentary in relation to its legacies around social justice. Frequently this involves using new technological forms and platforms that facilitate interactivity, non-linearity or immersive practices. Our documentary courses typically emphasize the techniques and politics of collaboration, ethical issues in documentary practices, deep reflections on ongoing consent, respectful protocols for working in community and building and sustaining relations with documentary subjects. We also emphasize process over product, a variety of platforms as opposed to glorifying the single channel work, and the roles of an accountable filmmaker.
In the beginning of moving into online teaching, it was pretty clear that two of our core pillars: collaboration and working in, and with, communities would have to be radically modified. Would ‘community’ shrink to only those who are proximate in one’s bubble—family or roommates? Would assignments necessarily be more individualized, or how would we support remote forms of student collaboration?
For us, though, the pandemic with its constraints and logistic challenges has been coupled with an acknowledgement that we were living through an incredibly historic moment sparked by #Black Lives Matter and a summer of international protest after the murder of George Floyd in the United States.  BLM has had a galvanizing impact in Canada and on institutional life, as our universities (and every cultural agency in the country) has rushed to accelerate initiatives like black cluster hires and write Anti Black Racist Action plans at the Department and Faculty level.
In Canada anti-racist reckoning has been coupled with a long-standing movement to decolonize the university. In 2015 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report was released, which named the need to decolonize and indigenize education, among its many recommendations. Led by Indigenous faculty and allies, our institutions have been engaging in deep processes of learning, and the three of us have been intimately involved in this process. 
As settlers, we felt especially responsible to think radically about how we were going to teach online and decolonize at the same time and in a way that moves beyond a rote land acknowledgement and a requisite week devoted to Indigenous content. How could we massively recalibrate our teaching to embody the urgency of anti-racist reckoning and Indigenous decolonization? What follows are a series of collated reflections that have evolved over the last months.
Unexpected collaboration (Liz)

One of the biggest challenges this semester has been confronting the “black box dilemma.” I need to respect the fact that students are experiencing zoom fatigue and have different home circumstances but the result is that I can’t “read the room” in the way I am used to in a classroom. Well-structured breakout rooms help but I rarely get to more than two breakout rooms in any one class period. There is an upside to this, the element of surprise.
For my year-long moving images production course, I have a “portrait” assignment where I ask students to create a short film about a working professional. It’s an opportunity to have students work in small teams and film interviews and interactions. I usually tell students not to work with friends or family members and encourage them to feature someone they don’t know. This year I adapted the exercise and asked them to focus on a family member or friend within their bubble, someone whose work life had changed as a result of COVID-19.

I was both surprised and moved by the results of the exercise. It was an opportunity to break through the black box mystery and enter the intimate worlds of my students and their families. Beyond the on-screen intimacy, students had great access to family members embedded in complex work environments. Through the films I visited schools, hospitals, hair salons, sound studios, and met  parents who were not only agreeing to be filmed but were also co-creators, helping to capture material on their cell phones.

Peter, for example, who does not live with his parents, coached his dad on how to film his mother, teaching her newly “remote” dance class. Jeanne’s dad took her up in a plane to talk about his disappointment that his plans to transition his career from a communication expert to a pilot were on hold as a result of COVID-19. Anthony rode along with his aunt, a Montreal bus driver who was adjusting to new safety procedures and a rush of cyclists populating Montreal’s streets. In the absence of a peer crew—friends and relatives stepped in and offered unexpected forms of collaboration. 

Online School—A New Virtual Reality (dir. Pénélope Carreau). Sophie Carreau talks about the various struggles of the transition to online school because of the pandemic and speaks on how she feels students have been forgotten.

Essentially Forgotten (dir.Christine Barecki, Morgan Salama, Priscila Sanches). Morgan communicates the stress of frontline grocery workers. She manages to maintain a sense of hope through these unprecedented times.

Supply/Demand (dir. Michael Mingo). Real estate broker Daniel Engel navigates the market under the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19. Constable MA (dir. Magali & Mahmood). Constable Harvey reflects on a major shift in lifestyle from active RCMP, Canadian police officer, to a stay at home mother in a time of Covid.
Pastries, Prosciutto, and Plexiglass (dir. Adriana Travisano).Gabriella Maiorino reflects on the advantages and challenges of managing a family bakery throughout COVID-19

Finding New Ways to Communicate (dir. Valentina Mendoza). Christian works in retail and in addition to a long and lonely commute he is finding new ways to communicate with customers.

The classroom community (Dorit)

My university is operating classes both remotely and asynchronously. In my department 40% of the students are international, and our student body spans fifteen different time zones. If we offer synchronous classes they cannot be mandatory, and they have to be recorded, subtitled and uploaded to the server. In the infrequent synchronized zoom sessions, most of the students’ cameras are off. I find myself at a loss, talking to my own image and hating it.  My teaching has always been dialogic: I lecture very little, and in small segments, interspersed with work with students through media and critical texts as well as their own creative work, responding to issues that are important to them which change yearly even when the content is the same. I never realized how much I rely on reading body language, which I can no longer do.

Rather than dialogic teaching—I feel that I now impart knowledge in a one-way fashion. In an honours thesis course I am co-teaching, we use discussion forums for students to post work and provide feedback to each other. It is an impoverished form of discussion, and the students report a heightened burden to form thoughts carefully, to express themselves clearly, which is oppositional to the way they worked out their ideas by trying out a thought in class and then refining it through writing. But despite their scripted flow, the discussion boards also became communities of sort, and some revelations came to me. In a creative assignment students were asked to take three photos in their living space, using distinct aesthetics, but both reflecting on their living conditions under COVID and leaving a personal imprint in the series.

The results naturally varied in quality but some interesting patterns emerged: for instance windows played an important role in many of the triptychs. Cats, teddy bears and reflections came a close second.  Students’ responses to their peers were incredible and very telling, sharing their sense of isolation, connections, joys, and “reading” each other’s photos as a testament to a collective experience. In the “old world” I could have never imagined designing a project that would go so deeply into personal spaces of students. But here we are, connecting deeply and intimately, with students I have never even seen!
Disembodied teaching (Brenda)

My deepest challenge in our Covid term has been a large (230 undergraduate students) course in Canadian Cinema. This is a required course for undergrad majors and usually focuses on a range of key conceptual debates, policy frameworks and aesthetic traditions that refract national cinema as messy assemblage of industrial, cultural and contestatory pluralities. I almost always teach it as a civics and history course, introducing concepts like settler colonialism and competing articulations of sovereignty; we investigate the evolving role of the Canadian state in the project of Indigenous dispossession and nation building. This year, in the wake of the summer of Black Lives Matter, and in response to our ongoing imperative to decolonize, I have largely focused on Indigenous and BIPOC cinemas in Canada, beginning with Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s gorgeous The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open and ending with Jeff Barnaby’s Indigenous zombie apocalypse film Blood Quantum.
Like Dorit and Liz, when I teach in person, I like to use embodied interactions. I use police caution tape to cordon off the rows so students are forced to sit closer to each other and can’t disappear into the back rows. Even with a large class, I prefer the Socratic method, I make a lot of jokes, tell stories and continuously and purposely digress. I might lecture for 20 minutes but this is largely intended to contextualize a series of provocations. I walk up and down the stairs of the lecture hall, handing out coloured file cards to students who contribute to the discussion. These are collected at the end of class and used toward their participation mark. ‘Think-pair-share’ has been a great model to use in small groups and we do a lot of improvisational thinking and dialogue. I try to model critical thinking and collective knowledge creation through the development of a series of open-ended questions and debates. The virtual classroom was obviously going to cramp a lot of this style.
I made the first session compulsory and synchronous; to my amazement 175 of my 230 students showed up, zooming in from Singapore, Azerbaijan, India, China, Hong Kong, and from suburban bedrooms and kitchens in Ontario. Synchronous attendance was optional for weeks two and three and (not surprisingly) attendance dropped precipitously to 80 and then to 25. I don’t think it was because these sessions were deeply boring; for those who showed up, we had lively and rich discussions. But clearly the majority required deep flexibility around convening their online lives.
I have colleagues who are delivering lectures that consist of one audio file of them reading their notes. I understand, many are completely overwhelmed and are only just learning Moodle, our ‘learning management’ system. I strongly felt that if I was going to have any engagement at all, I had to offer something a little more refined and I just could not bear the idea of doing powerpoint for twelve long weeks. Visme, a design software, promised to “take my professional presentation skills to new heights.”

So I bit the bullet, bought the subscription and learned about design possibilities and how to do graphic animation. Mind you, this means I have tripled my workload and it has been taking at least two full days+ to write and record a script, edit narration, source images, links, and GIFS to embed, while animating these with ‘engaging infographics.’ When I asked for feedback on these online creations, one student wrote, “Your lectures are like having dessert after a five star dinner”!! I think that means ‘good,’ not hideously overly satiated.