Our Religion department chair always begins meetings with a round of check-ins. The check-in question changes, but the invitation to share from something professional or personal is always there. This feels right—perhaps because the members of our department have worked together for over a decade. Or maybe because we know intimately how twined and tangled the personal and the professional are for those of us who out live our teaching vocation.
This week, a department member opened our check-in saying, “I’m having a rough day, but I’m doing my best in this moment to be present to the work.” Before I could think, I blurted out, “I’m also having a rough day, but I’m not sure what our work is now.”
On the surface, my comment made no sense. The agenda for the department meeting was clear: discuss core curriculum revisions, construct a shared assignment on “identity” for all first year religion and theology classes, and set hiring priorities for the fall (we lost three faculty this academic year). But eight weeks into the semester, five semesters into the pandemic, and two plus years into educational upheaval, my confusion was real.
The litany of my confusion is familiar to all teachers. Like so many, I have not taught the same class the same way for 3 years straight. Every semester is different. I have adapted every class in terms of delivery mode, materials taught, length of semester, changing classrooms and technology. I have exchanged print readings for electronic, and asynchronous videos for synchronous class time. I have spent additional hours recording, editing and posting my lectures, class discussions, and other student meetings. I have learned new technologies, thrown out old assumptions, reassessed my presence and privilege, tested best practices, applied trauma informed pedagogies, and—most helpful of all—studied the sympathetic nervous and limbic systems until I can recite by heart the effects of stress on student learning and capacity, as well as on my own mental health and well being.
Even with these adaptations and new skills, I confess I have lost the ability to gauge my students’ level of understanding while I am teaching. I just could not read their reactions in the tiny Zoom box. Now, back in the classroom I can no longer discern where to repeat, fill in, or amplify my presentations when I see only eyes showing above a mask. This is not just about my inability. Teaching is relational. With the increasingly agonistic “call out” and “cancel” culture, students have gotten much better at schooling their faces to not reveal their thoughts or reactions for fear of being attacked by someone.
Learning requires vulnerability. Teaching requires relationships. Good teaching creates relationships in which degrees of vulnerability are possible and supported. When students and teachers work so hard to protect ourselves from Covid, from call out and cancel culture, from being pegged as the political enemy, from others judging our words and even our thoughts, when we do not show up because we experience the classroom as dangerous, or we are not present because our nervous systems are overloaded running risk assessments, how can we do the work of teaching-learning together (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)?
For example, I gave a midterm in two intro sections. 16% of the students failed to show up in the classroom to take the exam. By Friday I had tracked down most of the “ghosts.” One student had a migraine; one was waiting on zoom for the exam; one was sick; one commuter lacked gas money; one had not renewed their spring semester accommodations. (I reached out to those who were sick; I arranged extra time for the student with accommodations; I could not solve the gas bill). Three weeks later, one student still has not checked-in. I am alternately worried and frustrated. When I meet students in person, I can start to build a relationship and invite them into a place where they feel safe enough to learn. But if students do not come to my classroom, or do not respond to email invitations, I cannot help them enter the teaching-learning space. And frankly, for many students, the logistical and neurological vulnerabilities are too great to enter without additional interventions.
So when I ask “what is our work now?” it is a live question. To what work are we called as teacher-learners committed to these students (and these colleagues) in this place, at this time? What do these first and second year students (who only know the university experience under pandemic protocols) need from a required course entitled “Religion, Identity, and Vocation”? What is our ethical and professional responsibility to establish a safe classroom where the neurological systems of every student can relax enough to get beyond “freeze, fight, and flee,” to “rest” and access their higher learning capacities and skills for cultivation in a liberal arts university education?
During the pandemic, our teaching has changed daily. We have exhausted ourselves, but we have also innovated from the front lines and built on-the-ground flexibilities into our courses. My university has matched our faculty’s pedagogical innovations by constructing outdoor classrooms and committing to re-think all campus spaces as places of learning. Administrative structures, safety requirements, guild standards, and yes, legal protections provide important guidelines. And, without a clear season of rest from the work, we cannot (re)fuel our critical vocational creativity to (re)build the fundamental relationships between teacher-learners and learner-teachers. It is time to reconsider all campus structures, make calendar adjustments, adapt curricular formats to working schedules, and, dare I say it, reexamine the requirements of WASC, FERPA, and Carnegie hours so that they accurately reflect the new ground we are mapping in our classrooms (with or without walls).
We know that teaching is an illusive craft. It emerges from the teaching-learning selves who make up the learning community. Our teaching vocation calls us to a tipping point of pouring ourselves into preparation, people and practices without draining ourselves dry. Teaching calls us into the creative construction (what bell hooks calls the “imagination”) of multiple modes of access, on-ramps, scaffolding, showing up for student conference hours, cajoling, convincing, explaining in yet another way until the spark catches, the insights take shape, and the learner blooms and grows. Vocations, like teaching, do not respect personal-professional distinctions. They require whole, healthy selves.
They also require trust. The pandemic has severely impacted whom we trust and how we relate to one another and our students. We will be feeling and processing this relational impact for a long time. The “professional” is changing. The tangle of personal safety and professional self preservation in our roles as teachers feels unstable. We are all aware that more and more teachers are experiencing the professional spaces we work in as unsafe. The work we need to do now includes adopting practices to settle our nervous systems around people outside of our pandemic pods, outside of our political comfort zones, and beyond the borders of our own identities and ideologies. The call to teach invites us to refuel our creativity and innovation to address these questions head on. The work of teaching calls us to practice entrusting ourselves to a learning community again. Perhaps that check-in can help. Let’s begin.
Related posts: See Anita Houck’s “Failing, and Failing Better” (and the follow-up post here); Amy Santas on “Good Enough Pedagogy”; Gina Hausknecht on “The Pandemic Mirror”; and Courtney Dorroll’s series on self-care.
Julia Lambert Fogg is Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University. Her most recent book, Finding Jesus at the Border: Opening Our Hearts to the Stories of Our Immigrant Neighbors, was published in 2020 by Baker-Brazos Press. Julia was an invited speaker at the NetVUE gathering held at the 2021 AAR meeting in San Antonio, Texas on religion and justice issues in the undergraduate classroom.